Cards turning magical run into reality

Posted on April 1, 2005

(We interrupt this regularly scheduled program to give you information about the only important thing going on this weekend ... the Louisville Cardinals in the Final Four)

University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino is currently in the process of pulling off the greatest magic trick of all time.

Sure, the whole Statue of Liberty vanishing thing was pretty good, and levitation wizards are harder to come by than Duke fans in Kentucky. But at the top of the unexplainable list is how this team of Cardinals has managed a date Saturday against Illinois in the Final Four.

A long time ago (four months), in a galaxy far, far away (Hawaii), the Cards began their march toward March. There wasn't much at that time to suggest greatness: two wins over Division II squads, a narrow loss to unranked Iowa and rather easy win versus an overrated Stanford team. Although the start on the court was fairly auspicious, there was already evidence of Pitinodini at work.

"We're nowhere near where we want to be," said Pitino after a 30-point victory over host Chaminade. It seemed mostly trivial at that time, but the evidence had already surfaced: There was some place the coaches, not to mention the players, wanted, and expected, to be.

And I'm not talking about the beach, even though that was a nice place to hang out for a few days. While I was looking for a restroom near a popular snorkeling reef, I ran into assistant coach Kevin Willard, who seemed to be playing his part in the magic as well. I asked him if Taquan Dean was OK, and that he seemed to play better when hurt. Dean had just scored a career-high 30 points while hobbling around with leg cramps. Willard told me that Dean played with a lot of heart and would be fine. Then Willard asked me if I was having a good time. Hmm, I'm in Hawaii, I just finished watching Louisville play three games and now I'm talking to one of the team's masterminds. Was this a trick question?

The players bought into the system as well, or maybe they were also brainwashed. They don't complain about injuries, playing time, the weather, etc. (It should be noted, however, that the medical training staff could be made up of witch doctors, as often as someone appears to be seriously injured and then magically appears in the following game). The individual tragedies the team members have overcome have been well-documented, yet that doesn't seem to hinder their play on the court. Actually, there was one complaint I heard from different players in Maui. My brother tried to get team autographs after the Stanford game, and Larry O'Bannon, Brandon Jenkins and Lorrenzo Wade all mentioned his Sharpie was running out of ink.

The magic, and the Cards' ability to will their way to victory, hasn't run out yet. In 25 years of watching Louisville basketball, I've never witnessed a team capable of playing under pressure with such poise every night. It appears they even relish playing close games. Game after game, Louisville has found a way to boggle the mind with comebacks, almost as if the team can move the ball under the shell without anyone noticing. Even against West Virginia in "The Attack of the Killer Brendan Plaviches," when Francisco Garcia fouled out and Dean was hampered again by cramps, the Ville played as if they knew they were going to win eventually. Thinking the impossible lands most people in a mental institution, but for Pitino and his players, they're instead in St. Louis.

Illinois is favored against the Cards in both teams' first Final Four trips since the '80s. The Fighting Illini lost one game all season, and Pitino said he still hasn't found a weakness to exploit. But like all great magicians, Pitinodini is sure to have something up his sleeve by game time. He will have his team prepared, believing they can win. The players will no doubt believe whatever he has to say, and that will lead to another Cards victory.

"We step up to the challenge every time and get the job done," said O'Bannon at Tuesday's pep rally sendoff. There was an estimated crowd of 16,000 people downtown for the rally, apparently showing that even the fans have been cast into the trance of believing.

It really doesn't matter who's on the court playing the Cards at this point. The opponents seem sealed in the magic box, and Pitinodini is holding the only key.