Birds Of A Feather Undersized, underappreciated and beset by adversity, the red-hot Louisville Cardinals are sticking together and sticking it to opponents

February 02, 2004

Luke Whitehead had been so fixated on doing the little things that
he lost track of the big picture. Louisville's 6'6" senior
forward sensed that the fifth-ranked Cardinals were pulling away
from their Conference USA rival, sixth-ranked and unbeaten
Cincinnati, during the second half of their game at Freedom Hall
on Jan. 21, but it wasn't until he went to the bench with just
under six minutes to play that Whitehead thought to look at the
scoreboard. He did a double take, then turned to sophomore point
guard Taquan Dean and asked, "Are we really about to beat these
guys by 20 points?"

A similar sense of shock was no doubt being expressed by
television viewers across the nation as the Cardinals turned one
of the season's most anticipated matchups into a 93-66 laugher,
equaling the Bearcats' worst loss in Bob Huggins's 15 years as
the Cincinnati coach. It was a performance that could hardly have
been expected, given that the Bearcats had been beating their
foes by an average of 25.4 points a game and given that
Louisville, which had lost its season opener to mediocre Iowa
70-69 in overtime, had been suffering off-the-court adversity
ever since. Yet the Cardinals' stomping of Cincinnati was their
14th straight win, a streak they extended on Sunday with a gutty
65-62 victory at Tennessee, improving their record to 15-1 and
their ranking to fourth.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino has made a career of goading teams
into exceeding expectations, but even the maestro is surprised by
his charges' heady play. "This is the most unusual group I've
ever coached," says Pitino, who's in his third season with the
Cardinals. "When you break them down individually, they're not
overly impressive. But the moment they come together on the
floor, they become very impressive."

They will need to stay together because during and after the
Tennessee game, the misfortune that has dogged the Cardinals all
season hit again. Dean, who was hobbled with a groin injury, and
his backcourt running mate, Francisco Garcia, who sprained his
left ankle against the Volunteers, were pronounced unfit for
Wednesday's game against Houston. Then on Monday, Pitino shocked
the team by announcing he would take a leave to deal with a
urological problem. His absence "could last a couple of days; it
could last a couple of weeks," he said. (Assistant coach Kevin
Willard assumed the reins.)

All season long, Pitino has shaped his patented high-octane
system to showcase his players' strengths and mask their
weaknesses. Louisville has excellent team speed but is thin and
small inside: Its starting center, senior Kendall Dartez, is
6'10" and 225 pounds. Because the Cardinals don't have shot
blockers to erase their mistakes, they don't trap ball handlers
and go for steals in the trademark Pitino style, yet at week's
end Louisville was ranked No. 2 in the nation in
field-goal-percentage defense. Offensively, the Cardinals came
into the season without a true point guard (Dean is a converted
shooting guard), so Pitino has drilled his players on ball
movement and the proper spacing for his three-point-shooting
attack. It's working. Through Sunday, Louisville was 10th in the
nation, with 8.9 treys made per game. "They're just a great
passing team," Cincinnati assistant Andy Kennedy says. "They
don't have a lot of guys who beat you off the bounce, but they
really move the ball around until they get open shots."

Without letting on, Pitino had been preparing his players for
weeks to face the Bearcats' rattling full-court press. He began
most practices with a passing drill that teaches the receiver to
"run the ball into your hands" (in other words, to help the
passer by coming to meet the ball). He also drummed into the
Cardinals' heads the importance of staying in the middle of the
floor to beat the press, because it's harder to trap the ball
handler there. Says Pitino, "I always tell them, 'A lamb dribbles
to the sidelines. A lion dribbles to the middle.'" Against
Cincinnati, which came in forcing 21.9 turnovers a game,
Louisville committed just 13, only five of them in the second
half.

Still, even the most brilliant scheme will fail if it's not
carried out with character and courage, and the Cardinals get
those qualities from their lion-hearted sophomores, Dean and
Garcia. Both hail from the New York City area--Dean from Neptune,
N.J., and Garcia from the South Bronx, where his family moved
from the Dominican Republic when he was 14--and felt an instant
connection when they met at a basketball camp during the summer
of 2001. You might say it was love at first slight. "We both
definitely believed we were overlooked in high school," Dean
says. "We weren't high in the [recruiting] rankings; we didn't
make the McDonald's All-American game. We decided right away we
wanted to change that."

