Rick Pitino said Wednesday that he's "99 percent" sure that star junior forward Francisco Garcia will enter the NBA draft. With that in mind, Louisville plans to honor Garcia along with its departing seniors Thursday night before the Cardinals' game against Charlotte.
Pitino called Garcia "one of the top three players of all time that I've enjoyed coaching. He puts the smile in a coach's life."
Garcia, who is averaging 15.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and two steals per game, was not available for comment on his draft status Wednesday.
Pitino said before the season that Garcia would be going pro. But after subpar performances in marquee games against Kentucky, Cincinnati and Memphis, speculation grew that the skinny 6-foot-7 Garcia might slip out of the first round and thus come back for his senior season after all.
The low moment for Garcia was a 1-for-8 showing against Memphis in Freedom Hall, with 10 NBA scouts sitting courtside. Some scouts even asked media members what was wrong with Garcia's game.
Since then Louisville has won four straight and Garcia has played a little better. The Charlotte showdown Thursday night not only is for the Conference USA regular-season title and No. 1 seed in the league tournament, it's a probable C-USA Player of the Year playoff between Garcia and the 49ers' Eddie Basden.
"Francisco knows what's on the line," Louisville teammate Ellis Myles said. "So I'm pretty sure he'll show up and be ready for the challenge."
Even if Garcia's draft stock has slipped, he has other reasons for going pro now. The native of the Dominican Republic is already 23 years old, and his family needs the money. Garcia's mother lives in a dangerous section of The Bronx and his younger brother, Hector Lopez, was murdered in front of their housing complex in December 2003.
Garcia will be honored alongside seniors Myles, Larry O'Bannon and Otis George on Thursday night. Myles, a fifth-year senior, is the last Louisville player recruited by former coach Denny Crum.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.