Finally Healthy, Louisville Feeling Better About Itself

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

When basketball season began at the University of Louisville, David Padgett's biggest problem wasn't that he couldn't run. The 6-foot-11 junior with the two surgically repaired knees was able to move up and down the court. The problem was, he couldn't stop.

"If he sprinted up the floor, it was like he couldn't come to a stop; it was like he had no brakes for his legs," Coach Rick Pitino said. "He'd fall over."

Padgett no longer has that problem. He is as healthy as he has been in two years, and so are the Cardinals, who have been plagued by injuries since moving to the Big East last season. Louisville (16-7, 6-3), which hosts No. 22 Georgetown (16-5, 6-2) tonight at Freedom Hall, has won four of its past five games.

"Injuries just decimated our team, not just in terms of all of our veterans being out, but just practice-wise," said Pitino, who has used 10 different starting lineups in 23 games. "I think that once we got healthy, we thought we could be a good basketball team. I don't think we ever thought we could be a great basketball team, because we're very young, we're inexperienced and we're sort of rebuilding off of that Final Four team, but we thought we could have a very competitive basketball team."

A year ago, the Cardinals were expected to be the best of the five Big East newcomers; they were coming off a Conference USA title and Final Four appearance in 2005, and they were picked to finish third in the Big East preseason coaches' poll. But youth and injuries to Padgett and forward Juan Palacios helped derail their season; they had to fight just to make the 12-team conference tournament (they finished 11th with a 6-10 record).

"It was definitely kind of humbling," said Padgett, who injured his left knee in a scrimmage early last season and never recovered. "Coming off that Final Four, there were lots of expectations, and obviously we didn't have as good a year as we hoped. I think it woke everybody up a little bit, and we realized that we needed to get back to work."

But first the Cardinals had to get healthy. Padgett underwent surgery to repair the cartilage in both knees in March, and wasn't expected to effectively contribute until last month. (Pitino said Norm Scott, a former New York Knicks team doctor, told him that he didn't know of a professional athlete who would have been able to play on such bad knees, as Padgett did last season.)

Senior guard Brandon Jenkins broke his right leg while playing a pickup game in late August; he made a quick recovery and is one of four Cardinals who have played in every game this season. Sophomore guard Andre McGee had surgery on his knee in November and missed 11 games, and then injured his quadriceps in the same leg in early January and missed three games. Palacios, a junior, played through shoulder and neck injuries; in three games he was unable to shoot because he couldn't raise his arm.

"The most frustrating part is trying to do things that you know you can do, but you can't," said Padgett, who is fifth in the Big East in field goal shooting (60.2 percent) and is averaging 9.8 points. "It was frustrating not just for me, but also the team, because we were missing certain pieces. Now that we have everybody back, we have to keep everybody healthy."

Especially Padgett, a high school all-American who started his college career at Kansas. In consecutive wins over Connecticut, Syracuse and Cincinnati, Padgett averaged 16.3 points and 10.7 rebounds. After he had 19 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks in Louisville's 68-54 over the Huskies on Jan. 22, Coach Jim Calhoun praised the way Padgett passed the ball and set hard screens, calling him "the spoke in the wheel" of Louisville's motion offense.

"It's wonderful to see, not only for David, he's got two great knees right now, and there's no pain and no swelling," Pitino said. "Just brilliant surgery by Dr. Scott and an unbelievable pain threshold by David. He's now a legitimate player. We run everything through him."

Notes: Tonight's game will be the sixth meeting between Louisville and Georgetown, but the first in Big East play. The two teams did not play last season. . . . In a pregame ceremony, the University of Louisville will name the court inside Freedom Hall "Denny Crum Court," in honor of the Hall of Fame coach who led the Cardinals to 675 wins and a pair of national titles (1980, 1986) in 30 seasons.

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