EXTRA Recruits advance in playoffs

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Seniors, Garcia play for title in final home game

Louisville fans will say good-bye to three seniors - Larry O'Bannon, Otis George and Ellis Myles, and junior forward Francisco Garcia - who will play their final game in Freedom Hall tonight when the Cardinals take on No. 18 Charlotte for the regular-season C-USA title. <p><p><b><a href="http://louisville.scout.com/2/356768.html">EXTRA </a></b><a href="http://louisville.scout.com/2/356768.html"><i>Recruits advance in playoffs</i></a></p>

Louisville fans will say good-bye to three seniors - Larry O'Bannon, Otis George and Ellis Myles, and junior forward Francisco Garcia - who will play their final game in Freedom Hall tonight when the Cardinals take on No. 18 Charlotte for the regular-season C-USA title.

Combined, the group has been instrumental to rebuilding a once great program that had fallen on hard times prior to their arrival.

One person, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, looks forward to honoring a group he says has helped establish an exciting "brand" of basketball.

"Senior night has always been one of my favorite days because you honor people who mean so much to the program," said Pitino. "And this day is even more special because this was a group that never let the fans down and won while they helped build a 'brand.'

Coming out of high school, none of the three seniors were highly recruited. Larry O'Bannon, Pitino's first recruit after arriving from the Boston Celtics, wasn't even recruited by Denny Crum. And while Myles was part of Crum's last recruiting class, Pitino decided to take a chance on George when things didn't pan out with one of his former high school teammates. "Ellis was taken because they were suffering and they needed an over-weight problem child," Pitino joked.

Because they were unheralded high school prospects, Pitino says that's what makes this group even more special.

"None of these guys have a great recruiting story to them," Pitino said, "and that's the great part about their story."

For O'Bannon, a Louisville native who played at Male, tonight represents his final game in the arena he dreamed of playing while growing up.

"It's been great to be a part of this program," O'Bannon said. "It's like its own fraternity - playing basketball at U of L. It's a great thing to be a part of."

The Cardinals second leading scorer this season (14.2), O'Bannon said he's never had any second thoughts about his decision to play for the hometown school.

"I don't have any regrets," said O'Bannon. "I've enjoyed every moment I've been here. It couldn't get any better because all my family and friends get to come see me play."

Ironically, O'Bannon says his finest moment at U of L came against the team the Cardinals face tonight.

"My favorite memory was hitting the game-winning shot my freshman year against Charlotte," said O'Bannon. "And the Marquette game this season was pretty amazing when I look back on it."

Otis George
George, who will start his second consecutive game tonight since replacing freshman Juan Palacios in the starting line up, said the team has become more like a family to him.

"I think I had a pretty good career," George said. "I came in just knowing a little bit about basketball and I've learned so much. These guys are like family and it's going to be hard leaving."

"I had a great four years here," George added. "Everybody just shows you so much love."

Myles represents the last player left over from the Crum-era. He was a part-time starter as a freshman during the Cardinals disasterous 12-19 season. Since then, he's overcome a serious knee-injury and developed into one of the best rebounders in C-USA.

But it was far from certain when Pitino arrived that Myles would make the cut. In his intial meeting with Pitino back in the spring of 2001, the new coach criticized him about his weight, his attitude and a host of other things.

"He was going to send me on a flight back to Compton," replied Myles.

Myles, though, stuck it out. He bought into Pitino's program, dropped the weight and the attitude. So what made Myles stick it out and prove his doubters, including Pitino, wrong?

"Compton's not a place you want to go back to," Myles said, inspiring laughter at Wednesday's media gathering.

Now, though, the 6-7 senior would like nothing more than to give the coach who nearly sent him packing four years ago his first regular-season C-USA championship.

"Coach means so much to me and it would be his first C-USA championship," Myles said. "So it would mean a whole lot to win it."

And though his eligibility hasn't expired, Garcia will also make his final appearance at home as a Cardinal.

Senior Larry O'Bannon with
NBA-bound junior Francisco Garcia
One of Pitino's first recruits at Louisville, Garcia has transformed from a skinny, 160-pound freshman into a probable first-round NBA selection this summer. He's also become one of Pitino's all-time favorites.

"He has to go down as one of my top three players of all time that I've enjoyed coaching," Pitino said. "He's always been so much fun to coach. It's like he never has a bad day as a person. He appreciates all the little things in life. He really doesn't sweat the small stuff. He knows how to laugh all the time. He's got a great sense of humor."

U of L's leading scorer the past two seasons, Garcia, who has 1,263 career points, has made life much brighter for both Pitino and Cardinal fans since he arrived on campus in the fall 2002 via the Bronx.

"Francisco Garcia puts the sunshine in every coach's life because that's what he is," Pitino said. "Every cloudy day becomes sunny when he's there."

O'Bannon, George, Myles and Garcia will be honored during a pre-game ceremony before tonight's tip-off against Charlotte. The ceremony will begin at 6:45 and will included a presentation to each player and a special video highlight film tribute.

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