Says Garcia, "In high school and AAU tournaments I used to play
against guys like Julius Hodge and Andre Barrett [now stars at
North Carolina State and Seton Hall, respectively], and the
scouts seemed to know about them but not about me. I remember
thinking, Why not me? I work just as hard as those guys."

Pitino laughs when he hears that Dean and Garcia are miffed about
not playing in the McDonald's game--"There's no rhyme or reason
why they would feel that way, because they weren't good enough,"
he says--but he appreciates the hunger that rejection has
instilled in them. Several days a week Dean and Garcia, who are
roommates, put themselves through a rigorous, crack-of-dawn
workout. Lately they've been wearing 30-pound vests, with weights
around their wrists, as they do their hoop drills. Recognizing
their devotion, their teammates voted them tricaptains alongside
Whitehead, the first time Pitino has had sophomores assume such a
title.

At week's end the 6'3" Dean was scoring 12.9 points a game and
shooting an astonishing 46.8% (51 for 109) from three-point range
while learning the point guard position, which last season was
manned by Reece Gaines, now with the NBA's Orlando Magic. The
transition has been no small task for a player who had just 50
assists in 32 games as a freshman. Dean's poised performance
against Cincinnati (21 points, three assists and no turnovers in
30 minutes) was even more impressive considering he was hampered
by a severely pulled muscle in his right groin and hip.

Garcia, the team's leading scorer with a 15.5-point average
through Sunday, was Freshman of the Year in Conference USA last
season, and like Dean, he has expanded his game. Says the
Bearcats' Kennedy, "Last year he beat us by standing outside and
hitting jump shots. This year he's doing much more than that."
Garcia mostly played baseball while growing up in the Dominican
Republic, but he fell in love with hoops after moving to the
Bronx, and his quick release and deep shooting range are ideal
for Pitino's trey-obsessed offense. Garcia carries only 185
pounds on his 6'7" frame, and though he is listed as a forward,
he's a deft and creative passer who shares the point duties with
Dean. Indeed, Garcia was tied for second in Conference USA in
assists (5.4 a game) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.15
to 1). When Pitino recently asked Dean to tell his roommate to
look to score more, Dean replied, "I can't, Coach. He thinks he's
Magic Johnson."

Says first-year Murray State coach Mick Cronin, who as a
Louisville assistant recruited Dean and Garcia, "The best thing
about Taquan and Francisco is that they live in reality. They
don't look at themselves as finished products by any means."

An undercurrent of underappreciation flows freely on this team.
Junior guard Larry O'Bannon, who was averaging 9.9 points a game
through Sunday, is a Louisville native who was not recruited by
Pitino's predecessor, Denny Crum. O'Bannon was set to choose
between Alabama-Birmingham, Dayton and Xavier when Pitino offered
him a scholarship in the spring of his senior year at Male High.
Senior guard Alhaji Mohammed, the brother of Nazr Mohammed, who
played for Pitino at Kentucky and is now a member of the Atlanta
Hawks, was a walk-on during his first two seasons, but he was
averaging 14.4 minutes and 5.3 points a game. Otis George, a 6'8"
junior forward-center from the Caribbean island of Dominica,
became available only because he was released from his commitment
to Florida A&M when the coach there left. He had 13 points and
eight rebounds in the Cardinals' 65-56 upset of Kentucky on Dec.
27. Says Whitehead, who was averaging 14.3 points and a
team-leading 8.5 rebounds, "Everyone on this team has something
to prove. So we're proving it."

Louisville gained an added sense of urgency after its loss to
Iowa, but the team's psychological makeup was truly transformed
on Dec. 8, when Garcia's brother, Hector Lopez, was shot and
killed in the Bronx. The experience has brought Garcia and Dean
even closer. After Dean's mother, Felicia, died suddenly at home
when he was six, he moved in with his grandparents. They died
three years later, leaving Taquan and his sister, Talicia, to be
raised by an aunt. "I've experienced death in my family, so I
knew what he was going through," Dean says. "I told him, 'You may
have lost a brother, but you've gained a brother in me.'"

