Louisville Cardinals basketball dynasty a possibility

Arkansas-SEMO Live Blog
photo Louisville guard Russ Smith dunks the ball during a game against Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J.

While much of the country has become enchanted with "Duck Dynasty," Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has been in a fowl mood over a slightly different kind of dynasty.

"We are one year away from a potential mini-dynasty -- one year," Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal in late October, mindful that his deep, talented, experienced Cardinals had reached the Final Four in 2012 before winning last year's national championship.

"If these players rise to the occasion once again -- win another conference championship, go back to the Final Four -- it takes three to have the makings of a dynasty."

Pitino's 13th Louisville squad may yet accomplish those goals, especially the first part, given that the No. 12 Cards are spending this winter in the passive purgatory of the American Athletic Conference before joining the basketball blueblood that is the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.

But with the Dec. 30 dismissal of oft-troubled junior forward Chane Behanan for unspecified university violations, U of L's road to a third straight Final Four has become much rockier.

Though the Cards' starting backcourt of junior point guard Chris Jones (12.6 ppg, 2.8 apg and 2 spg) and senior shooting guard Russ "Russdiculous" Smith (17.7 ppg, 5 apg and 1.8 spg) might be the best 1-2 punch anywhere, or at the very least 1A to UConn's Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, Louisville is now more question mark than colossus everywhere else except for 2013 Final Four MVP Luke Hancock and power forward Montrezl Harrell.

And even Hancock and Harrell gave their Hall of Fame coach cause to criticize following Hancock's 3-for-11 shooting performance and Harrell's 6-point, 4-rebound stat line in last month's 73-66 loss at Kentucky.

"He's got to pick up his technical aspects of his game," Pitino said of 6-foot-8 sophomore Harrell, who is predicted to be the 22nd pick in the 2014 NBA draft by nbadraft.net. "He's got to rebound the basketball better, [especially] the offensive glass."

Of Hancock, who's battled injuries most of this season after scoring 42 points and hitting eight of 10 3-pointers at the Final Four, he added, "Luke is going to have to turn the corner for us."

In the Cards' two wins in two games since that UK loss, Harrell has twice grabbed three offensive rebounds, pulling in 15 total while scoring 21 total points. In those same two outings, Hancock has amassed 31 total points, hit 5 of 12 3s and made all 12 of his free throws. If that's not turning the corner, nothing is as U of L looks to improve its 13-2 record against visiting Memphis on Thursday.

Yet rebounding and interior defense are legitimate concerns, especially without Behanan, who hauled in 21 rebounds and scored 25 points at the Final Four. Having outrebounded opponents by nearly six a game with the burly 6-7 forward on the roster, Louisville has been bettered by a total of seven boards in road wins at Central Florida and Rutgers.

"In playing a couple of teams this year from a physical standpoint, we're just getting outplayed at the 3 (small forward), 4 (power forward) and 5 (center) spots physically, never mind execution-wise," said Pitino, the only coach to win NCAA titles at two different schools: Kentucky and Louisville.

Yet because of his wonderful backcourt and trademark full-court-pressure defense, no one should assume the coach of the Cardinals can't reach the Final Four for an eighth time, the fourth at Louisville.

"Louisville had spurts in their pressure defense that just had us rattled," Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said last weekend after the Cards forced 19 turnovers and ran off with 15 steals in a 83-76 victory. "They challenge you to finish."

Even Kentucky coach John Calipari said of U of L's potential after UK's win: "If you cannot negate the press and they are getting steals and dunks and 3s and all that, you are not going to beat them. They are going to beat you by 25."

And should they get enough steals, dunks and 3s to not get beat in March, ducks won't be our only feathered friends to be associated with dynasties.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.