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Garcia, the team's leading scorer with a 15.5-point average through Sunday, was Freshman of the Year in Conference USA last season, and like Dean, he has expanded his game. Says the Bearcats' Kennedy, "Last year he beat us by standing outside and hitting jump shots. This year he's doing much more than that." Garcia mostly played baseball while growing up in the Dominican Republic, but he fell in love with hoops after moving to the Bronx, and his quick release and deep shooting range are ideal for Pitino's trey-obsessed offense. Garcia carries only 185 pounds on his 6'7" frame, and though he is listed as a forward, he's a deft and creative passer who shares the point duties with Dean. Indeed, Garcia was tied for second in Conference USA in assists (5-4 a game) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.15 to 1). When Pitino recently asked Dean to tell his roommate to look to score more, Dean replied, "I can't, Coach. He thinks he's Magic Johnson."
Says first-year Murray State coach Mick Cronin, who as a Louisville assistant recruited Dean and Garcia, "The best thing about Taquan and Francisco is that they live in reality. They don't look at themselves as finished products by any means."
An undercurrent of underappreciation flows freely on this team. Junior guard Larry O'Bannon, who was averaging 9.9 points a game through Sunday, is a Louisville native who was not recruited by Pitino's predecessor, Denny Crum. O'Bannon was set to choose between Alabama-Birmingham, Dayton and Xavier when Pitino offered him a scholarship in the spring of his senior year at Male High. Senior guard Alhaji Mohammed, the brother of Nazr Mohammed, who played for Pitino at Kentucky and is now a member of the Atlanta Hawks, was a walk-on during his first two seasons, but he was averaging 14.4 minutes and 5.3 points a game. Otis George, a 6' 8" junior forward-center from the Caribbean island of Dominica, became available only because he was released from his commitment to Florida A & M when the coach there left. He had 13 points and eight rebounds in the Cardinals' 65-56 upset of Kentucky on Dec. 27. Says Whitehead, who was averaging 14.3 points and a team-leading 8.5 rebounds, "Everyone on this team has something to prove. So we're proving it."
Louisville gained an added sense of urgency after its loss to Iowa, but the team's psychological makeup was truly transformed on Dec. 8, when Garcia's brother, Hector Lopez, was shot and killed in the Bronx. The experience has brought Garcia and Dean even closer. After Dean's mother, Felicia, died suddenly at home when he was six, he moved in with his grandparents. They died three years later, leaving Taquan and his sister, Talicia, to be raised by an aunt. "I've experienced death in my family, so I knew what he was going through," Dean says. "I told him, 'You may have lost a brother, but you've gained a brother in me.' "
Says Garcia, "I talked to him a lot because he knew my brother, and he has lost people in his family too. If I didn't have him, I wouldn't have made it."
Pitino, meanwhile, is all too qualified to play the role of grief counselor. His son Daniel, who had a heart defect, died in 1987 when he was six months old, and Pitino lost his best friend and brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11,2001. In the last six weeks Pitino has attended funerals for his former nanny's three-month-old daughter, who died of sudden infant death syndrome, and for Steven Wright, one of his former players from Boston University, who died of leukemia.
When Garcia sat alone in the team's locker room as practice was beginning the day after his brother's murder, Pitino sent Willard to tell Garcia he didn't have to play the next night against Seton Hall. Five minutes later Garcia jogged onto the floor, taped and ready to go. Garcia had a total of 45 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists that week in wins over Seton Hall and then No.1 Florida. His teammates were inspired by his effort. "Tragedies do bring you closer," Pitino says.
That closeness was evident again after Willard was arrested on Jan. 18 for driving while intoxicated. (Willard eventually pleaded guilty and was fined $200. He also lost his driver's license for 30 days and agreed to undergo alcohol counseling.) At a team meeting the next day Pitino informed the players of Willard's arrest and said the coach wanted to speak. Willard started to say how sorry he was, but he got too choked up to continue. Whitehead walked from the opposite side of the room, embraced Willard and said, "We're behind you a 100 percent."
In the midst of all this drama Pitino continues to think a few moves ahead, keeping his team on track. After Louisville handily beat East Carolina 76-66 on the road on Jan. 15, the coach surprised his players by unleashing his angriest tirade of the season. Three days later, following their 79-58 win over Tulane at Freedom Hall, Pitino offered an explanation. "I said to them, 'Why did I do that after the East Carolina game?' " Pitino recalls. "They said, 'To get us ready for Cincinnati.' I said, 'No, it was to get you ready to play Tulane. You guys have to be psychologically prepared for every opponent.' "
Though the team's woes may be mounting, the Cardinals are unlikely to fall apart in the weeks ahead. "We're going to have our share of losses this year because we're not great," Pitino says. "But they aren't going to hit us real hard because there's something bigger going on here. These guys are really learning the game of life."