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Louisville Guard Lancaster Gordon (below) spent the summer working for a local Pepsi bottler, helping to stage Pepsi Challenge taste tests. It's the type of job you take to easily if you're accustomed to being thought of as No. 2, and you're certain you'd be No. 1 if only people knew a little bit more about you.
So it is for the Cardinals in the basketball-mad state of Kentucky. Louisville's archrival, the University of Kentucky, opened practice at the stroke of midnight on Oct. 15, at an annual happening called "Cats on the Run at 12:01" that drew about 11,000 spectators. The Cards were quite content to wait until daylight. "We can't practice at one minute past midnight," Louisville Assistant Coach Jerry Jones explains. "Our kids don't get in that early."
This is an exaggerated way of saying that Louisville has more fun. "It's something we've got over other teams," says backup Guard Jeff Hall, a rara avis among the Cards in that he is an outside shooter from the coal country of Eastern Kentucky—normally Wildcat territory. "We play a loose style of ball, and Coach [Denny] Crum lets us be creative." Off the court this team isn't as creative as the bunch that proclaimed "The 'Ville is going to the 'Nap" before winning the 1980 NCAA title in Indianapolis. "We don't have a poem or a riddle or any special handshake," says Gordon, the team's senior leader. "We're not rhymin' and high-fivin' anymore."
But they're continuing the tradition of winnin'. Since its title year, Louisville has made two more trips to the Final Four simply by adhering to Crum's philosophy of covering all 94 feet of the floor with 40 minutes worth of 6'6" lightning.
Gone are Scooter and Rodney McCray, the fraternal forwards who took the Cards to a 94-81 semifinal dunkfest loss to Houston in Albuquerque last March. "They led us in just about every stat except scoring, and that was because they led us in assists," says Crum. "Show me another team where the forwards, especially senior forwards, led in assists." Sorry, Denny, can't.
Back are the guards—Milt Wagner, who averaged 14.4 points a game, and Gordon (13.7)—who did the scoring. If it seems that some serious role reversal is going on here, you're catching on. "We teach all our kids to play several positions, and we do a lot of exchanging," Crum says. "It makes it a lot harder to play defense against us." Case in point: 6'8" Charles Jones, the only senior on the team except Gordon. Jones, nominally a center, loves to drift outside. From there, he'll face the basket, draw his man out of the middle and slip passes to teammates darting through the vacant lane. His defensive philosophy is similarly inside-out. "I try to force them farther out on the floor than they're used to," Jones says, "so they won't have an opportunity to go around me." The other option—shooting over the Pooh-Bah from Scooba (Miss.)—isn't recommended, either. Jones snuffed a team-high 82 shots last season.
Holdovers Manuel Forrest, a junior, and Billy Thompson, a sophomore, will get first dibs at the McCrays' slots. Forrest, who has the potential to be a splendid offensive player, missed most of last season with a knee injury. Thompson came to Louisville from New Jersey as the most coveted high school player in the land. Like his cousin, Lola Falana, he's an entertainer; some teammates thought he was too much of one, and took to calling him World B. Thompson after he missed several dunks last season. Now he's got his act together.
Two newcomers will bid for time up front: Forward Mark McSwain, a good defender, and 6'11" Center Barry Sumpter. "We've had no dominant center here," Crum says without wistfulness. "It's difficult to find a 7-footer who can run and play our style." Crum thinks Sumpter can do both, even though he did poorly in high school all-star games and had to play for three different coaches at Lovejoy (Ill.) High. Another forward, 6'6" sophomore Robbie Valentine, is Crum's defensive stopper.
Louisville's rematch with Kentucky this Saturday in Lexington ought to be subtitled the Coke Challenge, in light of Pepsi's 80-68 defeat of Coke in overtime last March at the Mideast Regional final. The 'Ville has obviously had its fill of being No. 2 in its state. Anyway, says Gordon, "We drink orange juice after practice." At Louisville, there's no such thing as a day without sunshine.