Pitino had a difficult task from day one. The once dominant Cardinals were coming off a 12-19 season, it's second losing season in four years - something unheard of for Louisville basketball - recruiting had plummeted, as U of L was no longer a name among the nation's elite high school ballers.
Upon returning to the college ranks, Pitino quickly turned his attention to recruiting. However, by the time of his hiring, most of the top high school seniors around the country had already made their college decision. At the urging of former U of L and NBA great Junior Bridgeman, Pitino stopped by Male High School to watch Larry O'Bannon play in a pick up game, a game in which O'Bannon admits he played poorly. Despite the poor performance in front of the new Cardinal coach, O'Bannon was extended a scholarship in large part of his character.
Pitino, somewhat playing catchup, started focusing on the junior class, many of whom had also made their college decisions.. Then something strange happened. He received a couple phone calls, one from New Jersey guard Taquan Dean and another from Francisco Garcia, a swingman from the Bronx. Both would commit to Louisville without ever seeing the U of L campus.
While he wasn't aware of it at the time, Pitino had found the new future of Cardinal basketball.
On Sunday afternoon in Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center, with Louisville facing what Pitino labeled as the team's toughest challenge of the season, the trio led the under-seeded Cardinals to a dominating 76-54 win over Georgia Tech, last season's national runner-up. Garcia, Dean and O'Bannon combined for 51 of the team's 76 points, connecting on 9 of 16 three-pointers.
"I feel like a 25-year old dad having his first child, being so proud," said Pitino following the win. "These three young men; Larry was the first recruit and then Taquan and Francisco came to Louisville without ever seeing the place, just a phone call by Taquan. I think back on that today on how much time I have spent recruiting some kids and then to land these three young men and see them play that type of basketball, it is like being a proud father."
Over the course of the season, the three all joined Louisville's lofty 1,000-point club, but their play on Sunday night left the Cardinal coach with a sense of strong pride.
"My pride level is so out of the sky right now with these young men," continued Pitino, who has U of L preparing to play in it's 15th Sweet 16, the fourth best mark in the nation. "I don't know hat to say, I am just so proud of them. I am just a very lucky coach to coach these three guys."
Larry O'Bannon, a Louisville
native, helped guide the
Cardinals to their first
Sweet 16 since 1997
"It felt great," said O'Bannon, who finished the game with 16 points. "I came out and hit the first one and then Francisco got going...we seemed to be making all of our shots and that helped our defense."
After building a 45-30 advantage at the half, Louisville struggled throughout the first ten minutes of the second frame - connecting on just two field goals during that stretch - the Cardinals turned to Dean for an offensive spark. With Georgia Tech pulling within nine at 52-43, Dean drained two three-pointers to push the Cardinals ahead 60-45 and spark what would become a lopsided victory.
Taquan Dean had 14 points
in the win.
Garcia, who totaled 21 points, as well as four blocks in the win, credits his teammates for helping him perform in a way that everyone expects.
"I'm playing good right now, but so are my teammates," explained the junior who will enter the NBA Draft following the season. "Larry and Taquan are playing great. Everybody is doing what they are supposed to do. I never focus on how I'm playing...if I don't score and we win, I'm happy with that."
With the Cardinals entering their first Sweet 16 since 1997, Louisville native Larry O'Bannon recalls how great it felt for the hometown team to reach that point.
"It was DeJuan Wheat and Tick Rogers - they beat Villanova," said O'Bannon. "It felt great, not even playing on the team, but just to see the hometown team go to the Sweet 16 and now to be apart of it is something special."
Louisville will face top-seeded Washington on Thursday in Albuquerque for a chance to move on to the Elite 8.