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Only one number matters to Louisville now: 16

As in the teams left in the tournament. The Cardinals are one for the first time in eight years.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published March 23, 2005


Rick Pitino insists it's no longer an issue, but after his fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals defeated fifth-seeded Georgia Tech in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, the veteran coach couldn't help saying it one more time.

The Cardinals got snubbed.

"We know that we should have been a two seed. We know it," Pitino said. "We're very humble people, but we knew we deserved a two seed. But we never focused in on it. We never talked about seeding again (after selection Sunday). I told the team we're going to talk about beating teams and playing good basketball."

Whatever they talked about, it has worked. The Cardinals are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997.

Louisville (31-4) will play No.1 seed Washington (29-5) on Thursday in Albuquerque, N.M., and if you want to call them underdogs, that's fine.

"We've been underdogs all year, so it's not new," junior guard Taquan Dean said. "All our lives we've been underdogs. If you look at the guys in here, nobody's a McDonald's All-American. Nobody was highly recruited coming out of high school. So we had to work our way up, and that's what we're doing now."

Louisville has worked its way back to prominence with an interesting collection of players. Junior forward Francisco Garcia is the Dominican Republic-born player who grew up in the Bronx and represents the heart of the team, having endured poverty and the slaying of his brother two years ago.

There's Ellis Myles, the senior center from Compton, Calif., who redshirted last season while recovering from a ruptured right patella sustained in 2003 and became a dominant force in the middle. He is currently sixth all-time at the school with 971 rebounds. Larry O'Bannon is a senior guard and Louisville native who wanted to stay home to play for Pitino and help restore the program to its glory days of the 1980s, which included Final Fours in 1982 and 1983 and national titles in 1980 and 1986. All have earned a special place in Pitino's heart.

"I feel like a 25-year-old dad having his first child, being so proud," an emotional Pitino said after Sunday's game. "Larry was my first recruit, and then Taquan and Francisco took a chance and came sight unseen, just a phone call by Taquan. I'm a very lucky coach."

Garcia leads the team with 15.9 points followed by O'Bannon (14.9), Dean (14.1) and Myles (10.3, 9.2 rebounds). They represent only the second Louisville team with four 1,000-point scorers. Garcia is averaging 24 points in the tournament but continues to deflect the attention.

"I'm playing good right now but so are my teammates, too," said Garcia, who plans to enter the NBA draft this spring. "Larry is playing great. Taquan is playing great, and everybody is doing what they are supposed to do. I'm not focusing on how I'm doing as long as we win. If I don't score and we win, I'm happy." To win again Friday will be a challenge.

"We're going to play a Washington team that is very similar to Georgia Tech. They are a great transition team," Pitino said. "A lot of people say they are the weakest of the No.1 seeds, and I don't agree with that at all. They have terrific talent. I know (coach Lorenzo Romar) very well. He's done a phenomenal job, so our respect level for them is off the chart."

Louisville has won 21 of its past 23 and believes it is playing better than it has all season. "We're definitely peaking at the right time," O'Bannon said. "The last couple of years we always went down at the end, but now we're still going up and getting better and better each game."

Credit the zone defense for part of the success.

At the beginning of the season, Pitino took part of the blame for late-season collapses the past two seasons (2-4 in the regular season and second-round loss to Butler then 3-7 and first-round loss to Xavier). His roster wasn't deep enough to deal with his signature uptempo, fullcourt pressing style. So with five players averaging 26 or more minutes, the Cardinals have adjusted to what suits them best this season, with the zone part of it.

"The starters get to play a little longer, and it helps us rebound and stay out of foul trouble," O'Bannon said. "Ellis Myles is the biggest key to our team pretty much, and keeping him out of foul trouble, I think the zone helps him out the most out of all of our players." "The reason we don't press like we used to at Kentucky is ... we don't have the substitutes right now," Pitino said. "You see guys playing 40 minutes. "So we have to play intelligent as well as we've been shooting the ball well. We've played great zone the whole year, and it really keeps Francisco and Ellis from fatiguing."

Pitino, who led Kentucky to three NCAA Final Fours and the 1996 title, had one message for his players after Sunday's win.

"Once you get to the Sweet 16, the fun really starts," he said. "I'm really proud they get to go to this point."

Of the 17,286 at the Gaylord Center on Sunday, the majority were Cardinals fans. The players said they now are playing for themselves as well as their supporters.

"This is for the fans. This is for the city because they have waited so long," Dean said.

Let the fun begin.