The Cards Are Flying Again
Louisville has less talent than usual—and a better mark
Michael Jordan redux
Next to the desk in his office, Louisville coach Denny Crum keeps an hourglass the size of a night table, a gift from a fan. Except for a small pile of granules at the bottom, most of the sand lingers in the top half of the glass. "Some moisture must have gotten in there," says Crum. "It seems to be stuck." Or maybe it's just moving at a leisurely pace, which makes it perfect for measuring what could be Crum's finest hour, one that may stretch across the 1996-97 season.
What elevates this half-finished campaign above Crum's others—including 20 that ended in the NCAA tournament, with six Final Four appearances and two national titles—is how he has taken an undersized team and made it a winner, and how enthusiastic he has been while doing it. Observers in Kentucky say that in the decade after he won his last championship, in 1986, Crum lost his fire, got lazy and let the Cardinals' program slide. The nadir came last season when amid allegations of NCAA violations in the recruiting of center Mark Blount (who ended up at Pitt) and reports of illegal benefits given to center Samaki Walker, assistant coach Larry Gay was forced to resign.
Early this season the NCAA completed its investigation of those matters and handed Louisville a two-year probation but no other sanction. With all that behind him, Crum took a team that assistant coach Jerry Eaves, a member of the 1980 national champion Cardinals, calls "one of the least talented teams we've ever had here" and turned it into a juggernaut that was 16-2 through Sunday and ranked ninth in the latest AP poll. "This team has far outdone my expectations," says Crum, who scheduled a typically tough slate of opponents this season, including Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky and Texas. "On paper you couldn't do what they've done. But they keep finding ways to win."
Louisville has won three times in overtime and another time in double OT Last Saturday it beat a talented UCLA team 74-71 at Freedom Hall in just 40 minutes, thanks to clutch three-point shooting by former walk-on B.J. Flynn (whose father, Mike, played on Kentucky's 1975 Final Four team). "This team reminds me of our championship team in '80," says Eaves. "Not in terms of talent but in terms of unselfishness. You never know who will step up and have a big night."
The Cards have no starter taller than 6'7", and there's not an NBA lottery pick among them, but they have a couple of things many of Louisville's recent teams lacked—namely, good chemistry and a strong work ethic. The player with the most press clippings is the one who seems least likely to be impressed by them: senior point guard DeJuan Wheat, who grew up in Louisville's West End watching the Cardinals on TV As different teammates have stepped into the spotlight each game, Wheat has been Louisville's one reliable scorer, with an 18.7-point average through Sunday, down from 20.8 after the Cards' first eight games of the season. "My average is dropping," he says, "but I don't care."
Another steady and self-sacrificing force has been Alex Sanders, Louisville's 6' 7" sophomore center, who had to endure two years of academic ineligibility before his learning disability was discovered and addressed last year. Sanders, a native of Houston's grim Fifth Ward, has a deep Barry White voice, a goofy charm and a theory on why these Cards are clicking so well. "We're a team full of winners, and we stick together," he says. "There are no loners on this team. It seems like we've been together since high school."
If it sometimes seems that they are still in high school—freshman Nate Johnson, another goofball who gives his teammates the giggles, couldn't keep a straight face through one of Crum's recent chew-out sessions—that doesn't bother the coach. "If it seems that I'm rejuvenated in my 38th year of coaching, if it seems like I'm enjoying myself more, it's because these kids are giving it everything they have," says Crum. "You can't ask for much more than that."