HOW GOOD can theCardinals be? Earl Clark knows. Back in April, the then sophomore, who hadblossomed during Louisville's run to the Elite Eight, declared for the NBAdraft. At 6'9", 220 pounds, the smooth-moving forward has the athleticgrace and inside-out skills that pro scouts covet, and he was widely projectedto be a first-round pick. But Clark never made it to the draft. After travelingall the way to Houston—on his own dime—to work out for the Rockets, he got asfar as his hotel room before changing his mind and retreating to Louisville."Each year I've been here this team has gone further," he says,"and I realized that this was an opportunity to win achampionship."
The springyjunior now gets another year to mature and develop his game under Rick Pitino,and one of the most complete teams in the Big East retains the services of aplayer capable of carrying it to the Final Four. Clark entered last year's NCAAtournament as a reserve and left it a star, averaging team highs in points(14.5) and rebounds (8.3) while wowing everybody with his versatility. His bigmoment came in Louisville's Sweet 16 rout of Tennessee, in which he scored 17points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked four shots, two on three-pointers. Sayssenior point guard Andre McGee, "Earl's a big matchup problem."
The same could besaid about senior swingman Terrence Williams, a 6'6" defensive stopper whofancies himself a point forward at the other end of the floor—he led the teamin assists (4.5 per game) last season. Giving Williams and Clark a boost upfront is highly touted freshman Samardo Samuels, a 6'8", 240-pound bangerwho appears ready to replace the departed David Padgett in the middle.
The backcourt hasplenty of experience. Junior Jerry Smith is a career 42.1% shooter from beyondthe arc, and because of his great range the new 20'9" three-point lineshouldn't bother him. At the point, McGee beat out junior Edgar Sosa for thejob, starting 27 of the 36 games last season. Joining the rotation isMississippi State transfer Reginald Delk, a sweet-shooting 6'4" junior (andthe nephew of Tony Delk, who starred for Pitino at Kentucky in themid-'90s).
"We're a deepteam," says Pitino. "And we need to be, because this is the strongestthe Big East has ever been. There are 11 or 12 teams that are good enough to goto the Sweet 16."
Driving theCardinals is the memory of how last season ended: with an 83--73 loss to NorthCarolina, one game short of the Final Four. "We know we've got a lot oftalent," says Williams, "but at the end of the day, you've still got towin."
* HIGH SCHOOL STATISTICS
Western Kentucky (in Nashville)
Minnesota (in Glendale, Ariz.)
*Billy MinardiClassic (also Florida A&M, South Alabama)
The Battle of the Bluegrass should give the Cardinals their toughest test—evenwith the Wildcats still adjusting to second-year coach Billy Gillispie—in whatis otherwise a soft nonconference itinerary.
Coach Rick Pitino(7th year)
2007--08 record 27--9
Big East record 14--4 (T-2nd)
NCAA tournament Elite Eight
Derrick Caracter and David Padgett are long gone, but Luke Winn says theCardinals won't miss a beat up front with freshman Samardo Samuels.
Ready for a Run The versatile Clark went from a reserve to the team's top player in March.