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Wild Cards Spurred by the frenzied play of guard Reece Gaines and the coaching of Rick Pitino, the Louisville Cardinals are the nation's hottest team

Some players make the game of basketball look easy. Reece Gaines
is not one of them.

Louisville's senior point guard is an advertisement for manic
exertion. There is no gliding to the basket or waltzing through
the lane. Instead, the 6'6", 205-pound Gaines hurtles up the
floor like a runaway semi, frenetically dribbling. When he
rises to shoot, he doesn't jump so much as he springs back from
the defender. On drives to the basket he opens his eyes wide
and puffs out his cheeks, as if he is literally trying to blow
by opponents. On defense he stays in front of his man--and,
seemingly, on either side of him as well, scurrying back and
forth while slashing the air with his arms. During the second
half of the Cardinals' 77-71 win over Cincinnati on Feb. 5,
Gaines was working so furiously on defense that when he tried
to quickly change direction, he stumbled backward. Rather than
fall and risk losing his man, he dropped into a near split.
"I'm just a full-speed guy," says Gaines. "My goal is to wear
people down."

Gaines's all-effort, all-the-time style, his playmaking and his
clutch shooting have made him a leading candidate to win the
Wooden Award as national player of the year. He is the embodiment
of a revitalized Louisville squad that at week's end had won 17
games in a row by following coach Rick Pitino's gospel of
defense, intensity and hustle. Entering the season the Cardinals
weren't expected to do more than squeeze onto the outside ledge
of the NCAA tournament bracket, but they have become the top team
in Conference USA and a strong contender for the national title.
After beating Houston 81-55 last Saturday, Louisville improved
to 18-1 and on Monday jumped to No. 2 in the nation in the AP

What's more, the players have not only clicked in Pitino's system
but also taken on their coach's mind-set, as evidenced by their
glum locker room demeanor following the inartistic victory over
the Bearcats. "We're just going to try and learn from a win like
this," said junior guard Bryant Northern, sounding eerily like
the voice of Pitino channeled through a 20-year-old.

Much of the credit for the team's success clearly must go to
Pitino, who in his second season at the school has turned around
a struggling program, just as he did at Boston University,
Providence and Kentucky. (The Cardinals were 12-19 in 2000-01,
their last season under Denny Crum.) But it is Gaines who has led
the team on the court. At week's end he was playing 32.3 minutes
a game--nearly unheard of in Pitino's wind-sprint-tempo
attack--and was averaging 18 points and 5.4 assists while
shooting 47%, in the process emerging, improbably, as one of the
country's best point guards.

Gaines began the season as Louisville's shooting guard, but after
five games junior college transfer Prileu Davis wasn't panning
out at the point, and Pitino asked Gaines to take over. For a
senior who had averaged 21 points the year before and was not
only eyeing the NBA but also accustomed to the limelight accorded
a top scorer, it was a big sacrifice--like asking Bono if he
wouldn't mind drumming so someone else could sing.

But Gaines was game. Growing up in Madison, Wis., he had always
handled the ball, ever since his father, Clyde, who played at
Wisconsin from 1977--78 through to '80--81, had taught him to
dribble at age three. When Reece chose Louisville--over Maryland
and his father's alma mater--it was in part for the chance to
start at point guard right away, which he did his first two
seasons, under Crum. But when Pitino arrived, one of his first
moves was to take the ball out of Gaines's hands.

So last season Gaines played shooting guard, and he shot early
and often. But as the Cardinals' only solid offensive option, he
soon saw box-and-ones, triangle-and-twos and other geometric
defensive alignments that even Euclid couldn't have envisioned.
Louisville finished the season 19-13 and made the NIT, but the
team was too reliant on Gaines.

This season help arrived in 6'10" senior center Marvin Stone, who
sat out last season after transferring from Kentucky and who has
added a much-needed post presence on both ends of the court. More
reinforcements came in freshmen sharpshooters Taquan Dean and
Francisco Garcia, the latter of whom tied a school record against
Cincinnati with eight threes.

