Louisville's Pitino sees upside despite regional final loss

Louisville coach Rick Pitino feels good that this team overcame its challenges on offense and inexperience to reach the school's fifth NCAA regional final in eight years.

Those issues, though, ultimately ended the Cardinals' NCAA Tournament run.

Pitino's mission now is addressing those issues without much of his starting lineup.

All things considered, Louisville's first season in the challenging Atlantic Coast Conference provided bright spots and teaching moments. The Cardinals (27-9) went 2-4 against conference powers such as Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and tournament champion Notre Dame but finished fourth with wins over Virginia and the Tar Heels.

Projected to exit the NCAA Tournament early, Louisville won three games before Sunday's 76-70 overtime loss to Michigan State in the East Region final that Pitino hopes will help his returning players mature for next season.

''It was a remarkable thing to watch the evolution in a very short span,'' Pitino said of his team during a Monday news conference. ''Because, I wanted it badly - not only for Wayne (Blackshear) and Montrezl (Harrell) and Terry (Rozier) - but I wanted the young guys, six of them, to see how much fun it could be. That if you work hard and get to this point.

''We were four seconds away from making it happen.''

Louisville's chances of reaching its third Final Four in four years looked good for one half with a 40-32 lead over the Spartans behind 53 percent shooting. The Cardinals shot just 6 of 32 (19 percent) from the field after that.

They even had a chance to win it in regulation before Mangok Mathiang made just one of two free throws to force OT.

From the outset, the coach warned that Louisville would be challenged offensively with little scoring beyond key starters Harrell, leading scorer Rozier, senior forward Blackshear and senior point guard Chris Jones. A young roster including seven freshmen didn't help.

Louisville's starters often carried the load as a result, and Pitino's priority is finding scorers on the recruiting trail and in his incoming class.

The Cardinals' postseason still lasted longer than might have been expected a month ago after Jones, then their third-leading scorer at 13.7 points per game, was dismissed from the team on Feb. 22. He was subsequently charged with rape and sodomy.

Louisville rebounded from that upheaval and losing two of three before the NCAA Tournament with three wins that were decided late. Sophomore guard Anton Gill helped key the Cardinals' Sweet 16 win over North Carolina State with seven second-half points to put the team in a regional final that seemed unlikely a month ago.

''When Chris was dismissed from the team, they didn't have us going past the first round,'' said Blackshear, who capped his career with a team-high 28 points. ''I think that we proved a lot of people wrong.''

Louisville now moves on without Blackshear and Harrell, a preseason All-American who plans to enter the NBA draft. Those two are the last remaining regulars from the 2013 national championship team and helped compile the program's most successful four-year stretch (123-30).

Pitino said Rozier will also enter the NBA draft after leading the Cardinals with 17.1 points per game this season. The school announced late Monday afternoon that Gill will transfer, and the coach's immediate task is talking with players to see if any might follow them out the door.

Freshman center Chinanu Onuaku averaged 3.0 points and 4.6 rebounds in 35 games with 26 starts for Louisville but struggled at times. Freshman forwards Jaylen Johnson and Shaqquan Aaron played sparingly after delayed starts.

One player with a big upside is freshman Quentin Snider, a Louisville native who quickly stepped into Jones' roles as a scorer and floor leader. If he can gain more weight, slender 7-foot Egyptian Anas Mahmoud could be the rim protector the Cardinals need.

Considering how Louisville overcame numerous obstacles to get within a game of the Final Four, Blackshear believes the potential is there to follow up that growth if the roster remains intact.

''I think those guys grew up,'' Blackshear said. ''They learned a lot in the NCAA Tournament. . For the freshmen coming in, they're going to have to catch up a little bit, but those guys are going to be good.''

---

AP Sports Writer John Kekis in Syracuse, New York, and Freelance Writer Josh Abner in Louisville contributed to this report.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.