Seniors lead the way for Cards in Saint Louis

The four teams - Louisville, Illinois, North Carolina, and Michigan State - still standing in Saint Louis for this year's Final Four have one thing in common - experience. Fortunately, Rick Pitino can count on two talented seniors - guard Larry O'Bannon and center Ellis Myles - to lead the way for the Cardinals.

The four teams - Louisville, Illinois, North Carolina, and Michigan State - still standing in Saint Louis for this year's Final Four have one thing in common - experience.

With early NBA departures depleting college rosters before they fully mature, assembling experienced, and talented teams has become a more difficult task.

But that's exactly what Louisville's Rick Pitino, North Carolina's Roy Williams, Illinois' Bruce Weber, and Michigan State's Tom Izzo have done better than anybody else.

"I think you've got four teams that are very experienced," said Pitino, who has seen his team compile a 33-4 record this season. "There is a lot of experience showing up in Saint Louis, and a lot of talent."

Louisville's opponent in Saturday's national semifinal, top-rated Illinois (36-1), boasts plenty of experience. Bruce Weber will send out 2 seniors - 6-6 Roger Powell, and 6-3 Luther Head - and 3 juniors - 5-11 Dee Brown, 6-9 James Augustine, and 6-3 Deron Williams, when the Illini take the court against Pitino's streaking Cardinals, who have won 22 of their last 23 games.

Pitino will counter with seniors Ellis Myles and Larry O'Bannon, and juniors Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean. 6-8 forward Juan Palacios will be the only freshman on the court when the game tips-off.

"This year's team is very good," Pitino said. "We've got talented ball players, and really terrific seniors."

O'Bannon's emergence as a major offensive force has been a key reason why Louisville finds itself in the Final Four. The 6-4 O'Bannon has carried the Cardinals offensively in several big games this season, including a 24 point effort - all after halftime - in the regional finals against West Virginia.

"Larry has changed a whole lot," Myles said of the once-reserved O'Bannon. "He used to be the one we joked on, and now he's the one starting the jokes. He's very confident in what he does."

Pitino's compares O'Bannon to a blue-chip stock.

"Larry O'Bannon has been one of the best stocks in the country," said Pitino. "His stock just keeps rising and he keeps getting better. He went from an average player last year to a great one this season."

Both Pitino and O'Bannon credit the player's dedication in the weight-room last summer - he gained 10 pounds of muscle - for his improved play this season.

"I've gotten stronger and that's allowed me to get to the basket, and to the foul line more," O'Bannon said.


Ellis Myles provides leadership and
toughness for Rick Pitino's Louisville
Cardinals.

Myles' return from a serious knee injury can't be overlooked either when explaining Louisville's journey back to the Final Four. He's given the Cardinals the one thing they didn't have last season when they were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Xavier in the first round - an inside presence. He's averaged nearly a double-double this season, but it's been his passing that has helped make the Cardinals one of the highest scoring units in the nation.

According to Pitino, O'Bannon's improved play, and Myles' effective return helped off-set the losses of Sebastian Telfair, Donta Smith, and Brian Johnson. Surely, few would have expected such a great run before the season without the top three signees from last year's highly regarded recruiting class.

"That tells you how good Ellis Myles and Larry O'Bannon have become," said Pitino.

But Myles' biggest contribution to the team doesn't appear on the stat sheet.

"He's the toughness on this team," Pitino said. "He's a tough kid from Compton, California and he's a big strong kid."

Now, O'Bannon and Myles face the greatest challenge of their careers - finding a way to defeat a team that has lost just once this season.

"They've been the number one team all year long, and we have a chance to go out there and prove that we can play with the best team in college basketball," Myles said.

Pitino, a veteran coach making his fifth appearance in the Final Four, went to great lengths this week to shield his players from the glaring spotlight of college basketball's biggest venue. He kept his team in Louisville until Thursday, gaining an extra practice session in the privacy of U of L's practice facility on campus the morning before leaving for Saint Louis - Louisville was the last team to arrive in Saint Louis. And you can bet Pitino spent the extra time in Louisville before leaving perfecting his plan to stop the explosive Illinois offensive attack.

"We've been a ranked team the whole year," Pitino said. "This is an older group – a lot of our guys are 22 and 23. They will definitely perform as they have all year. The stage is bigger now, but there are no guarantee's for anybody. It is going to come down to defense because I believe defense wins championships."

Pitino sounds confident his team's chances are strong this weekend.

"What we lack is size," Pitino said. "But in all the other areas we match-up. They're a very mature team, and it's very fun to coach them."


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