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Lloreda living large in America

Ask Jaime Lloreda when he came to America, and the answer is startlingly specific.

"August 29, 1999," the LSU center says. "I never forget that. That was my dream, to come to the United States. My dream come true."

Lloreda began to envision the American Dream while growing up as the youngest of six children in a rugged section of Colon, Panama, where his father, Jaime Sr., works on the Panama Canal. He wanted to play basketball in the U.S., and he wanted a better life.

He latched on to both with the same fierce determination be brings to the floor for the Tigers. Jaime Lloreda's American Dream is being realized with every basket and every rebound.

As Lloreda began to stand out as a player in Panama, his high school coach contacted Rolando de la Barrera at the controversial Berkshire School in the Miami area, a frequent landing spot for itinerant hoopsters, both foreign and domestic. Pretty soon, Lloreda was on a plane to Miami International Airport and a new life.

"I was just excited about everything," Lloreda said, recalling that day. "America, that was the bottom line to me. I just wanted to come here to work, no matter what. To play basketball."

Berkshire wound up being expelled from the Florida High School Activities Association in May 2000 for recruiting violations, but it gave Lloreda the foothold in America that he needed. From there he went to Dixie State College in Utah, where LSU head coach John Brady signed Lloreda without ever seeing him play in person.

By the time Brady saw Lloreda play, he was leading Dixie to the 2002 junior-college national title, being named tournament MVP and confirming everything Brady had hoped.

"He was tough and hard-nosed and competitive," Brady said. "I knew he was going to be a good player."

But this good? Leading-the-SEC-in-scoring-and-rebounding good?

Sixty-five-percent-from-the-field good? Propelling-LSU-to-an-unbeaten-start good?

"I'm surprised how many points I've scored," Lloreda admitted. "But not the rebounds. That's something I've done my entire life."

If rebounding is 50 percent effort and 50 percent positioning, Lloreda has that equation down cold. He's always brimming with energy, competing in the paint with a ferocity often lacking in today's collegiate post men. (Lloreda's game is much more effort than skill.) Relocating to the U.S. answered the position half of the equation.

And now, after averaging 12.3 points and 9 rebounds last year, he's stepped up to producing dominant numbers. Lloreda had his fourth double-double of the season Tuesday night against Tulane and is averaging SEC highs of 22 points and 12 rebounds per game.

"He's in much better condition that a year ago," Brady said. "That's two years in the weight room."

Well, maybe not. That's one summer, according to Lloreda: "I worked all summer long. Last summer (2002), for two months I did nothing. This summer was my first summer working hard, lifting weights all summer long. My legs are more strong. My legs and body are helping me this year."

And, after a summer weight-room incident, Lloreda's temper is no longer hindering him. Lloreda was suspended for LSU's two exhibition games and season opener against Southern after punching a walk-on teammate in the weight room.

"He crossed the line with me, and I just acted crazy," Lloreda explained. "In Panama, you gotta do it like that. You make a joke around me, I just react. We don't know how to handle that kind of situation, so we fight. In the United States, they have rules you have to follow."

This was not a first for Lloreda. Last year he took a swing at Florida's Brett Nelson, prompting Brady to send a letter of apology to Gators coach Billy Donovan. But the weight-room altercation might have actually turned into a bonding agent for this year's team.

Brady used that as the impetus to set up 12 consecutive Sunday team meetings with a sports psychologist -- "to get to know ourselves and each other better," as Brady put it. "I thought we'd try to dig a litle deeper."

Brady is about as far from touchy-feely as Don Rickels, and can be just about as pleasant. But he took part in the meetings with his team and also opened up on some issues.

"I had to say some things in front of the them that I'd never said to a team before," Brady said.

For his part, Lloreda responded to his suspension the right way. He exploded out of the gate in his first game, ringing up 30 points and 21 rebounds on McNeese State, and hasn't slowed down much since. Nether has LSU.

At 7-0 for the first time since winning the SEC in 1999-2000, the Tigers seem to be getting along fine these days. They might have the league's best post tandem, with touted freshman Brandon Bass teaming with Lloreda. Bass leads the team in minutes and blocked shots, and is second in rebounds and scoring, and neither post man will back down from a challenge.

"Talent without toughness is sometimes not very good," Brady said. "You have both talent and toughness, you have chance to be a special player."

If LSU can get its unspectacular backcourt to come through, it might be the team to beat in the SEC West -- or at least the Tigers figure to challenge Mississippi State. Sophomore Darrel Mitchell, son of a coach, has been a steadying influence. If highly acclaimed freshman Taurean "Tack" Minor becomes a better distributor, LSU would probably take a major step up.

"He's not coming along as quickly as I'd like," Brady said of Minor. "But he's had a lot thrown at him."

So has Jaime Lloreda in his lifetime. But no challenges have prevented him from pursuing his American Dream.

Rick returns to Rupp, The Sequel
Louisville and Kentucky got in one last pre-Christmas muscle flex for each other Tuesday night, the Cardinals trampling VMI by 51 and the Wildcats blowing out Eastern Kentucky by 29 -- both reaching triple digits. Louisville has now won six straight after an opening one-point loss to Iowa, while Kentucky hasn't lost a regular-season game in a year -- since being routed by the Cardinals in Freedom Hall.

Along the way to Saturday's hugely anticipated showdown game, both showed why the state of Kentucky rivals the state of North Carolina as the current college capital of How The Game Is Supposed To Be Played. Both teams are smart. Both teams are unselfish. Neither team knows how to mail it in.

