Cards, Tar Heels finally set to meet

Charlotte -- Louisville expected to see North Carolina this season. But in Vegas -- not Charlotte. And in November -- not March.

The Cardinals began the season ranked No. 6 in the country and on the opposite side of the Las Vegas Invitational bracket from preseason-No. 1 UNC.

Just like the start of Louisville's season, that didn't go according to plan. Four months later, the two teams will finally meet tonight in Charlotte in the East Regional Final. The winner goes to the Final Four.

The way Louisville's season started, the Cards couldn't have been further away from this point. After back-to-back losses to Dayton and Purdue, the Cards were 5-3 on Dec. 15 and missing three of their best players.

"It was rough in the beginning," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose team has won 12 of 14 heading into tonight's game. "It has come full circle. It (has) had a nice ending."

The Cards' season turned for the worse when senior forward David Padgett broke his right knee cap in the second game of the season.

Padgett, who began his career at Kansas, where he was recruited by Roy Williams, was feared to be lost for the season. Teammate Terrence Williams cried at the news.

In addition to Padgett's injury, senior forward Juan Palacios missed the first nine games with a torn ligament in his right knee.

Then Pitino suspended talented sophomore forward Derrick Caracter for the Purdue game on Dec. 15, a 67-59 loss.

"It was a tough time," said Palacios, a holdover from Louisville's 2005 Final Four team. "That's when coaching comes along. If a team has a lot of talent, it's the coach's job to make it work."

Pitino did make it work, but he had help. Padgett made a surprising return after only missing 10 games. Palacios worked his way back into shape. Caracter's suspension for breaking curfew lasted only one game.

"When we started to practice together again that was the biggest thing because we weren't shuffling guys in and out," Padgett said.

"We had everybody at full strength and we started getting used to each other."

At full strength, Louisville rebounded from a 4-2 Big East start to string together nine straight conference wins and close the Big East schedule at 10-2.

The turnaround wouldn't have happened without Padgett's leadership, Pitino said.

"Everybody respects him for what he had to endure and what he had to overcome," Pitino said.

Padgett broke a bone in his right foot as a sophomore and needed knee surgery the same season, costing him 10 games in 2005-06.

Padgett pushed to get back in January so he wouldn't miss any more time in his college career. He sat out the 2004-05 season after transferring from Kansas. His passing ability -- Williams refers to the 6-11 Padgett as a "point center" -- has matched his leadership.

"Everything we do on offense and defense, we feed off David," sophomore Earl Clark said.

Offensively, Clark has led the team in scoring (15.3) and rebounding (8.0) in the tournament, but the Cards had four players average in double digits this season. Like his best Kentucky teams, Pitino has balance, depth and big wing players like Clark and Williams, who are in the mold of Antoine Walker and Jamal Mashburn, players who can run the floor and shoot.

On defense, with bigger bodies at his disposal, Pitino has tweaked his normal reliance on man-to-man defense and a trapping zone press to include more 2-3 zone.

With Palacios and Padgett in the middle, and Clark, who's 6-9, harassing shooters on the perimeter, the Cards have been winning with defense. In the first three rounds, Louisville's opponents have shot 25 percent (14 of 55) from 3-point range.

Tennessee, a 3-point shooting team, was just 5-of-20 from 3-point range in Thursday's 79-60 loss to Louisville. The Cards throttled UT star Chris Lofton, holding him to a 2-of-11 performance. Clark, who had four blocks, was creating havoc on many of those misses.

"He's definitely a force on defense," UNC shooting guard Wayne Ellington said of Clark, his former AAU teammate.

Clark leads a different defense than UNC saw from Washington State in the previous round. Washington State played man-to-man, was content to double-team the post and allowed UNC's shooters to get open looks.

Louisville plays pressure defense and overplays the perimeter. It ranks among the country's best teams in field goal defense (sixth nationally), blocks (33rd) and steals (52nd).

"I don't think we've played a team of this style," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "Clemson is probably closer, but Louisville may be quicker and a better challenge for us."

The Cards are hoping for more success than Clemson, which went 0-3 against UNC. They are also hoping the season ends better than it began.