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October 16, 2007

Cardinals eager to show they have grown up

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Edgar Sosa's tears have dried. The pain of Louisville's loss to Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA tournament, however, remains fresh.

Sosa had arguably his best game in Louisville's 72-69 loss to the Aggies, scoring 31 points and holding his own against Texas A&M All-American point guard Acie Law IV.

But Sosa left the Rupp Arena floor in tears, inconsolable after missing two free throws and a 3-pointer in the last 30 seconds, shots that would have given the Cardinals the lead.

Sosa spent the summer watching the tape over and over, beating himself up over the "what ifs."

"Everybody congratulates me on that game, but it's just like I don't see it as the greatest game I ever played," Sosa said. "In New York we take pride in putting the game away. I played good the whole game, but when it was time for me to take the game over, put it over and send us to the Sweet 16, I kinda choked. I'm just ready, hopefully, this year, to get another opportunity."

It's a mantra the Cardinals adopted in the offseason following their breakout year in the Big East. Louisville went 24-10 last season, finishing in a tie for second in one of the nation's toughest conferences behind the play of its freshmen core of Sosa, Jerry Smith, Earl Clark and Derrick Caracter.

They're all back, as are junior swingman Terrence Williams and center David Padgett. The Cardinals won't surprise anybody this season as they did a year ago. Most preseason publications have them ranked among the best in the country.

It's publicity the Cardinals welcome, but coach Rick Pitino has already warned his players about the "Sophomore Jinx."

The Cardinals have spent the last seven months hearing about how good they're going to be. Pitino knows his job is to convince his players they're not quite there. At least not yet anyway.

"A sophomore jinx is when they have a terrific freshman year, and they think they've arrived on the scene, they embrace success and they don't have a great sophomore season because they're embracing instead of working," Pitino said. "I think this is a great group. We knew we had a special class, but I think it's even better than we knew because there's so much improvement left in all of those guys."

And it's the need for improvement - and not basking in the glow of last year's accomplishments - Pitino has stressed during the early days of practice.

For all of Sosa's offensive capability, he knows he's a liability at the defensive end. And though his fiery play sometimes provided a spark, he knows he needs to keep his emotions under control, particularly late in games. Pitino chided Sosa last year for celebrating a little too much after making routine plays. Sosa said he's toned down the shimmy and instead wants to help the Cardinals shake up the Big East.

"I feel like I'm more mature as a person, I'm not celebrating as much. I'm not hyper as much," Sosa said. "I'm using all that energy playing defense and helping to lead this team."

It's a team that Pitino says is as deep as he's had at Louisville. Three years removed from a Final Four appearance, he thinks they have a chance to make it back.

The journey, however, is already off to a rough start. Senior forward Juan Palacios suffered a knee injury in practice on Saturday and will be out four to six weeks. Pitino hopes to have him back in time for a Thanksgiving trip to Las Vegas that could include a game against North Carolina.

Palacios' injury means the Cardinals will have to rely even more on their sophomores early in the season. The quartet learned how to help carry the load last March.

The key this year may be the constant reminder they'll have to continue to share the ball and play together if they want to prove last year was no fluke.

Pitino proved to be a master of managing egos while returning Kentucky to national prominence in the 1990s. But he's pointing to more recent history as evidence of what can happen when talented players check their egos at the floor.

Pitino praised Florida coach Billy Donovan's ability to convince the Gators' talented quartet of Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer that teamwork was the only path to greatness. The Gators rode the lesson to consecutive championships.

Now the Cardinals hope they can do the same.

"They had a lot of guys who said they were potential pros, and when you win, it doesn't really matter about 'Me, me,"' Smith said. "'Me, me, me,' is not important when you're trying to win games."

For more coverage of the Louisville Cardinals, check out CardinalSports.com.

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