Selfless Garcia re-discovers swagger in Nashville

In a town accustomed to stardom - albeit of the country music variety - Francisco Garcia, Louisville's talanted junior forward, proved to the nation this past weekend in Nashville that he's one of a handful of players in the 2005 NCAA Tournament that can carry his team forward in March.

Francisco Garcia's swagger is back, and his star has never shined brighter than it is right now.

In a town accustomed to stardom - albeit of the country music variety - Louisville's talanted junior forward proved to the nation this past weekend in Nashville that he's one of a handful of players in the 2005 NCAA Tournament that can carry his team forward in March.

His 27-point performance Friday night was the difference for the No. 4 Cardinals in a tightly contested first round game against Sun Belt champion Louisiana-Lafayette. But it was his 21-point, 4 assist, four block outing Sunday against defending national runner-up Georgia Tech that has the college basketball world buzzing about fourth-seeded Louisville.

Just two weeks ago, though, many folks - mostly Louisville fans - were somewhat down on Garcia's play this year. Before the season, expectations for the 6-7, 195-pound Bronx, NY native were sky-high, and his coach, Rick Pitino, told everyone last October this would be his star's final collegiate season.

But that hype preceeded several less than spectacular performances against Louisville's stiffest competition. Known as a gifted big game scorer his first two years at Louisville, Garcia struggled offensively in losses to Kentucky and Memphis, scoring just 8 and 7 points, respectively. And in the final two regular-season games against Charlotte and Depaul, both U of L wins, Garcia was limited to a combined 15 points, his season's average.

But Garcia perservered through the disappointing performances. He never stopped believing in himself, and neither did his teammates or coaches.

Francisco Garcia is playing his best when
his team needs him the most.

The turning point - the place where Garcia re-discovered his offensive groove - came during the final ten minutes against an athletic UAB squad last week in the Conference USA semifinals in Memphis. It was Garcia's 10 points during that final stretch, including 3 three-pointer's, that ended the Blazer's upset hopes. Then in the finals against Memphis, Garcia poured in 19 points to help down the Tigers - effectively showing all that the old Garcia was back.

"He's just got his swagger back," teammate Taquan Dean said after Garcia scored 48 points combined against LA-Lafayette and Georgia Tech over the weekend. "During the year guys were saying he's not that good, that he won't be a draft pick and should stay one more year. But as a guy that can get everybody better on the floor, I think he deserves to be a draft pick. Now he's showing the world what he can do, and that's score and pass the ball at the same time."

Pitino has a different take, and points to Garcia's unselfishness and team-first mentality for his lack of scoring output earlier this season.

"Francisco may have his swagger, but during the year was saying he wasn't playing that well," Pitino said. "Well he wasn't playing that well because he was always thinking pass. Now he's thinking shoot a little bit more and he's being more aggressive offensively because he knows it's tournament time."

"He knew back then that he had to get his teammates confidence up to play well," added Pitino. "And we've had many conversations about it. He said, 'coach if I don't get their confidence going, we're not going to be a great team.' That's the way he thinks, and you very rarely find a young man like Francisco Garcia these days."

And that's what seperates Garcia from the field - his versatility and maturity. While he led the Cardinals in scoring both games in Nashville, the 24 year-old Garcia also dished out 9 assists, including four during Louisville's 76-54 rout over ACC runner-up Georgia Tech Sunday afternoon.

"I'm playing good right now, but so are my teammates," Garcia said. "I'm not really focusing on how I'm playing just as long as we win. As long as we're winning, I'm happy with that."

If Garcia continues to play like he did in Nashville, the Cardinals chances in Albuquerque, N.M. later this week are favorable.

"I'm not trying to tick anybody off, but if somebody tells me this is a four-seed, you're nuts," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said of Louisville. "They're as good as anyone we've played this year. This is the best screening and passing team we've played all year. They space the floor very well. They played an exquisite basketball game."

Jarrett Jack, Tech's All-ACC point guard, summed Louisville up this way.

"These guys couldn't have done more than we did tonight," Jack said of his team following the Jackets loss. "We ran into a great team."

And the reason Louisville is playing like a great team right now - one capable of winning two more games to reach Saint Louis for next month's Final Four - is because of Francisco Garcia.

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