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February 22, 2006

Battered Cardinals still hopeful

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Brandon Jenkins thought the look on Taquan Dean's face said it all.

For three years, Jenkins had watched his Louisville teammate never get rattled, never get angry. But during halftime of Louisville's 79-66 loss to Syracuse on Saturday night, Jenkins saw the normally laid-back Dean react with the kind of fury that comes out of frustration - if not desperation.

"At halftime he was yelling, 'This is my last year, we've got to work hard,'" Jenkins said. "(Dean's) not going to lead vocally, he's going to lead by example. ... (But) I can tell in his face sometimes after a loss that he's real down.

"I've never really seen that look."

Maybe it's because there haven't been too many reasons for Dean to be upset during his first three years with the Cardinals. Neither Jenkins nor Dean have played on a team that didn't make it to the NCAA tournament.

However, as the Cardinals (16-9 overall, 4-8 Big East) get ready to play DePaul (10-13, 3-9) on Wednesday night at Freedom Hall, there's a very real chance they might not even qualify for the Big East tournament, much less the NCAAs.

"I thought we'd go to the Big East tournament, no problem," Jenkins said. "Coach kept telling us how hard the Big East was going to be, and we just didn't win the games we're supposed to."

In order to make it to New York for the Big East tournament next month, the Cardinals will have to win the games they're supposed to and maybe one or two they're not supposed to.

Louisville is currently tied for 11th in the conference with Providence and Notre Dame and hold tiebreakers over both schools, thanks to head-to-head wins earlier this year. But after playing the Blue Demons, the Cardinals finish the regular season with road trips to No. 11 West Virginia and No. 3 Connecticut sandwiched around a visit from red-hot Marquette, which is 18-8 overall and fifth in the conference.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino figures the Cardinals need to at least split their last four games to have a chance of making it to Madison Square Garden.

Doing the math, however, is the easy part. The already inexperienced Cardinals will have to find a way to survive without sophomore center David Padgett, who will miss the rest of the season after aggravating a left knee injury in practice Monday.

Injuries had limited Padgett's practice time for much of the season, and after he staggered through five minutes of practice Monday, Pitino said it was better to save Padgett's future even if it puts the team's present at risk.

"When you see him in games, he's not 50 percent of what David Padgett was a month ago," Pitino said of the player who averaged 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds in 24 games this season.

Freshman Brian Johnson will probably start in Padgett's spot, even though he's been hobbled by knee pain all season, with sophomore Terrance Farley coming off the bench.

Johnson's presence should help the Cardinals where they need it most: on the backboard. Louisville has been out-rebounded 11 of its 12 conference games. The Cardinals' inability to get on the glass has hindered them from playing the kind of breakneck speed that's usually a trademark of a Pitino-led team.

"If we don't get a rebound, it's impossible to get the ball to Andre (McGee) or Taquan," Jenkins said. "That's what's killing us. (Opponents) get offensive rebounds all the time, and we can't get on the break."

Louisville is not likely to get any sympathy from the Blue Demons, who, like the Cardinals, have struggled in their first year in the Big East after coming over from Conference USA. Still, like Louisville, there's time for DePaul to navigate its way to New York if it can find a little late-season magic.

"Like Notre Dame, like South Florida and like us, they play everybody tough because they're hardworking," Pitino said. "They've come up short at times in some hard-fought games, but they've got size and talent and a style of play that's very difficult to go against if you're not careful with the basketball."

For more coverage of the Louisville Cardinals, check out CardinalSports.com.

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