Winners of six straight and 11 of their past 12 games, University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino credits his team's improved health for their most recent outstanding play.
"Right now, this is the healthiest we've been all year and for us that's a big blessing," said Pitino. "We're a good basketball team when we're healthy."
Perhaps the biggest re-addition to the squad has been 6-8 Otis George, who has solidified the Cardinals frontcourt rotation since returning two weeks ago.
"When we can come off the bench with Otis George it helps us tremendously," Pitino said.
Pitino credits head trainer, Fred Hina, for helping the Cardinals get back near full strength this season.
"I can't say enough about our trainer," said Pitino. "He's saved us from about three or four difficult situations."
"He goes back to Minardi Hall, he sits with the players, he ices them, he gets the bone stimulator - all the new equipment," Pitino added. "I mean we have equipment that a lot of other schools do not have right now - and that all cuts the swelling time down."
Pitino said Hina's effort have cut down on the missed practice time this season.
"He's saved us about 20 days with getting the players back this year," said Pitino. "He's a remarkable trainer and fits in very well with this staff. His dedication level is off the charts and I'm really appreciative what he's done for this basketball team this year."
WITH PADGETT, PITINO EXPECTS CARDS TO RELOAD - NOT REBUILD - NEXT SEASON
Though Louisville will lose four key contributors off this years squad - Larry O'Bannon, Ellis Myles, Otis George and Francisco Garcia - Pitino prdicted a re-loading process rather than a rebuilding one next season.
"David Padgett, [will replace Ellis at center] without question," said Pitino. "The good thing with David - we're not going to rebuild next year, we're going to reload. And that wouldn't be the case without [him] because he's practicing."
Padgett, a transfer from Kansas, pracitces with the team and sits on the bench during games. At 6 foot 11, 250-pounds, Padgett figures to play a big role for a relatively youthful squad next season.
"David has been playing in the system all year and Taquan's back, Brandon Jenkins is back - so it's not quite as dramatic [losing Fransico, Ellis, Larry and Otis] if we didn't have him," Pitino said. "If we didn't have him we'd be really young."
PALACIOS ONLY SCRATCHING SURFACE OF POTENTIAL
6-8 freshman Juan Palacios might be the best freshman in Conference USA this season. He averages more than 10 points and 6 rebounds per game, and has proven a versatile offensive weapon.
And even though there is much to like about Palacios' game, Pitino says he needs to continue making strides in one key area.
"We've got to continue to improve Tello Palacios' inside game," said Pitino. "He came in here totally devoid of any low post moves - he was more of a face up player - he didn't have a jump-hook, he shoots a low shot inside. So he's got to learn those things. And he recogonizes it."
Despite his success this season, Pitino said Palacios is nowhere close to being as good as he's capable.
"What you're seeing now is a very good freshman but he's just scratching [the surface] of his potential," Pitino added. "He's nowhere near what he could be as a basketball player because he doesn't have the moves yet."
"But he has the body and he's going to be a terrific basketball player someday."
WAIT AND SEE ON JOHNSON'S KNEE
If you pay close attention during the games, you've probably noticed that freshman forward Brian Johnson no longer needs the use of crutches to get around.
Johnson, who underwent his third surgery in six months in November, won't be able to return to the court until July - at the earliest.
"He doesn't practice and he doesn't work out at all," Pitino said. "He was on crutches for six weeks and couldn't put any weight on his knee. He can't even think about running or getting into shape or playing basketball until July."
"He's in great spirits and he's a wonderful person but that's all I can tell you [about his recovery]," Pitino added.