Louisville coming together at right time
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- So, let's get something straight here: Taquan Dean has mononucleosis, right?
OK, it's a mild non-contagious form of the illness that causes fatigue, aches and pains and it was deemed a recurrence of the virus he first got when he was six, according to Louisville.
Imagine if he didn't have a touch of the illness? How well would he be playing then?
Hard to say, but this mono thing has actually -- if you can believe this -- been a good thing for his game.
Since Dean was diagnosed with the illness eight days ago after going weeks without knowing what was ailing him, he has found his 3-point stroke, been aggressive going to the basket and even picked up his defensive game.
Dean has made nine 3s in the past two games, including four to lead Louisville with 14 points in the Cardinals' 53-44 victory over Memphis on Saturday night at the FedEx Forum. The night before he found out he had mono, Dean was 1-for-3 on 3s and sluggishly went through the game, finishing with three points in the win over Marquette.
The junior point guard scored 15 points and went 5 of 8 on 3s in the win over Saint Louis last Sunday and then got his 14 against the Tigers by making 4 of 11 3s. He also picked up three steals.
"He's a tough, tough kid," said teammate Francisco Garcia, who was limited to 23 minutes because of four personal fouls. Dean played 33 minutes, the most he has played since logging 35 against Cincinnati on Feb. 2.
"I can't explain it because when we're at home, he's tired and going to be early," Garcia said.
Earlier Saturday, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he's treating Dean like he would an NBA player: not practicing him much and playing him in games.
Dean had practiced only twice since being diagnosed. He said early Saturday that he gets winded. But that doesn't deter him from giving an all-out effort.
"During my time off [from practice] I've actually been in the weight room because I knew this would be a physical game," Dean said of drawing contact.
"Taquan is like J.J. Redick [of Duke] with mono," Pitino said. "He's every bit as good a shooter and he's a tough kid. He surprises me with what he can get through."
Pitino said knowing what was bothering Dean was half the battle of solving his crisis.
"Now that we know what he has, we just stay away from him," Pitino joked. "He's not contagious but every timeout we stay far away from him."
There were times the Tigers were running away from him, too.
Dean started a key fast break by driving up court getting into the lane, dumping off a pass to Ellis Myles, who then fed Otis George for a stuff to give Louisville a 42-40 lead after trailing by 11 a few minutes earlier. On the next Memphis possession, Dean was on the weak side grabbing the rebound.
Dean's toughness throughout the night and the past week has become the overall identity of this squad. The Cardinals, 24-4 overall and in step with co-Conference USA leader Charlotte (12-2) before Thursday's showdown, have come back from double-digit deficits in two of their last three games.
Pitino isn't ready to pronounce the Cardinals as a Final Four contender. But he said this team has a chance because it fits his rule of having at least three pros. He said he's got one for sure (Garcia) and a few who could make it (likely Dean and Juan Palacios). The squad has improved because of its experience and veteran leadership.
That certainly had something to do with the Cardinals shutting down Memphis. This game was offensive, as in with a strong odor. The Tigers shot 19 percent, 4 percent (1 of 23) on 3s. Rodney Carney didn't score for the first time in his career. Memphis smoked Louisville 85-68 on Feb. 9.
"I don't remember any of my teams shooting 19 percent," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "We got tentative with their zone."
Calipari said when Louisville went man-to-man the Cardinals couldn't guard them and that's when the Tigers went up by 11. But the Cards went back to the zone and shut down Memphis. This is the second straight game the Tigers blew a double-digit lead, failing to close out Charlotte on the road earlier in the week.
That's the difference between these two teams. Louisville finishes teams off, Memphis doesn't and that's why the Cards are playing for a top three seed while the Tigers are trying to just get in the Dance.
"We've got to earn our way in now," Calipari said of the Tigers' 16-12, 9-5 record. "That's just the way it is."
Pitino mentioned the last Memphis game (oh, let's say just a few times) according to his players. Memphis won 85-68 at Freedom Hall, the Cardinals' worst home loss in the Pitino era. He reminded them how they have to defend and was adamant that the Tigers wouldn't have more than six 3s. They got one. Dean was a large part of that perimeter defense.
He showed his toughness. So, too, did this team.
"We're all veterans and we've got heart," Dean said.
No one should be questioning that anymore.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.