Louisville opening eyes by closing out opponents

Even Pitino is surprised by Cardinals' 14-1 start

National notebook

January 23, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Much of the excitement surrounding Louisville during the preseason had to do with what is expected to happen there next season: the arrival of New York City high school sensation Sebastian Telfair and the return of workhorse rebounder Ellis Myles from a devastating knee injury.

While Rick Pitino didn't think his current Cards would fold, they weren't supposed to give the locals that much to get excited about this winter.

"Earlier, this was a rebuilding year," forward Luke Whitehead said. "Now people are realizing we are going to make things happen this year. I'm a senior, so the rebuilding stuff ... I'm not going out like that. I'm not going out without a fight."

With the departure of leading scorer Reese Gaines to the NBA and the loss of Myles, no one would have been surprised to see Louisville slip from a 25-7 record last season. So how do you figure a 14-1 mark that includes a 14-game winning streak after Wednesday's 93-66 demolition of sixth-ranked Cincinnati?

Even Pitino, now in his third season at Louisville, has a difficult time explaining what has transpired for a team now ranked fifth in the country.

"I am so shocked," Pitino said after the Cincinnati game. "We have real good personnel and [if] you go one-by-one, you wouldn't be impressed. But when you put them together, it's great. I've had a few teams like that."

A year ago, Louisville was 18-1 and had won 17 straight to get to No. 2 in the rankings before going into a tailspin. Myles then blew out his right knee in a home loss to Marquette. The Cardinals never really recovered, losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Butler.

This year's team is built around sophomores Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean, both of whom were barely recruited until they called Pitino asking for a look, and Whitehead. Their performances against the Bearcats mirror what they have done this season.

Dean, playing with a badly pulled groin muscle, had 21 points and continued to send a message to Telfair that there would be competition at point guard next season. Garcia, a 6-foot-7 swingman, continued to play through the pain of his brother's shooting death last month in New York, scoring 19. And Whitehead had 18 points and eight rebounds.

"Luke destroyed us," Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said. "He plays so hard. I told our guys that he plays the game harder than anyone I've seen in a long time."

Louisville showed this might not be a rebuilding year when it beat then-No. 1 Florida (which had just lost to Maryland) and then-No. 1 Kentucky in a span of two weeks in December.

"They have great pride and character," Pitino said. "I can't explain it. If you were with me the first six weeks in practice, I thought I overscheduled. We got together and said we weren't very good, and we wanted to see how we could fix that."

The success -- and sometimes the failure -- of Pitino's teams has revolved around three-point shooting. The Cardinals are still hoisting three-pointers, but they also are playing the kind of defense that some of Pitino's teams at Kentucky did.

"I knew if we were going to be a great team, we were going to have to play great defense and rebound the ball better," Pitino said.

Better late than never

Indiana State athletic director Andi Myers said she'd "like to have a dollar for everyone who asks me why we haven't retired Larry Bird's number."

But Myers, who played for and coached the Sycamores' women's team, has a pretty good answer.

"We haven't retired anyone's number," Myers said yesterday from Terre Haute, Ind. "So this is kind of a new leap for us."

That leap will take place at the end of next month when Bird's legendary No. 33 will be hung from the rafters at the Hulman Center, along with that of another former national college Player of the Year, Duane Klueh, who played for the Sycamores from 1946 to 1949.

Red Storm rising

Since the in-season dismissal of Mike Jarvis at St. John's, there's been a lot of infighting at the former Big East power about the team's next coach.

Some want an established, big-name coach such as John Calipari at Memphis or P.J. Carlesimo, the former Seton Hall coach who is now an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs. Others are angling for former players such as Mark Jackson or Chris Mullin.

Jackson was supposed to get a college or NBA assistant coaching job this season, but he recently signed with the Houston Rockets as a backup point guard. Mullin is a special assistant to the president of the Golden State Warriors.

The Associated Press, Yahoo.com and other news organizations contributed to this article.

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