Lloreda living large in America
Ask Jaime Lloreda when he came to America, and the answer is startlingly specific.
"August 29, 1999," the LSU center says. "I never forget that. That was my dream, to come to the United States. My dream come true."
Lloreda began to envision the American Dream while growing up as the youngest of six children in a rugged section of Colon, Panama, where his father, Jaime Sr., works on the Panama Canal. He wanted to play basketball in the U.S., and he wanted a better life.
He latched on to both with the same fierce determination be brings to the floor for the Tigers. Jaime Lloreda's American Dream is being realized with every basket and every rebound.
As Lloreda began to stand out as a player in Panama, his high school coach contacted Rolando de la Barrera at the controversial Berkshire School in the Miami area, a frequent landing spot for itinerant hoopsters, both foreign and domestic. Pretty soon, Lloreda was on a plane to Miami International Airport and a new life.
"I was just excited about everything," Lloreda said, recalling that day. "America, that was the bottom line to me. I just wanted to come here to work, no matter what. To play basketball."
Berkshire wound up being expelled from the Florida High School Activities Association in May 2000 for recruiting violations, but it gave Lloreda the foothold in America that he needed. From there he went to Dixie State College in Utah, where LSU head coach John Brady signed Lloreda without ever seeing him play in person.
By the time Brady saw Lloreda play, he was leading Dixie to the 2002 junior-college national title, being named tournament MVP and confirming everything Brady had hoped.
"He was tough and hard-nosed and competitive," Brady said. "I knew he was going to be a good player."
But this good? Leading-the-SEC-in-scoring-and-rebounding good?
Sixty-five-percent-from-the-field good? Propelling-LSU-to-an-unbeaten-start good?
"I'm surprised how many points I've scored," Lloreda admitted. "But not the rebounds. That's something I've done my entire life."
If rebounding is 50 percent effort and 50 percent positioning, Lloreda has that equation down cold. He's always brimming with energy, competing in the paint with a ferocity often lacking in today's collegiate post men. (Lloreda's game is much more effort than skill.) Relocating to the U.S. answered the position half of the equation.
And now, after averaging 12.3 points and 9 rebounds last year, he's stepped up to producing dominant numbers. Lloreda had his fourth double-double of the season Tuesday night against Tulane and is averaging SEC highs of 22 points and 12 rebounds per game.
"He's in much better condition that a year ago," Brady said. "That's two years in the weight room."
Well, maybe not. That's one summer, according to Lloreda: "I worked all summer long. Last summer (2002), for two months I did nothing. This summer was my first summer working hard, lifting weights all summer long. My legs are more strong. My legs and body are helping me this year."
And, after a summer weight-room incident, Lloreda's temper is no longer hindering him. Lloreda was suspended for LSU's two exhibition games and season opener against Southern after punching a walk-on teammate in the weight room.
"He crossed the line with me, and I just acted crazy," Lloreda explained. "In Panama, you gotta do it like that. You make a joke around me, I just react. We don't know how to handle that kind of situation, so we fight. In the United States, they have rules you have to follow."
This was not a first for Lloreda. Last year he took a swing at Florida's Brett Nelson, prompting Brady to send a letter of apology to Gators coach Billy Donovan. But the weight-room altercation might have actually turned into a bonding agent for this year's team.
Brady used that as the impetus to set up 12 consecutive Sunday team meetings with a sports psychologist -- "to get to know ourselves and each other better," as Brady put it. "I thought we'd try to dig a litle deeper."
Brady is about as far from touchy-feely as Don Rickels, and can be just about as pleasant. But he took part in the meetings with his team and also opened up on some issues.
"I had to say some things in front of the them that I'd never said to a team before," Brady said.
For his part, Lloreda responded to his suspension the right way. He exploded out of the gate in his first game, ringing up 30 points and 21 rebounds on McNeese State, and hasn't slowed down much since. Nether has LSU.
