Samardo Samuels will not tell you he is the missing piece.
Teammates might say just that, and pundits might point to the 6-foot-8, 240-pound freshman forward as one reason Louisville might make its first national championship game in 23 years. But at a time when players line up to wear No. 23, Samuels is a notch above, wearing No. 24, which he says is a reminder of his 24-hour-a-day work ethic.
"Whatever my team needs from me, I feel like I have to step up," the 20-year-old Samuels said. "We won a Big East championship, but our goal as a team was to prepare for the national tournament, to win it all."
Louisville hasn't played in a national championship game since winning its second NCAA crown in 1986. The top-seeded Cardinals, winners of 12 straight, are in just their third Sweet 16 in the past 12 seasons and have been to just one Final Four (2005) since the '86 championship.
Much of this year's team was part of an Elite Eight squad a year ago that lost to top-seeded North Carolina in the region final. Tar Heels star Tyler Hansbrough had 28 points and 13 rebounds, while Louisville mustered just 26 rebounds, getting a combined six points from starting center David Padgett and power forward Juan Palacios.
Enter Samuels, the USA Today national player of the year, a Jamaica native who moved to the United States at age 14 and chose Louisville over offers from North Carolina, Connecticut and Florida. He has been the only player to start every game for Louisville, ranking third on the team in scoring (12.1 points per game) and rebounding (4.8). Athletic, versatile forwards Terrence Williams and Earl Clark have been the Cardinals' best players, but they point to Samuels as giving them a physical presence inside that has set the tone for the Cardinals.
"It's something he's done every night, filling the stat sheet up," Clark said. "I don't think people recognize how hard that is. … (He has been) that low-post presence that can score. David Padgett was a good passer, but we couldn't get that automatic bucket from him. … If (Samuels) becomes a better rebounder, I don't think too many teams can beat us."
Samuels' rookie season hasn't been without disappointment. He was scoreless in a home loss to Connecticut, held to one rebound in a loss to Notre Dame, limited to 12 minutes by foul trouble in a late-season win against West Virginia. Those games showed signs of vulnerability, but if you want signs of toughness, try his first trip to Madison Square Garden. His game against St. John's was cut short when an errant elbow knocked out his two front teeth in a Cardinals win.
"He took it like a grown man," said Clark, a 6-9 forward. "I know if I'd have gotten my fronts knocked out, y'all would have seen me running in circles around this building. He came back to practice the next day and played tough. He's a warrior."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino hasn't lavished his freshman with high compliments. After a 22-point, seven-rebound performance in a win over Providence in the Big East tournament, Pitino was muted in his praise.
"I thought his teammates got him the ball, and he had easy shots," Pitino said. "He finished the shots, and I think he's improving and getting better and better and better. I think Samardo had an excellent season as a freshman. I didn't think he did anything spectacular" against Providence.
Playing in the Big East has prepared Samuels by showing him some of the nation's top post players, from UConn's 7-foot-3 shot-blocker, Hasheem Thabeet, to Pittsburgh's physical rebounder, DeJuan Blair. If Louisville is to go further than it has in his lifetime, it will need Samuels to step up in the game's biggest spotlight.
"I'm a very confident person, so I won't say it gives me confidence," said Samuels, who had 13 points, eight rebounds and five blocks in a second-round win Sunday against Siena. "It helps my teammates to have more confidence in me, to know if I get it down low, I'll be able to score, to get the offensive rebound if they miss it, to help them out the best way I can."