Against VMI, Louisville had a school-record 34 assists and made 18 three-point shots, one off the school record. Taquan Dean erased the school mark for 3s in a game, sinking nine in just 11 attempts. The splendidly skilled Francisco Garcia went from leading scorer to ace distributor, handing out eight assists with zero turnovers.

Against EKU, veteran Kentucky recorded a season-high 28 assists and 11 threes, paced by rapidly improving senior point guard Cliff Hawkins, who leads the SEC in assists and steals. For the third straight game, the exceptionally efficient Wildcats shot at least 54 from the field.

"When they shoot it like that, they're fun to watch," Eastern Kentucky coach Travis Ford said.

After enduring a game of perhaps unprecedented emotional difficulty in 2001, Louisville coach Rick Pitino is trying to downplay the cauldron that awaits his young team in Rupp. It won't be as bad this time around -- because it can't be. Nevertheless, this figures to be one of the most difficult road assignments for any team all season -- no matter how much firepower and depth Louisville brings to the table.

"Those Kentucky fans are crazy," said Louisville guard Alhaji Mohammed.

Especially when it comes to Pitino. Dick Vitale ranks Kentucky-Louisville as the top non-conference rivalry for a reason: Because no place cares quite so deeply about the outcome of a single game as this one.

Around the South

  • Western Kentucky has ruled the Sun Belt Conference for several years, bit it might have a worthy challenger this season in Arkansas S1tate. Indians are 8-1, tying a school record for best start, with wins over Mississippi, Southern Mississippi and TCU. Only a one-point loss to Toledo separates them from the undefeated, despite being utterly unknown. Junior guard Dewarick Spencer has been the leading man, coming into the week averaging 20.1 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals, and shooting a scandalous 57.8 percent from 3-point range. (Dewarick got some vital help from his teammates in a comeback road win at TCU on Monday.) A win over Penn State on Sunday in the Lobo Invitational first round would not only make the Indians 4-0 on the road for the first time ever, but also 9-1 overall for the first time.

  • Another Southern mid-major, Western Carolina, put a big-name skin on its wall this week, thanks to deluxe shooter Kevin Martin. The 6-7 junior, who is leading the nation at 28 points a game, rang up 33 on Arkansas in an upset overtime win at formerly imposing Bud Walton Arena. It was Western Carolina's second win in 28 tries against the SEC, the only other one coming 10 years ago against Tennessee. Western Carolina might not historically love SEC competition, but Martin clearly does: He also had 44 against Georgia this year in the season opener.

  • The mood in Fayetteville after the loss to Western Carolina -- which followed by a 15-point loss to Oklahoma State -- was predictably grim. "Toughness is just not there," second-year coach Stan Heath told the Northwest Arkansas Morning News. "We're just not tough enough. The worst part of the schedule is coming. It's not a good time to be a cream puff, so we need to change that attitude." Leading scorer Jonathon Modica had just four points against Western Carolina and was scoreless until the final minute of regulation. "He didn't show up tonight," teammate Rashard Sullivan told the Morning News.

  • Auburn has lost two straight after a hot start, the latest a home upset to Georgia State. The Tigers made just 3 of 11 free throws in second half to give up the lead and the game.

  • Alabama coach Mark gottfried is going to have to get some new material. His standard line for the last two months has been, "We're not very good." But after beating Oregon by a point, 87-86, in Las Vegas, the Crimson Tide is now 6-2 and playing pretty well. The ringleaders have been Earnest Shelton and sophomore Kennedy Winston, who had 27 points against the Ducks, including the game-winner with eight ticks left.

  • Tennessee went without leading scorer Scooter McFadgon on Monday night because of a mysterious left shoulder injury that manifested itself earlier that day. McFadgon tried to go during the Volunteers' shootaround but couldn't, and he was X-rayed after game. The Vols said Tuesday that McFadgon had an inflamed tendon and it was unclear when he'd return. John Winchester stepped in for McFadgon to make 3 of 4 threes and score 13 points.

  • Todd Abernethy of Mississipi leads the SEC in assist-turnover ratio with 27 dimes and only seven errors, which isn't surprising. Smart basketball runs in the family. His dad, Tom, was a key member of Indiana University's undefeated 1976 national champions. A freshman, Abernethy has started all eight games and is third on the team in minutes played. (Indiana would undoubtedly be in better shape right now if it had the two current collegiate sons of players from that '76 team -- the other being Sean May, son of Scott May.)

  • Cincinnati gave Dayton a taste of the smothering full-court pressure defense it can throw at opponents this year, forcing the previously undefeated Flyers into a season-high 28 turnovers in a 29-point rout Tuesday night. Florida transfer James White is now eligible for the Bearcats and scored nine points in his second game as a Bearcat.

  • Marquette coach Tom Crean says it's "nice to be on the other end" of a major free-throw disparity. Marquette shot 34 free throws to Florida A & M's six Monday, two days after the Golden Eagles shot nine and Wisconsin shot 32 in a nail-biting loss in Madison. Crean is also seeing sophomore Steve Novak diversify his game from single-faceted shooter to a more complete player. "He is getting better all around," Crean told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "He got five rebounds tonight, and five rebounds is a start. Very soon he'll get to the seven or eight range."

    Quote to note
    "I can't lie. I thought we were about to lose."
    -- Memphis guard Antonio Burks, after the Tigers fell behind by six points to Samford with 2½ minutes to play. Burks led a late rally for a 63-62 win.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com