Pitino's Cardinals had bumpy road

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It was mid-November and Rick Pitino was already going through a gluttony of maturity issues with his entire sophomore class. Then he was delivered news that senior David Padgett's season and career might be over.

Four months later, it's David Padgett and one of those sophomore knuckleheads — Earl Clark — that have helped lead the Cardinals one step away from returning to the Final Four.

It's not as if it's such a shock that Pitino's team pulled away from No. 2 Tennessee. This is a Louisville club filled with experience and talent — and one that held a Vols team that was averaging 82.5 points per game to just 34 percent shooting in a 79-60 final.

It's the road that the Cardinals took to get there that makes this tournament run so sweet.

"This is as good as it gets," Pitino said.

Padgett was prepared to board a bus to Las Vegas for a tournament when Pitino informed him that he had a broken kneecap, yet another setback in the injury-riddled career of one of the most sought-after big men in the past decade.

The Cardinals staff went as far as to research the possibility of a medical redshirt because Pitino was told there was a slim chance Padgett would be back at all. However, Padgett did his best impression of the Bionic Man and returned in six weeks.

Then the Cardinals made their resurgence. After a 9-4 start with a quartet of what appeared to be "bad" losses, Louisville became one of the nation's hottest teams, winning nine straight through the entire month of February.

Padgett was the key, especially because the Cardinals weren't getting much production out of their point guards. Edgar Sosa, one of the sophomores that utterly frustrated Pitino, has regressed after a solid freshman season and Andre McGee hasn't shown much consistency.

Derrick Caracter, is well, Derrick Caracter. Pitino has finally accepted that the over-hyped big man isn't going to change his ways and will always be tagged with the "potential" label, but may never live up to the hype he got before high school.

"They are a different breed," Pitino said of the Northeast sophomore trio of Caracter, Sosa and Earl Clark. "They aren't normal kids."

Caracter and Sosa have remained role players, but the ultra-talented Clark has finally begun to tap the natural ability that could make him an NBA lottery pick.

Clark has been an enigma for what seems like an eternity. His practice habits since he arrived on campus nearly two years ago haven't just been questioned by Pitino, they've been ripped apart.

"He had no work ethic at all," Pitino said. "But somewhere along the way, David affected him. He started really listening to David and now that he's started to learn how to work hard, he's lethal.

"We knew we were sitting on a brick of dynamite with him," Pitino said.

But there was Clark, in the first half of the Tennessee game, nonchalant and virtually invisible through the first 20 minutes. Louisville assistant coach Steve Masiello even joked with Clark that maybe the 6-foot-9, multi-dimensional New Jersey native didn't realize the game tipped off at 10 p.m. Maybe he thought it started an hour or so later.

However, the explosion went off a little less than five minutes into the second half. The Cardinals held a slim three-point lead, and Clark took over the game for the next three minutes.

He drove to the basket for a layup. Made a jumper. Got loose for an emphatic dunk and went to the basket for two more points. Toss in three rebounds and a key block during the stretch and the Cardinals built the lead to nine points.

"They told me I was sleeping a little bit at halftime," Clark said of the staff. "I didn't want to go home yet. We've been through too much. Too many ups and downs."

There was even a Caracter sighting. In fact, he may have had the game's key basket when he converted a three-point play with 4:01 left to give the Cardinals a 15-point lead.

The Vols' point-guard play — or lack thereof — was exposed. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl opted to go with J.P. Prince as his starting point guard — an experiment he started three games ago at the beginning of the NCAA tournament.

Prince had a rough go, but he wasn't the only one. Chris Lofton went out the way his season began — unable to buy a bucket. Tyler Smith picked up his fourth foul with 12:43 left in the game.

"I've been coaching a long time, and never has the tempo of the game been dictated so much by the opponent," Pearl said. "We usually dictate tempo."

Not against this Louisville team. The one that almost never was.

Jeff Goodman is a senior college basketball writer for FOXSports.com. He can be reached at GoodmanonFOX@aol.com or check out his blog, Good 'N Plenty.

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