Throttled by Williams' D, Cardinal ponders Draft

ST. LOUIS -- It took just four minutes for Francisco Garcia to get a good feeling for how long his night would be with Deron Williams in his face.

Garcia drove from the left wing toward the basket. With his length, this is a play the 6-foot-7 junior normally finishes with a layup or a sharp pass to an open teammate. But this drive came to an abrupt halt about 14 feet out when the Illinois point guard thudded his thick chest into Garcia. The slender forward rose off-balance for a jumper that caught nothing but air, and seconds later Dee Brown had a runout layup at the other end.

That marked the unofficial end of Garcia's night as an offensive force. Louisville's leading scorer made just two baskets on the night, a backdoor layup and a transition score off a steal. He missed his other eight shots as the 'Ville was outwilled, 72-57.

"Francisco early on didn't let the game come to him, got caught taking some very difficult shots, then it mushroomed," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.

Garcia took just two shots after halftime. Williams so took him out of the Cardinals' halfcourt offense that he spent most of his 32 minutes as a total non-factor. The four points was Garcia's lowest total since his freshman year.

"Deron did a great job, along with Luther (Head) in different stretches, of not letting Garcia get going," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "We really disrupted them."

Said Williams: "We basically didn't want to make anything easy for him – both his scoring and what he does for others."

For Garcia, an excellent NCAA Tournament ended with his worst performance since going 1-for-8 in a home loss to Memphis in early February. That's not a coincidence. Illinois studied the tape of that game – Louisville's last loss until Saturday night – and saw how aggressively the Tigers played them defensively.

Memphis got physical with Garcia, bodying him when he put the ball on the floor and when he tried to move without the ball. Illinois did much the same thing with the powerful Williams, who put in a request with assistant coach Wayne McClain a week ago to guard Garcia.

"I like those challenges," Williams said. "I like to guard the best player on the team."

Now the question is whether Louisville's best player will return for his senior season. The Cardinals honored Garcia with their outgoing seniors at the end of the regular season, assuming he wouldn't be back, but Garcia left the door open for a return.

"If he's the 26th pick in the draft, I would recommend coming back," Pitino said. "If he's the 18th pick in the draft, I'd recommend going. So I just don't want it to slip into that area. I told him to leave his options open. We'll talk later on.

"He's a brilliant basketball player, trust me. He's going to be a great pro. It may be in his best interest, if the rule comes in, to stay."

"The rule" is a 20-year-old age restriction that the NBA is considering applying to its draft. Young players concerned that such a rule might pass could flood the draft this year, which could bump Garcia down toward the end of the first round.

Garcia has been anxious to turn pro because of his age (he's already 23) and his family situation. His mother lives in a dangerous neighborhood in The Bronx, and his younger brother, Hector Lopez, was murdered there in December 2003.

Pitino has been supportive of Garcia's desire to go pro, but clearly wouldn't mind having him back. With him, Louisville would be a national title contender again in 2005-06.

"If you wait until next year, the possibility – and I'm sure Sean May is thinking the same way – you come back and you're probably the eighth or ninth pick in the draft," Pitino said. "So what he's going to do, he's going to take a loan out, go travel around and visit some teams and showcase his skills and pay for it himself, not sign with an agent, and then he'll make his decision late."

Williams' tenacious defense Saturday night might have helped make Garcia's decision for him.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.