LOUISVILLE — Preston Knowles was still basking in the glow of Louisville's 62-59 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday when he was asked about playing his final home game as a Louisville Cardinal Wednesday night against Providence.
"I really haven't given it much thought," he said. "I don't even know what I'm going to say after the game. I know I'll have a lot of people to thank, though."
One of those people on Knowles' thank-you list will be Lexington native and AAU coach Charles Givens, who took Knowles under his wing when he was a young prospect in Winchester.
Knowles, who had a reputation as a difficult player in high school, credits Givens with not only getting him on the straight and narrow and guiding him to Louisville but keeping him there as well.
"I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for him," Knowles said. "There's no question I'd be off the team. He put all his faith and effort in me when I didn't see it myself. He saw something bigger in me."
Knowles has not only been the top scorer for what has been one of the nation's biggest surprises, but he's also been an invaluable leader and captain of a team that has demonstrated great cohesion and chemistry.
It's been quite a transformation for Knowles, who over the summer didn't even know if he'd get a chance to have a Senior Day. He spent much of the off-season in Coach Rick Pitino's doghouse for a variety of transgressions, and then he was implicated (but not charged) in a domestic violence incident in May.
Pitino set a laundry list of things for Knowles to do to remain on the team. It included counseling and community service at the Daniel Pitino Shelter in Owensboro.
"Coach Pitino told me I might as well start looking for a new school for Preston, because he just knew he wouldn't be able to do it all," Givens said. "He couldn't go around the players; he couldn't miss one summer school class; he couldn't be one minute late to any meetings or anything. And if Coach heard one thing bad, he was finished. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to him."
Knowles said he sensed something special in the 2010-11 Cards, who were disregarded by most pollsters in the pre-season. "
"(Pitino) put me through a bunch of tasks just to see how serious I was," Knowles said. "Anybody else probably would have quit. But I knew I had to step up and do what (I had) to do and get back on the team. (I) knew what type of teammates I had, and how good everybody's attitude was. I knew we had the chance to be a better team than everybody thought."
Givens said Knowles was a kid just going through typical growing pains during his high school career at Clark County.
"I just sat him down and told him about life, that life is not always fair," Givens said. "Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, keep your mouth shut and do what you've got to do. Nothing's promised to anyone. I got him involved in church and convinced him to use God's gift to his advantage."
Knowles said he felt he was misunderstood during his days in Winchester.
"My reputation in that part of the state wasn't all that," Knowles said. "Things will be said. If you live in a small town in Eastern Kentucky, anything you say or do is going to get blown out of proportion. But I've always played with an edge. Even when I was playing high school ball in Kentucky, I felt I was better than a lot of players but just didn't get the publicity. I played with a chip on my shoulders. I've got to thank Coach P and all the coaches for helping me grow up and mature as a young man."
Knowles committed to VCU before receiving scholarship offers from Florida and Kentucky. But Givens had a good relationship with Pitino, and after Pitino checked with Givens on some of the things he had heard, he decided to offer Knowles a scholarship. Knowles saw Louisville as a perfect fit: A big program that was just far enough away from home to give him a fresh start.
That's what made Knowles' summer of discontent so frustrating: He had worked so hard to repair and reshape his image.
"It was like people were saying, 'Oh, he's back to the way he was,' " Knowles said.
After sitting out the first two exhibition games, Knowles has been a Rock of Gibraltar for the Cards, making clutch shots (14.3 ppg), playing energetic defense and even doubling as the backup point guard. He's also on track to graduate in the spring.
"He's a different person than he was when I first recruited him," Pitino said. "He's been one of the best captains I've had. He's selfless, he cares only about winning, and he shows great leadership to the guys."
And he still hasn't lost the edge.
"He still has a chip on his shoulder, but it can be channeled in a positive direction because he's always been about the team," Pitino said.
When Knowles gives his post-game speech Wednesday night, Charles Givens will be all smiles.
"Nobody in Winchester thought he'd stay at Louisville for four years," Givens said. "But I never lost confidence in Preston. I've probably invested more in him and (ex-Scott County star) Bud Mackey than any two kids I've ever dealt with. And he's made me very proud of him."