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Myles Turns the Game Inside, Out

Times Staff Writer

Not much question about where Ellis Myles acquired the physical part of his game.

“Man, if you just make it out of the streets of Compton, you’ve got to be some kind of tough,” he said.

That would explain why the 6-foot-7 Louisville forward, a product of Centennial High, leads his team in rebounds -- and personal fouls -- going into the Final Four against top-ranked Illinois on Saturday.

Myles does the dirty work while Cardinal shooters Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean and Larry O’Bannon operate from the relative safety of the perimeter.

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“That’s what you need on a basketball team,” he said. “You’ve got to have a physical presence inside. That opens up everything for the outside.”

But all the banging under the boards, the pushing and shoving, doesn’t explain the other part of Myles’ repertoire -- the 122 assists, a figure befitting a much smaller man.

“I’m really impressed by the big kid,” said West Virginia Coach John Beilein, whose team lost to Louisville in the finals of the Albuquerque Regional. “That might be the only center-type in the country with 100 assists.”

The mix of brawn and brains had Louisville Coach Rick Pitino calling Myles, usually overshadowed by his higher-scoring teammates, the “key to the team” in Albuquerque.

“He’s had a great year,” the coach said.

Not bad for a player who, not so long ago, almost was run out of the program.

Myles committed to Louisville in April 2000 after a senior season in which he led Centennial to the state semifinals by averaging 24 points and 14 rebounds.

“Ellis is a real banger that loves contact,” Denny Crum, then Louisville’s coach, said at the time. “It’s no secret that we need inside help, and he certainly fills a need in that area.”

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The freshman soon broke into the starting lineup and finished as the Cardinals’ second-leading rebounder with an average of 5.5. So far, so good.

But then, in March 2001, Crum retired and Pitino showed up. The new coach looked at Myles and saw a guy who was overweight. A guy who cruised through drills. A guy who was immature.

“We didn’t hit it off,” Myles said, in something of an understatement. “He was going to put me on the first flight back to Compton.”

A couple of things saved his college career. First, he knuckled down, working harder in practice, shedding those extra pounds. Second, he had a son.

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“Having a child when I was 20 years old, you have to grow up fast,” he said.

As his body fat dropped, the sophomore’s numbers rose to the tune of 9.3 rebounds and almost nine points a game. Myles became a fixture in Pitino’s starting lineup -- until he hit the next roadblock.

Toward the end of the 2002-03 season, against Marquette, he came down with a rebound and, for no apparent reason, ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee. Once again, his resolve would be tested.

It took major surgery and months of arduous rehabilitation to come back after redshirting last season. “I mean, I wasn’t one of the best jumpers before I hurt my knee,” he said.

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Upon returning this season, the senior was chosen co-captain along with Garcia and Dean. His rebounding is back, and his scoring average has risen to 10.3.

“He’s 6-7, but he plays like he’s 6-9 or 6-10,” said Washington forward Bobby Jones, who grew up with Myles in Compton and had to battle him in a regional semifinal. “He’s got a lot of body.”

And a sudden knack for passing. Though Pitino says the big man has always possessed unusual court awareness, this season he is older and wiser, which has translated into twice as many assists.

Myles still finds the doghouse now and then -- too many silly fouls, too many turnovers. And there have been times when Pitino has stuck him on the bench and won’t even look at him.

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But the coach has also been more liberal about praising his unusual combination of skills, the toughness mixed with intelligence. To these attributes, Myles would like to add one: maturity.

The game against Illinois on Saturday will bring another chance to prove himself, not just wrestling under the boards but also passing the ball, helping to run the offense.

“All the naysayers saying Ellis Myles can’t deal with Coach Pitino, he’ll be the first one gone,” Myles said. “Well, Ellis Myles is still standing.”


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