As good as his playmaking has been, he is still the guy the team looks to for the important shots. Last week when Cincinnati cut the lead to six points late in the second half, Gaines—who had not hit a three-pointer all night—promptly nailed a three and a free throw-line jumper on successive possessions. "He's got big balls," says assistant coach Kevin Willard. "He wants to take those shots."
Gaines is also the lead kamikaze in Pitino's defense, which doesn't press as much as those at Pitino's five previous coaching stops (including the NBA's New York Knicks and Boston Celtics) but is just as ferocious. Through Sunday the Cardinals had held opponents to 39.5% shooting and were forcing 18.1 turnovers per game.
If all of this sounds familiar—hard-nosed Pitino team exceeds expectations through defense—that's because it is. With the exception of his 3� ill-fated years with the Celtics (102-146 record), Pitino has always enjoyed success, and at each winning stop the biggest step up has come in the second season, when his teams have averaged seven more victories than the season before (chart, right). Predictably, Pitino is adored by citizens in his new hometown. Drivers on Louisville-area highways are besieged by the image of the man on billboards, endorsing a jeweler and a national sporting-goods chain. "Rick is without a doubt the most popular person in the state," says Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who hired Pitino. "It's like Elvis coming back."
With Elvis in the building, Gaines couldn't very well leave it. As a junior he'd thought of jumping to the NBA, but the chance to play another year under Pitino was reason enough to stay. Now, after surviving the lean years, Gaines is enjoying finally being on a team with national championship potential.
Louisville's sports information staff was set to have a Reece Gaines bobblehead doll made, but he didn't want it. The decision seems fitting, and not just because the entire doll would have had to bobble to reflect Gaines's frenetic style. The doll also would have undercut the emphasis that Gaines—like Pitino—has put on playing as a team, not as individuals. "Back in the years when we were losing, my mom used to tell me, 'Your time is going to come. Your time is going to come," says Gaines. "It took me three years to realize I couldn't make that happen by myself."
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