Louisville's return is a rarity

ATLANTA -- Louisville is an anomaly.

Elite programs don't normally get back to the Final Four with the same core group.

Kentucky doesn't fit this description, since the Wildcats had high turnover with a few holdovers, even though it was in the Final Four in 2011 and became champions in 2012.

Butler had a core group in consecutive title-game appearances, but at the time the Bulldogs weren't in a power conference and had only one NBA-level player in both Final Fours in Shelvin Mack. And the Bulldogs didn't win either time.

Florida did this in 2006-07 with nearly identical teams -- winning both national championships -- and a roster full of NBA-caliber players.

That's not the case with Louisville. This team -- hardly full of NBA locks -- stayed together and returned to chase another Final Four and title.

If Louisville has a given for the NBA it is Gorgui Dieng, but only because he radically improved as an effective mid-range scorer. Russ Smith will be a pro, but it's unclear how successful he will be. Peyton Siva will have to earn his minutes as hard as he had to work to get to this point.

"[Louisville] tasted it last year,'' Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "They don't have that signature guy and no lottery pick guys. It's like Maryland.''

If there is a parallel to what Louisville is doing, it is Maryland from 2001-02. The Terps were in two Final Fours, reaching the national semifinal in one and then winning one year later. They returned nearly intact with perceived NBA lock Chris Wilcox and another who no one, not even then-coach Gary Williams, thought would be the most productive NBA player -- Steve Blake.

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said the difference from last season was that this team became believers.

"This year they started to expect things to go well,'' Jurich said. "They worked extra hard. This is the most chemistry I've ever seen on the team and that's why there has been so much success. The word I would use this year is chemistry. Luke [Hancock] has done so much for this program. The addition of Montrezl Harrell. Stephan Van Treese is healthy again. We didn't have that last year. Kevin Ware, the last half of the season, has been playing phenomenal. But the word for this team is chemistry with a capital C.''

The emotion from Ware's injury didn't carry Louisville to the win over Duke by itself. This team has had second gears all season long -- as in the second half against Syracuse in the Big East tournament title game, where a double-digit deficit turned into a convincing win. Louisville lost three games in a row during the season, but was never blown out, and only late-game decisions led to the losses. It's hard to fault Louisville for losing to Duke in the Bahamas without the injured Dieng or for the epic five-overtime loss at Notre Dame.

"They're on a mission,'' Brey said. "We played them in the semifinals [of the Big East tournament] and they had a certain vibe about them. It's like it's their fate to do this thing. The injury is now part of the karma for them. They're the best team. They're really poised. They've got you with an attitude that they're going to get you, but it's just a matter of time. They've got a confident way of playing and they really believe.''

The difference on the court, though, is Dieng. He is a prime example of how a one-dimensional player who could be tantalizing for the NBA draft can be so much more enticing once he actually becomes more of a complete player.

"Dieng can score the ball now. They used to have offensive lulls, but now they've got the two guards and Dieng is a low-post scorer who can make the 15-foot jump shooter,'' said Brey. "Hancock has now found a niche where they can spread you out. It used to be there was an Achilles' heel but not anymore since they can hit you with a different gear.''

Pitino said Thursday that he was more frightened about Colorado State in the round of 32 than thinking the Cards would be back in the Final Four two years in a row. Playing without Ware, who was a huge asset playing behind Siva and Smith, means the Cardinals aren't "nearly as good a basketball team. We subbed Kevin in the last month and didn't lose anything with Peyton and Russ. We didn't lose anything in our press. Now it's going to be a different story. We've got to steal minutes,'' Pitino said.

Still, the Cardinals are the favorite here this weekend -- to get past Wichita State, which Pitino calls "Marquette on steroids" -- and then Michigan or Syracuse in the title game.

"This is a great moment for us,'' Pitino said on Thursday. "We were there last year and we got a chance to come back. Last year we had a lot of fun and now the guys are really honed in on winning it. But it's going to take a great effort without Kevin to win this thing. We know that.

"I would have said we probably were offensively and defensively one of the better teams in the country. Now I think we've got some problems that we've got to overcome in a game to win. If we can do that, we can win, but we've got some problems.''

These are good problems to have with players dialed in to the common cause. There are no agent-hidden agendas. This is a team mostly made up of overachieving players, a group that was bolstered by the arrival of Harrell, who was originally going to Virginia Tech, the development of Dieng and the commitment from Siva, Smith, Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behananto return to school for a title run after coming close a year ago.

That sounds like Maryland, especially if the Cardinals can duplicate the Terps and win the title with essentially the same team a year later.