Says Garcia, "I talked to him a lot because he knew my brother,
and he has lost people in his family too. If I didn't have him, I
wouldn't have made it."

Pitino, meanwhile, is all too qualified to play the role of grief
counselor. His son Daniel, who had a heart defect, died in 1987
when he was six months old, and Pitino lost his best friend and
brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, in the World Trade Center attacks
on Sept. 11, 2001. In the last six weeks Pitino has attended
funerals for his former nanny's three-month-old daughter, who
died of sudden infant death syndrome, and for Steven Wright, one
of his former players from Boston University, who died of
leukemia.

When Garcia sat alone in the team's locker room as practice was
beginning the day after his brother's murder, Pitino sent Willard
to tell Garcia he didn't have to play the next night against
Seton Hall. Five minutes later Garcia jogged onto the floor,
taped and ready to go. Garcia had a total of 45 points, 10
rebounds and eight assists that week in wins over Seton Hall and
then No. 1 Florida. His teammates were inspired by his effort.
"Tragedies do bring you closer," Pitino says.

That closeness was evident again after Willard was arrested on
Jan. 18 for driving while intoxicated. (Willard eventually
pleaded guilty and was fined $200. He also lost his driver's
license for 30 days and agreed to undergo alcohol counseling.) At
a team meeting the next day Pitino informed the players of
Willard's arrest and said the coach wanted to speak. Willard
started to say how sorry he was, but he got too choked up to
continue. Whitehead walked from the opposite side of the room,
embraced Willard and said, "We're behind you a 100 percent."

In the midst of all this drama Pitino continues to think a few
moves ahead, keeping his team on track. After Louisville handily
beat East Carolina 76-66 on the road on Jan. 15, the coach
surprised his players by unleashing his angriest tirade of the
season. Three days later, following their 79-58 win over Tulane
at Freedom Hall, Pitino offered an explanation. "I said to them,
'Why did I do that after the East Carolina game?'" Pitino
recalls. "They said, 'To get us ready for Cincinnati.' I said,
'No, it was to get you ready to play Tulane. You guys have to be
psychologically prepared for every opponent.'"

Though the team's woes may be mounting, the Cardinals are
unlikely to fall apart in the weeks ahead. "We're going to have
our share of losses this year because we're not great," Pitino
says. "But they aren't going to hit us real hard because there's
something bigger going on here. These guys are really learning
the game of life."

SI.com
Hoop Thoughts by Seth Davis, Grant Wahl's Mailbag and B.J.
Schecter's Marquee Matchup, at si.com/basketball/ncaa.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO SIDELINED Pitino (right) will miss some time with a urological ailment, but he has put a system in place that is well suited to exploit the skills of the gutty Garcia. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO ON CALL Besides learning to play the point, Dean has had to comfort his roommate, Garcia. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Nelson and the Hawks are in the vanguard.

PRINCES OF THE PERIMETER
Here are SI's picks for the five best backcourts in the nation.

1. SAINT JOSEPH'S Coach Phil Martelli has four aces and can mix
and match them at will. Jameer Nelson, a 5'11" senior (and the
leading candidate for national player of the year) and Delonte
West, a 6'4" junior, are superlative scorers and passers, while
6'5" junior Pat Carroll, who makes 43.4% of his three-pointers,
is the Hawks' best pure shooter. Tyrone Barley, a 6'1" senior, is
a defensive stopper.

2. DUKE Point guard Chris Duhon, a 6'1" senior, drives Mike
Krzyzewski's top-ranked Blue Devils; 6'3" junior Daniel Ewing can
play either guard slot; and 6'4" sophomore J.J. Redick tosses
daggers from deep.

3. LOUISVILLE Sophomore long-range bombers Francisco Garcia and
Taquan Dean combine for almost 30 points a game and give coach
Rick Pitino a two-headed point guard to direct his up-tempo
attack.

4. NORTH CAROLINA Two sophomores, 6'1" point Raymond Felton and
6'4" streak shooter Rashad McCants, provide coach Roy Williams
with a potent one-two punch.

5. ARIZONA Mustafa Shakur, the 6'3" freshman point guard, is a
blur with the ball, and when 6'1" junior Salim Stoudamire and
6'4" sophomore Hassan Adams are zeroed in, the Wildcats are too
hot to handle. --S.D.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)