Louisville's Samardo Samuels Starting to Match Hype with Performance

Jonathan LintnerSenior Analyst IDecember 26, 2009

DAYTON, OH - MARCH 20:  Samardo Samuels #24 of the Louisville Cardinals reacts after a play against the Morehead State Eagles during the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the University of Dayton Arena on March 20, 2009 in Dayton, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Even with Christmas celebrations closing in, it was hard to blame Louisville sophomore Samardo Samuels for wanting only “to go to sleep” after the Cardinals' victory over Louisiana-Lafayette last Wednesday.

Samuels compiled a career high 29 points and 15 rebounds in 38 minutes of play, and he did so with what the 6-9, 260-pound Jamaican native said was the best retribution he could ask for—some company from his family.

“I got an early Christmas gift,” Samuels said. “My family is in town.”

Geographically isolated thousands of miles away from the criticisms their son and brother faces, Samuels said his visiting mother, father, brother, and sister knew all too well why he was the talk of the town.

As Louisville fell from a preseason spot in the Top 25 to an also-ran in early December, Samuels was vilified for playing soft on the glass—for not living up to his potential one-and-done status out of St. Benedict’s Preparatory School.

A self-proclaimed “momma’s boy,” Samuels said some pregame encouragement from his mother paid dividends on a night when the Cardinals needed their star big man the most.

“My mom was like, ‘just go out there and show them that you can rebound and just play hard,’” Samuels said. “That’s what I just did. I wanted to just come out here and play basketball.”

Samuels played more basketball Wednesday night than he ever has in a Cardinals uniform.

Backup five-man for Louisville, sophomore Terrence Jennings, was suspended for Louisville’s contest against Louisiana-Lafayette for a violation of team rules. That left coach Rick Pitino with little help from the second line and Samuels with much of the load.

Samuels was the only Cardinal player to record a double-double and play more than 26 minutes against the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Senior Edgar Sosa said it’s no coincidence that Samuels’ third double-double—and first since Nov. 22, when Louisville knocked off Morgan State—came with a strong backing from some other folks with the last name Samuels.

“I just think he’s happy because his family is here,” Sosa said. “His mom and them don’t get to come to America too often, and every time they come he just lights up. He’s so happy.”

Samuels, a native of Trelawny, Jamaica, moved to New York in 2004 and elected to play high school basketball at St. Benedict’s in Newark, N.J. He chose Louisville over North Carolina, Florida, Connecticut, and Georgetown, and successfully completed his third move in five years to Kentucky as a member of the 2008 recruiting class.

After a year, Samuels wasn’t expected to still be balancing grades and athletics, or finals week with free-throw shooting as a high-ranking NBA Draft choice. However, Samuels was sometimes dwarfed by future lottery Picks Terrence Williams and Earl Clark as a freshman trying to fit in on Pitino’s most loaded roster yet at Louisville.

The Jamaican native is now calling Louisville his home for at least another season of college basketball, and Pitino said his star sophomore still has some wrinkles in his game—especially those related to rebounding—that he needs to figure out.

According to Pitino, that starts with instilling NBA-caliber moves under the basket: “checking out” rather than boxing out.

“He’ll block out and get tangled with the guy,” Pitino said. “So now he can’t be explosive. He’s on the ground. What he’s got to do is take his forearm, check out, and get that jump to the ball.

“That’s what all NBA players do.”

And since he moved from Jamaica in 2004, doing what NBA players do has been Samuels’ calling card. He developed a reputation as a sure one-and-done player out of high school and averaged 11.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in his freshman season.

Yet there was little talk of Samuels heading to the draft and lots about how to keep Louisville at the top of the Big East Conference, which the Cardinals won last season en route to gaining to overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Now Samuels has upped his average to 16.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in the same amount of minutes, something he credits to a more immersive role in the Cardinals’ gameplan.

“Last year was a different role that I had on the team,” Samuels said. “This year my teammates need me for games like this when they need me to step up. I think I’m ready.

“I think I’m capable of stepping up.”

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