March 4, 2008

ballz (sports report): Cards' 'team ego' is legit

The storyline is virtually the same for every sportswriter covering the University of Louisville men’s basketball team right now: transformation. Who thought this team, with its cataclysmic fall from the Top 10 three months ago, would go 8 for 8 in February, the prologue to college basketball’s real story?It is compelling stuff. What was to be a season defined by injuries and suspensions, by the general lowering of expectations, has become something marquee. This team has a shot at going all the way.How?For one, they don’t particularly care about the modern American sports rabble. After Sunday’s 68-54 win against Villanova in Freedom Hall, Pitino talked about the Cards’ “team ego.” The occasion was Senior Day, the last time David Padgett, Juan Palacios and Terrance Farley played at Freedom Hall. “You have a bunch of people who are selfless,” he said, referring to the whole team a moment after he’d said the same thing of the seniors. “It’s a nice team as far as seeing about each other.”That’s because this team has walked through the worst and its shoes are still clean. Pitino cited the Nov. 21 victory over UNLV in Vegas as a defining moment of the season, a 20-point slugging that bolstered the Cards’ confidence at a key time: Padgett, unanimous vote for team captain and unbending soul of the squad, went down the game before with a broken kneecap, thought at the time to be career-ending. He and Palacios sat on the bench while the team sustained a few good losses — BYU, Dayton, Purdue — and began to look confused on the court. The Cards brazenly ignored the inside-out offense that had worked so beautifully through Padgett, instead jacking up threes like some kind of penance. Even with Padgett back, the team twice let endgame sloppiness give way to desperation and, ultimately, bad conference losses at Seton Hall and Connecticut. But, as Pitino likes to say, college basketball is not football, and there is time for redemption, especially while this “microwave society” is calling you out and writing you off.Last month, the Cards cut through a meaty Big East schedule — road games at Marquette and Pittsburgh, homers against Georgetown, Syracuse and Notre Dame (whose coach, Mike Brey, said U of L is as good as any team in the country right now) — like a hacksaw with a fresh blade, finishing the month with an average of 13 points between themselves and their opponents. And while Sunday against a streaky Villanova wasn’t the fist-pumping, crowd-rousing affair that Notre Dame, Syracuse and Georgetown were, it was “just a great team win,” as Padgett said afterward.As has become the norm, the scoring was balanced. The Cards are getting the ball inside, working the offense, passing and looking for better shots. More importantly, their defense has brought some of the conference’s most prolific scorers low. That’s team ego, and it’s why they’re ranked 12th in the country, completing a season-long circle just in time for a rematch with No. 11 Georgetown for the regular season Big East title on Saturday.“Everything changes so fast,” Palacios said Sunday, after dropping a team-high 13. “We live in a society that if you go a couple months without losing, then you’re on the top. And if you lose one game, they think you’re down. Right now, that’s what we’ve been waiting for, you know, the opportunity to win a championship.” Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com