It wasn't pretty, but Louisville's 53--44 come-from-behind win at Memphis last Saturday night was significant. The victory kept the No. 9 Cardinals in a tie with Charlotte for first place in Conference USA; it made amends for an 85--68 loss to the Tigers at Freedom Hall on Feb. 9, their only double-digit loss this year; and it proved that February doesn't have to be the cruelest month for the team.
Before it went 6--1 this February, Louisville (24--4 overall, 12--2 in Conference USA) had never had a winning record in the month under coach Rick Pitino, who is in his fourth year at the school. Indeed, at this time last year the Cardinals were in the midst of an epic swoon: After rocketing to a 16--1 start, they lost nine of their last 13 games, including their NCAA first-rounder against Xavier. Two reasons for the free fall were point guard Taquan Dean's midseason sports hernia, which severely limited his outside shooting and his effectiveness on defense, and the team's weak inside game.
The latter problem was remedied by the return of senior forward Ellis Myles, who sat out last season after rupturing the patellar tendon in his right knee. Despite breaking his left thumb on Jan. 19, the 6'7", 245-pound Myles, a dependable rebounder and post defender, averaged 11.9 points and 9.6 rebounds in February. Against Memphis he was the catalyst in Louisville's overcoming an 11-point second-half deficit, grabbing nine of his 11 rebounds in the final 8:21. "Ellis Myles came in and brought us a physical game tonight, which we needed because they were dominating us on the glass," Dean said afterward.
Dean, a 6'3" junior who is a converted shooting guard, did fine himself, scoring a team-high 14 points and pulling down eight rebounds despite another ailment, this time mononucleosis. The illness is keeping him out of the practice gym, where he has been known to spend the night in a sleeping bag "with the pizza guy on call" after late shooting sessions. "I'm playing on pure fumes," he says. "It's very tough because my timing is off. I haven't practiced in about 2 1/2 weeks, so it's hard to get everything back. But my teammates keep me going."
Aside from being a gutty team, the Cardinals have proved to be exceptionally good on the road. They've lost only twice away from Freedom Hall--to Iowa in Maui and at Houston, by a total of eight points--and they've won three of their biggest road games, at Cincinnati, Marquette and Memphis, after trailing by double digits. Given that their 2--3 matchup zone held Memphis to 19.6% shooting (the Tigers were 1 for 23 from beyond the arc), there is no doubt that they can be a great defensive team too. "We are starting to feed off our defense," says junior forward Francisco Garcia, the team's leading scorer (15.9 points per game).
It all bodes well for Louisville's first extended run in the NCAAs since the Cardinals reached the Elite Eight in 1997. "What's different this year is that everybody wants to win; it's not just a few guys with heart," says Dean. "Last year's disappointment kind of prepared us for this year. Everybody has heart, everybody is ready to step up, everybody is going to the gym late at night. I can't wait to get back there myself."