- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at Joe Lunardi's top-five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.
It is hard to sneak up on people when Rick Pitino is your coach. The only man to take three different schools to the Final Four, the Louisville boss is not exactly an unknown quantity in the college basketball profession.
Yet his Cards did, in fact, surprise college basketball last season, turning an injury-plagued season into a Final Four run.
Now it’s back to reality. Louisville will be in every preseason top 5, perhaps anchoring down the top spot in more than a few polls. Why? Because guys such as Chane Behanan are back.
Behanan found his groove in the NCAA tournament, averaging 13.2 points and 8 rebounds in the Cardinals’ stretch run.
It’s Behanan’s predicted jump, coupled with a roster littered with returnees, that has Louisville on everyone’s radar.
ESPN.com recently caught up with Behanan to see if he and the Cards have the same expectations as everyone else. (And he was such a good quote, that we happily waived the five-question standard.)
Are you worried about a Final Four hangover?
Chane Behanan: I’m sure I had one a little bit, but Coach talked to me. He talked to all of us and reminded us we really didn’t accomplish anything. You play to win a championship, not to just get to the Final Four. I know for me personally, I have to get back to that sort of hungry state I was in last year.
Is it easier to be hungry when the team that won the championship is just down the road in Lexington?
Behanan: That definitely helps [laughs]. They got one. We need one. And everyone here in Louisville reminds us of that. Every time I go out, the first thing someone will say to me is, "We need a championship this year." The expectations for us are very high, but we have very high expectations for ourselves. The team we have this year, it’s the kind of team that can do it. We just have to stay healthy and stay humble.
Many players make a dramatic jump between their freshman and sophomore seasons. How can you improve this year?
Behanan: Well, for one thing, Coach P has talked to me about improving my defense. In high school, I didn’t really push to play defense, so I wasn’t the best at it. When I got to college, it was different. Everyone was on the same level in terms of their abilities, their basketball IQ, so you got to play defense. That was a big struggle for me at first. Coach P kept telling me that I had to step up, that’s how we would win games.
I was sort of just learning it as I went though. Now I have more confidence. I already have my mind set on buckling down and playing defense.
Coach Pitino recently compared you to Charles Barkley. Are you flattered?
Behanan: Yeah, definitely. He’s probably one of the best rebounders of all time. He was undersized. I am, too. That’s a good comparison, a very good comparison.
Charles also likes to speak his mind. You got in a little hot water for some of your predictions last year. Do you have to temper that part of your inner Barkley?
Behanan: It depends on what the topic is. I’m the kind of guy, I’m going to speak my mind, but I think now I know you have to understand the situation better. I said a lot of wrong things at the wrong times last year. It’s about knowing what to say, what not to say and when to say it.
You guys got better as the season improved last year -- and everyone got healthy. Do you sense a different attitude from your teammates from that? A different air of confidence?
Behanan: I can’t judge that right now. I think we are, but it’s only summer. I think we have to get two or three weeks into the season to really know for sure. If we take the defense that we played in the tournament into the start of the season, I’ll know.
I think we know we all have to be on the same page. Otherwise it will be a ridiculous season, but it’s hard to know right now. Some people still aren’t 100 percent. We’re not in that Pitino shape.
What’s Pitino shape?
Behanan: That’s the best shape you’ll ever be in in your life.