At first the return to the point wasn't all that smooth for
Gaines; for instance he kept forgetting to hang back and take the
inbounds pass. So Pitino showed him tapes of Jason Kidd, another
tall point guard, and worked with him on his weaknesses--his
dribbling while running at full speed and a tendency to
overpenetrate before passing. By January, Gaines was in the
groove, and against Southern Mississippi on Jan. 29 he tallied
his first double double of the season.

As good as his playmaking has been, he is still the guy the team
looks to for the important shots. Last week when Cincinnati cut
the lead to six points late in the second half, Gaines--who had
not hit a three-pointer all night--promptly nailed a three and a
free throw--line jumper on successive possessions. "He's got big
balls," says assistant coach Kevin Willard. "He wants to take
those shots."

Gaines is also the lead kamikaze in Pitino's defense, which
doesn't press as much as those at Pitino's five previous coaching
stops (including the NBA's New York Knicks and Boston Celtics)
but is just as ferocious. Through Sunday the Cardinals had held
opponents to 39.5% shooting and were forcing 18.1 turnovers per

If all of this sounds familiar--hardnosed Pitino team exceeds
expectations through defense--that's because it is. With the
exception of his 3 1/2 ill-fated years with the Celtics (102-146
record), Pitino has always enjoyed success, and at each winning
stop the biggest step up has come in the second season, when his
teams have averaged seven more victories than the season before
(chart, right). Predictably, Pitino is adored by citizens in his
new hometown. Drivers on Louisville-area highways are besieged by
the image of the man on billboards, endorsing a jeweler and a
national sporting-goods chain. "Rick is without a doubt the most
popular person in the state," says Louisville athletic director
Tom Jurich, who hired Pitino. "It's like Elvis coming back."

With Elvis in the building, Gaines couldn't very well leave it.
As a junior he'd thought of jumping to the NBA, but the chance to
play another year under Pitino was reason enough to stay. Now,
after surviving the lean years, Gaines is enjoying finally being
on a team with national championship potential.

Louisville's sports information staff was set to have a Reece
Gaines bobblehead doll made, but he didn't want it. The decision
seems fitting, and not just because the entire doll would have
had to bobble to reflect Gaines's frenetic style. The doll also
would have undercut the emphasis that Gaines--like Pitino--has
put on playing as a team, not as individuals. "Back in the years
when we were losing, my mom used to tell me, 'Your time is going
to come. Your time is going to come,'" says Gaines. "It took me
three years to realize I couldn't make that happen by myself."

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [T of C] STUFFED BEARCAT Cincinnati's Leonard Stokes was smothered by Louisville's Bryant Northern, whose Cardinals play Marquette on Saturday (page 44).

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO IN SYNC Gaines has made a smooth transition from shooting guard to point guard and proven that he can be nearly as intense on the court as his coach.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO ROCK SOLID The soaring Gaines (right) has benefited from the addition of the 6'10" Stone (21), a Kentucky transfer.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO SHOOTING STAR Garcia (right, with Pitino and swingman Erik Brown) has emerged as the Cards' long-range threat.


With one exception, an unsuccessful tenure running the Boston
Celtics, Rick Pitino has seen his teams improve significantly in
their second season under his guidance. Here is Pitino's ledger
for the first two years at each of his six coaching stops.


1978--79 Boston University 17-9 None

1979--80 Boston University 21-9 NIT second round

1985--86 Providence 17-14 NIT third round

1986--87 Providence 25-9 NCAA Final Four

1987--88 New York Knicks 38-44 Eastern Conference
first round

1988--89 New York Knicks 52-30 Eastern Conference

1989--90 Kentucky 14-14 None (on probation)

1990--91 Kentucky 22-6 None (on probation)

1997--98 Boston Celtics 36-46 None

1998--99 Boston Celtics 19-31* None

2001--02 Louisville 19-13 NIT second round

2002--03 Louisville 18-1** ???

*Season shortened by lockout **Through Sunday