A healthy Padgett leads Louisville's resurgence

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The ball wound up in David Padgett's large hands as the final seconds drained Saturday night in Freedom Hall.

Georgetown had backed off, quit fouling, acknowledged defeat. The crowd of 20,083 was screaming. Padgett was beaming.

"I wanted to hug every person in the audience," he said.

Every one of them wanted to hug Louisville's indestructible center right back. The comeback Cardinal has become emblematic of a comeback team.

Padgett is one of the best stories, one of the best leaders and one of the best post players in college basketball. And he is doing it on a team that suddenly looks as dangerous as its preseason top-10 billing.

Padgett had a game-high 18 points, four rebounds and four assists while outplaying Roy Hibbert in a 59-51 victory over the nation's No. 6 team. It was one hell of a performance from a guy who wasn't supposed to be in uniform.

"If you'd asked me in November if I was going to play against Georgetown, I'd have said no," Padgett said. "It's just great playing out there, finishing my senior year. It's the greatest feeling in the world."

It's a long way from the feeling he had this past Nov. 19. That was the day many people thought his college career was over.

He's a smart and terrific basketball player. I just love coaching him. It's one of the more enjoyable experiences in my coaching career, coaching him.

-- Rick Pitino on David Padgett

The day before against Jackson State, in Louisville's second game of the season, the 6-foot-11 Padgett stepped in to take a charge and wound up banging knees with the offensive player. Padgett went down and thought to himself, "Oh, man. That hurt."

But as a guy who has demonstrated an almost perverse pain tolerance, he told himself to get up and run it off. Padgett pushed himself through the rest of the first half and iced the knee at halftime. When it swelled considerably, trainer Fred Hina shut him down for the game, and an MRI was scheduled for the following day.

That was Nov. 19, when the Cards were scheduled to leave for a three-game swing in Las Vegas. When the MRI results came in, coach Rick Pitino summoned his center to his office.

"I went in, and coach was looking at the ground," Padgett said. "I thought, 'Oh, this isn't good.'"

No, it wasn't. Diagnosis: broken kneecap. Shelf time: anywhere from 10 weeks to all season.

For a fifth-year senior who already had endured double knee surgery, a broken foot and a sprained knee ligament in his star-crossed Louisville career, this was piling on. It was a cruel break for him and a brutal blow to his teammates, who had unanimously voted Padgett their captain.

"When he first got hurt, he called me to his room and told me," junior Terrence Williams said. "I actually started crying."

Padgett was closer to numb.

"I almost was in disbelief," he said.

But after a day or two, disbelief gave way to determination. He had been a quick healer after his myriad other leg injuries, so why not this time? Why not push himself to the limit to get back on the court in his final collegiate season?

"They said 10 weeks, but I knew that was going to be wrong," Padgett said. "Doctors give you the worst-case scenario. I tried to go with the best-case scenario."

So Padgett threw himself into rehab one more time. He had company from roommate and fellow injured senior Juan Palacios, who was working his way back from a torn knee ligament.

"We kind of hobbled around together," Padgett said. "He drove my car when I couldn't."

Without its senior class, the Louisville car was in breakdown mode. The Cardinals quickly recused themselves from the rankings by losing close games to BYU, Dayton and Purdue in their first eight outings.

Padgett and Palacios returned Jan. 1 against Cincinnati, but they weren't in shape, and the Cards were upset at home 58-57. But as P & P have gotten back into top condition, Louisville has evolved into the team it was supposed to be.

The Cardinals are 18-6, and their RPI is rising (24th before this win). They are 8-3 in the Big East, a game out of first in the loss column and playing like they can beat everyone left on their brutal Big East schedule.

A big part of the renaissance has been Pitino placing his occasionally balky offense in the hands of his point center. Just about everything runs inside-out through Padgett.

He is the hub of the Cardinals' wheel -- a crafty, low-post scorer and whip-smart passer who plays the pick-and-roll game so deftly that Marquette coach Tom Crean calls him the best big man he has seen in that area in years.

But that's not all. He also is the free safety in Louisville's subtly tenacious 2-3 zone, calling every cutter to his teammates. And he is the first Cardinal in the ears of his teammates, offering encouragement and admonishment to a group that sometimes goes brain dead.

Padgett was at his best Saturday night against Hibbert, the more celebrated low-post behemoth. In Georgetown's dogmatic offense, the 7-2 Hibbert doesn't get as many touches as Padgett does -- and that made a big difference in this game.

Padgett flummoxed the Hoyas in the early going. Virtually ambidextrous around the basket, he spun around Hibbert for a reverse layup, scored on a pick-and-slip as he was fouled, fired a backdoor assist to Earl Clark and was fouled on a pick-and-roll. Padgett had his fingerprints on every point in the Cards' early 9-4 lead.

"He can go both ways, and he is aggressive," Hoyas coach John Thompson III said. "They do a good job spacing out and getting him the ball. He is not limited to which way he can go, and he's also a good passer."

But Georgetown is a good team. The Hoyas methodically asserted control, choking off the Louisville offense and taking a 31-23 halftime lead.

The second half was all Louisville. It began with a Pitino wardrobe malfunction. In keeping with the white-out theme for this game, the famously flashy dresser had dared to wear an all-white suit.

For a half. He came out after intermission in black.

The immediate assumption: John Travolta needed it back.

The reason Pitino gave ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews: He spilled Diet Coke on the white linen at halftime.

The real reason: Saying he hadn't worn a linen suit since First Communion, Pitino admitted was sweating right through the sucker … and wearing blue drawers underneath. To avoid a memorable national television moment, he switched suits.

Louisville also switched attitudes. The Cards heated up Georgetown's guards with their pressure, got on the offensive glass, got some big shots from Jerry Smith and placed a defensive sleeper hold on the Hoyas. The second half was a 16-point whipping.

Padgett was in the literal and figurative middle of it. He had half his points, all his rebounds and 75 percent of his assists after intermission.

"Padgett was great, just great," Pitino said. "… He wasn't really in shape until recently. Now his knees aren't bothering him, and he's healthy. He's a smart and terrific basketball player. I just love coaching him. It's one of the more enjoyable experiences in my coaching career, coaching him."

And Louisville fans are enjoying watching their comeback Cardinal every bit as much as Pitino is enjoying coaching him.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.