At 7-0 for the first time since winning the SEC in 1999-2000, the Tigers seem to be getting along fine these days. They might have the league's best post tandem, with touted freshman Brandon Bass teaming with Lloreda. Bass leads the team in minutes and blocked shots, and is second in rebounds and scoring, and neither post man will back down from a challenge.
"Talent without toughness is sometimes not very good," Brady said. "You have both talent and toughness, you have chance to be a special player."
If LSU can get its unspectacular backcourt to come through, it might be the team to beat in the SEC West -- or at least the Tigers figure to challenge Mississippi State. Sophomore Darrel Mitchell, son of a coach, has been a steadying influence. If highly acclaimed freshman Taurean "Tack" Minor becomes a better distributor, LSU would probably take a major step up.
"He's not coming along as quickly as I'd like," Brady said of Minor. "But he's had a lot thrown at him."
So has Jaime Lloreda in his lifetime. But no challenges have prevented him from pursuing his American Dream.
Louisville and Kentucky got in one last pre-Christmas muscle flex for each other Tuesday night, the Cardinals trampling VMI by 51 and the Wildcats blowing out Eastern Kentucky by 29 -- both reaching triple digits. Louisville has now won six straight after an opening one-point loss to Iowa, while Kentucky hasn't lost a regular-season game in a year -- since being routed by the Cardinals in Freedom Hall.
Along the way to Saturday's hugely anticipated showdown game, both showed why the state of Kentucky rivals the state of North Carolina as the current college capital of How The Game Is Supposed To Be Played. Both teams are smart. Both teams are unselfish. Neither team knows how to mail it in.
Against VMI, Louisville had a school-record 34 assists and made 18 three-point shots, one off the school record. Taquan Dean erased the school mark for 3s in a game, sinking nine in just 11 attempts. The splendidly skilled Francisco Garcia went from leading scorer to ace distributor, handing out eight assists with zero turnovers.
Against EKU, veteran Kentucky recorded a season-high 28 assists and 11 threes, paced by rapidly improving senior point guard Cliff Hawkins, who leads the SEC in assists and steals. For the third straight game, the exceptionally efficient Wildcats shot at least 54 from the field.
"When they shoot it like that, they're fun to watch," Eastern Kentucky coach Travis Ford said.
After enduring a game of perhaps unprecedented emotional difficulty in 2001, Louisville coach Rick Pitino is trying to downplay the cauldron that awaits his young team in Rupp. It won't be as bad this time around -- because it can't be. Nevertheless, this figures to be one of the most difficult road assignments for any team all season -- no matter how much firepower and depth Louisville brings to the table.
"Those Kentucky fans are crazy," said Louisville guard Alhaji Mohammed.
Especially when it comes to Pitino. Dick Vitale ranks Kentucky-Louisville as the top non-conference rivalry for a reason: Because no place cares quite so deeply about the outcome of a single game as this one.
|Games to Watch|
Louisville at Kentucky, Saturday
Annual Armageddon game in the commonwealth features Rick Pitino's second trip to Rupp Arena since joining what Big Blue considers the Dark Side. Rick and Tubby have taken turns routing each other the last two seasons, but this one could go down to the wire. Louisville's depth and defense vs. Kentucky's experience and offensive execution will make for must-see TV.
Missouri at Memphis, Saturday
Memphis hasn't done anything remarkable yet in non-conference play, losing to Wake Forest and Illinois and beating six middling opponents. This is a big chance for an RPI-boosting victory before Conference USA play gets going next month. Is Missouri committed enough defensively to blanket Memphis' perimeter shooters?
LSU vs. UAB in New Orleans, Saturday
Lots of athletes in this game. The Tigers should enjoy an inside advantage with Jaime Lloreda and Brandon Bass, but the Blazers' helter-skelter style could frustrate a team that is still short on dependable ball handlers and perimeter play.
"I can't lie. I thought we were about to lose."
-- Memphis guard Antonio Burks, after the Tigers fell behind by six points to Samford with 2½ minutes to play. Burks led a late rally for a 63-62 win.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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