C-J vault: Elite Eight 2008

While we count down the last few hours to the University of Kentucky’s appearance in the 2010 Elite Eight against West Virginia in Syracuse, N.Y., I’m taking a look back at some Elite Eight eves past in The Courier-Journal archives with both UK and the University of Louisville.

Cards on brink of Final Four prize

By ERIC CRAWFORD, March 29, 2009, Page A-1

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Before any University of Louisville player has taken the court for any game this season, he has stretched out a hand and touched a poster that hangs by the locker room door, home and away.

It’s a picture of the opening tip for U of L’s Final Four game against Illinois in 2005, and below is the question, “What are we playing for today?”

“When I came here, they had just been to the Final Four and everybody expected us to get them back,” U of L junior Terrence Williams said. “I’ve been looking at that picture for three years. Touching it now will be different.”

That’s because tonight, when the Cardinals take the court against North Carolina at 9:05 p.m. in Charlotte Bobcats Arena, they’ll have a chance to touch more than just a picture.

They’ll have a chance to touch the real thing.

After an injury-aided slow start and a dysfunctional December, the Cardinals have melded in March. A win tonight over the Tar Heels the No.1 overall NCAA Tournament seed and U of L would earn its second Final Four bid under coach Rick Pitino and the ninth in program history.

It also might mark an achievement on a par with a national championship. North Carolina (35-2) is 8-0 in this city. And North Carolina is the one team in the tournament that has been as dominant as U of L through its first three games, winning by an average margin of 30.3 points. UofL’s average margin has been 22.3.

“This game,” ESPN commentator Dick Vitale said, “has the makings of a national championship game.”

The teams were supposed to have met in November in the Las Vegas Invitational. North Carolina was off to a fast start, and Pitino had expected his team to be among the national elite from the outset and scheduled accordingly. Instead, U of L center David Padgett broke his right kneecap against Jackson State on Nov.18, the day before the team left for Las Vegas.

Without Padgett and without Juan Palacios, who tore a knee ligament on the second day of practice and didn’t play until late December U of L lost to Brigham Young and never got to play the Tar Heels.

From that point, the teams followed different trajectories. North Carolina flew to the top of the national rankings. UofL got off to a 5-3 start and added turmoil to injury.

Pitino suspended sophomore Derrick Caracter indefinitely in mid-December for repeated team rule violations, then brought him back one game later. Sophomore Earl Clark was suspended for UofL’s game at Kentucky.

At the time, it seemed that touching that picture on the wall might be as close to a Final Four as this group would get.

“All of a sudden, there were so many bad things happening to this team, so much adversity,” Pitino said. “I don’t think I had this much adversity with a basketball team in a two-month period than anytime I’ve been coaching. So we were just trying to survive health, survive academics, survive so many different things.

“And we were spending just as much time in an effort to make people into young men as we were in the fundamentals of basketball. So we had to get to that point, then we had to get over the injuries. Then all of a sudden February hits and we were a very good basketball team.”

Though U of L’s climb back from its slow start has been slow and steady, it has reached the spotlight now. When it dispatched Tennessee, a team that had been ranked No. 1 in the nation, by 19 points on Thursday, it served more notice perhaps than even an impressive undefeated February in the Big East Conference.

“We definitely think that Louisville will be the best team we’ve played so far this year,” North Carolina junior forward Marcus Ginyard said.

U of L has gotten to this point through the leadership of Padgett, the improvement of Earl Clark who leads the Cards in scoring at 15.3 points per game in the tournament and the blossoming of its offense in NCAA play.

But more than anything, it has gotten here through maturation. Pitino highlights the off-the-court growing- up process of his players.

“It was a very immature group, way more than their years would indicate,” he said.

Now, it has reached the grown-up table of college basketball. Conceivably, should it make a run to the national title, U of L could have to face basketball blue-bloods North Carolina, UCLA and Kansas.

“Playing North Carolina here is as hard as it gets,” UofL junior guard Andre McGee said. “But if you can win a game like this, you know you can win a championship.”

All season, U of L players have been laying hands on the picture. Tonight, they’ll try to wrap their hands around the prize.

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