O'Bannon's 'sunshine' sheds light on Cards
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For the first time all night, Larry O'Bannon was surrounded.
The pursuers sure weren't the Marquette Golden Eagles, who couldn't find him with a GPS system and a pack of bloodhounds. It was the media, pressing the Louisville guard with questions about the 30 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals he produced in just 27 volcanic minutes.
"Yeah," O'Bannon said. "My elbow's kinda swollen."
Then the Louisville Male High School product laughed like a senior who'd just channeled another Male grad, Darrell Griffith, and had the night of his life. With five minutes left in a 99-52 annihilation of former nemesis Marquette, O'Bannon departed to a standing O'Vation, followed by chants of "Lar-ree! Lar-ree! Lar-ree!"
"You can't beat that," the senior said. "Hometown kid with 20,000 chanting your name? You can't even dream that. I didn't want to crack a smile, but it was sunshine on the inside."
It was sunshine all over Freedom Hall on Wednesday night, as Louisville destroyed a team that had beaten it six of the last seven. There was a warm glow about an evening that saw the Cardinals hand the Golden Eagles their worst loss in school history -- in part because do-everything Marquette point guard Travis Diener didn't play with an ankle sprain, and in part because the Cards were a smokin' 17-of-30 from 3-point range.
And against Rick Pitino's wishes, this game shed a lot of sunlight on both O'Bannon and his teammates, who comprise one of the hottest teams nobody's talking about.
"We don't want you to write about us," Pitino said, half in jest and half dead serious. "We'd rather you write about Kentucky and leave us alone. Let us stay second fiddle, because we're not good when we think we're good.
"When we stay under the radar, we're a pretty good basketball team. When we put on our dancing shoes, that's when we start messing up."
Rick, you might be dressing your players in wing tips -- but the pub is coming.
It's time to usher the No. 12 Cardinals (17-3) into the discussion of the most dangerous teams lurking outside the top 10, right alongside Oklahoma and Alabama. It's time to notice a team you'll see on ESPN the next two Wednesdays as well, at home against Cincinnati and Memphis. And it's time to acquaint yourself with a team that has two things going for it that were missing last year at this time: adequate health and an entire starting five of offensive options.
"We're healthy," Dean said, "and we're ready."
They're ready for Louisville's annual end-of-season, sausage-grinder run. The Cardinals' schedule is always back-loaded with big-name opponents: six of the final 10 games are against 2004 NCAA Tournament teams.
But this year's Louisville team arrives at this critical juncture in better health and better spirits, and on a prodigious roll.
Louisville has won six straight, and the statistics in that run are startling. Average winning margin: 32.4 points. Shooting percentage from 3-point range: 46 percent.
And none other than O'Bannon is the leading scorer in that time, averaging 17 points per game. On a team that has been dominated by the wonderfully versatile Francisco Garcia and the admirably gutty Taquan Dean, that's noteworthy.
"The defense really keys on Francisco and Taquan," O'Bannon said. "I'm just the guy that's left over."
That was abundantly clear early in the game Wednesday night. Marquette went to a gimmick defense that shadowed Garcia and Dean man-to-man, which meant someone else had to produce.
Enter Mr. Leftover, a frequent target of Pitino criticism for being too nice and lacking aggression. O'Bannon clearly has graduated from assertiveness training. He quickly banged in 3-pointers on consecutive trips to give Louisville its first double-digit lead.
"Larry O'Bannon is a fantastic shooter," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "Best in the league. He has bought into everything the Louisville program stands for and now he is being rewarded."
Those were two of O'Bannon's career-high six 3s, and they showed that this Cards team is much more than a two-man show.
If it's not Garcia, Dean and O'Bannon, then it's freshman big man Juan Diego Palacios. He had 12 points and six rebounds and continues to flex his 3-point stroke, hitting two against Marquette. In his last seven games Palacios is averaging 13.4 points and seven rebounds.
And if it's not any of those four, Louisville can always count on a productive blue-collar game from fifth-year senior Ellis Myles. He banged his way to seven points and 12 rebounds last night, despite a splint on his broken left thumb.
The bench, a very scary place back in December, when Louisville was coughing up a 16-point lead and losing to Kentucky, is even producing. Pitino can now count on three solid reserves: senior big man Otis George, sophomore point guard Brandon Jenkins and freshman wing Lorrenzo Wade.
But O'Bannon was the old-school success story Wednesday. It was almost quaint, a senior whose game is rising one cue at the end of his four-year run.
"He's become a much better shooter, a much better defensive player, and he has a much better attitude," Pitino said. "He's always had a good attitude, but he's always been a really, really nice kid. I've told him coming into this year, 'Don't be so nice.' He's done that."
After going for 30 in 27 minutes, O'Bannon might be written up differently on opponent scouting reports.
"I hope it doesn't [change how teams defend him]," he said. "I hope they let me shoot the ball."
Sorry, Larry, but the word is out. America has been warned to watch out for you and the rest of the Louisville Cardinals.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com
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