NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Rick Pitino is excited for the upcoming basketball season and not just because his Louisville Cardinals should be the favorite to win the Big East Conference.
Pitino knows that Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky — traditional basketball rivals all located within a few hours of one another — could all contend for an NCAA championship.
According to The Sporting News preseason rankings, Indiana is No. 1, Louisville No. 3 and Kentucky No. 5 (UCLA is No. 2 and Ohio State is No. 4).
“In our region, basketball’s really come back in a big way with Indiana, Kentucky and us,” Pitino told SNY.tv. “It’s been a while since all three have been there so it’s really picked up the fervor of basketball. Basketball is very big in Kentucky and Indiana anyway.”
A year ago, of course, Kentucky beat Louisville in the Final Four in New Orleans en route to the first NCAA title of coach John Calipari’s career.
Kentucky sent six players to the NBA Draft, including the top two picks in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, yet Calipari has brought in another elite recruiting class led by Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress.
Louisville, meantime, returns Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva, Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear from its Big East Tournament championship team and adds George Mason transfer Luke Hancock.
“If we could match last year’s attitude, we’ll be very good,” Pitino said. “But that’s always a big question. We were very humble, very hungry to get it done. If we have those same ingredients, we’ll be very good.”
The 6-11 Dieng could well be the Big East Preseason Player of the Year.
“I think he’s the premier shot-blocker in college basketball, I really do,” Pitino said.
“He’s really learned the American game of how to block shots, how to stay down and he’s a very, very intelligent person. He’s much more intelligent than most kids. He speaks more languages, he picks everything up right away.”
Pitino called Blackshear a “tough kid,” who doesn’t back down to too many people.
The 6-6 Hancock is a wing whom Pitino called “maybe our best and smartest basketball player…He’s going to add another dimension to our team as well.”
Despite his abundance of riches, Pitino is not looking ahead to March during the summer.
“It’s every coach’s team to try and get back [to a Final Four], but the one thing I don’t do and have never done, is I never plan for March in November or December,” Pitino said.
While Indiana and Kentucky don’t play, Louisville and Kentucky play each other every year.
Kentucky lost some veteran leadership with Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones now in the NBA.
They will rely heavily on the new group of freshmen, along with a pair of former N.C. State players, point guard Ryan Harrow and shooting guard Julius Mayes.
“I’ve got an all new team again,” Calipari told Andy Katz of ESPN. “I have Ryan Harrow, a veteran point guard for the first time in a long time and he’s a very good player. He’s really playing well. And we’ve got Julius Mays coming in as a senior who’s going to play for us. We’re going to be young, but we’re going to be young every year. We’re going to start three, maybe four freshmen again this year. But we don’t have excuses. This is who we are. This is how young we are.
“You think anybody is feeling sorry for us that we lost everybody? It’s like, ‘This is our time to beat Kentucky.’ But I’m telling you, I’m going to have a good team again. Now, will they be as good a team as we just had? I don’t know. We weren’t very good early in the year last year if you remember and then by the end of the year we were like really, really good. This year’s team will have to do the same.”
Assuming Noel is cleared academically, which Calipari expects he will, all three teams — Kentucky, Indiana and Louisville — could be really good.
And that could make for a special year in college basketball.
“I think it’s great for the fans,” Pitino said. “It’s great for our area, it really buiilds big-time interest in college basketball.”