LUKE WHITEHEAD had been so fixated on doing the little things that he lost track of the big picture. Louisville's 6'6" senior forward sensed that the fifth-ranked Cardinals were pulling away from their Conference USA rival, sixth-ranked and unbeaten Cincinnati, during the second half of their game at Freedom Hall on Jan. 21, but it wasn't until he went to the bench with just under six minutes to play that Whitehead thought to look at the scoreboard. He did a double take, then turned to sophomore point guard Taquan Dean and asked, "Are we really about to beat these guys by 20 points?"
A similar sense of shock was no doubt being expressed by television viewers across the nation as the Cardinals turned one of the season's most anticipated matchups into a 93-66 laugher, equaling the Bearcats' worst loss in Bob Huggins's 15 years as the Cincinnati coach. It was a performance that could hardly have been expected, given that the Bearcats had been beating their foes by an average of 25.4 points a game and given that Louisville, which had lost its season opener to mediocre Iowa 70-69 in overtime, had been suffering off-the-court adversity ever since. Yet the Cardinals' stomping of Cincinnati was their 14th straight win, a streak they extended on Sunday with a gutty 65-62 victory at Tennessee, improving their record to 15-1 and their ranking to fourth.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino has made a career of goading teams into exceeding expectations, but even the maestro is surprised by his charges' heady play. "This is the most unusual group I've ever coached," says Pitino, who's in his third season with the Cardinals. "When you break them down individually, they're not overly impressive. But the moment they come together on the floor, they become very impressive."
They will need to stay together because during and after the Tennessee game, the misfortune that has dogged the Cardinals all season hit again. Dean, who was hobbled with a groin injury, and his backcourt running mate, Francisco Garcia, who sprained his left ankle against the Volunteers, were pronounced unfit for Wednesday's game against Houston. Then on Monday, Pitino shocked the team by announcing he would take a leave to deal with a urological problem. His absence "could last a couple of days; it could last a couple of weeks," he said. (Assistant coach Kevin Willard assumed the reins.)
All season long, Pitino has shaped his patented high-octane system to showcase his players' strengths and mask their weaknesses. Louisville has excellent team speed but is thin and small inside: Its starting center, senior Kendall Dartez, is 6'10" and 225 pounds. Because the Cardinals don't have shot blockers to erase their mistakes, they don't trap ball handlers and go for steals in the trademark Pitino style, yet at week's end Louisville was ranked No. 2 in die nation in field-goal-percentage defense. Offensively, the Cardinals came into the the season without a true point guard (Dean is a converted shooting guard), so Pitino has drilled his players on ball movement and the proper spacing for his three-point-shooting attack. It's working. Through Sunday, Louisville was 10th in the nation, with 8.9 treys made per game. "They're just a great passing team," Cincinnati assistant Andy Kennedy says. "They don't have a lot of guys who beat you off the bounce,
but they really move the ball around until they get open shots."
Without letting on, Pitino had been preparing his players for weeks to face the Bearcats' rattling full-court press. He began most practices with a passing drill that teaches the receiver to "run the ball into your hands" (in other words, to help the passer by coming to meet the ball). He also drummed into the Cardinals' heads the importance of staying in the middle of the floor to beat the press, because it's harder to trap the ball handler there. Says Pitino, "I always tell them, 'A lamb dribbles to the sidelines. A lion dribbles to the middle.'" Against Cincinnati, which came in forcing 21.9 turnovers a game, Louisville committed just 13, only five of them in the second half.
Still, even the most brilliant scheme will fail if it's not carried out with character and courage, and the Cardinals get those qualities from their lion-hearted sophomores, Dean and Garcia. Both hail from the New York City area—Dean from Neptune, N.J., and Garcia from the South Bronx, where his family moved from the Dominican Republic when he was 14—and felt an instant connection when they met at a basketball camp during the summer of 2001. You might say it was love at first slight. "We both definitely believed we were overlooked in high school," Dean says. "We weren't high in the [recruiting] rankings; we didn't make the McDonald's Ail-American game. We decided right away we wanted to change that."
Says Garcia, "In high school and AAU tournaments I used to play against guys like Julius Hodge and Andre Barrett [now stars at North Carolina State and Seton Hall, respectively], and the scouts seemed to know about them but not about me. I remember thinking, Why not me? I work just as hard as those guys."
Pitino laughs when he hears that Dean and Garcia are miffed about not playing in the McDonald's game—"There's no rhyme or reason why they would feel that way, because they weren't good enough," he says—but he appreciates the hunger that rejection has instilled in them. Several days a week Dean and Garcia, who are roommates, put themselves through a rigorous, crack-of-dawn workout. Lately they've been wearing 30-pound vests, with weights around their wrists, as they do their hoop drills. Recognizing their devotion, their teammates voted them tricaptains alongside Whitehead, the first time Pitino has had sophomores assume such a title.
At week's end the 6'3" Dean was scoring 12.9 points a game and shooting an astonishing 46.8% (51 for 109) from three-point range while learning the point guard position, which last season was manned by Reece Gaines, now with the NBAs Orlando Magic. The transition has been no small task for a player who had just 50 assists in 32 games as a freshman. Dean's poised performance against Cincinnati (21 points, three assists and no turnovers in 30 minutes) was even more impressive considering he was hampered by a severely pulled muscle in his right groin and hip.