John Bazemore/Associated Press
John Bazemore/Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Before the NCAA Tournament begins, Rick Pitino likes to scan the list of teams, looking for a few sleepers he considers “dangerous.”
“It’s based on how many upperclassmen do they have that have stayed together and how much talent do they have,” the Louisville coach said Friday. “You have a lot of upperclassmen, but they may not be that good.”
Saint Louis made his cut.
So did Oregon, which promptly reinforced Pitino’s genius by knocking off fifth-seeded Oklahoma State.
He was right on with LaSalle, which took down Kansas State.
Davidson didn’t win, but Pitino could have told Buzz Williams days ago that the Wildcats were going to give his Marquette team fits.
Another team that would have been in his bracket is Colorado State, the overall No. 1 seed’s opponent Saturday.
“Five seniors, No. 1 rebounding margin team in the country, I know Larry is a terrific coach,” said Pitino, ticking off the qualities that make the Rams so fearsome. “They have all the ingredients to be a great basketball team, and they are.
“I always look at talent and experience coming together, and Colorado State has both,” Pitino said.
The Cardinals’ dismantling of North Carolina A&T on Thursday night was so thorough, so ferocious, it’s hard to imagine anyone interrupting their march to Atlanta. Louisville set an NCAA Tournament record with 20 steals – Pitino couldn’t wait to share that tidbit with Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose ’87 Providence Friars were one of three teams to hold the previous mark – and Russ Smith tied the individual mark with eight grabs.
The Cardinals forced a season-high 27 turnovers and had 67 deflections.
But, no offense to A&T, the Aggies were a dream matchup. They play a similar, running, trapping style as the Cardinals but without the same blue-chip personnel.
The eighth-seeded Rams, however, are a team unlike many Louisville has seen this year.
Colorado State (26-8) is averaging a little more than 40 boards per game – no, that’s not a misprint – and Colton Iverson is such a beast that, 27 minutes into Thursday night’s game, he singlehandedly had Missouri outrebounded (13-11).
“We have to do a better job of on the glass,” Peyton Siva said. “We haven’t faced a team like this that rebounds with such tenacity.”
The Cardinals know that, though. It’s Colorado State’s offense that is something of a mystery.
The Rams use a motion offense much like Notre Dame – the same Notre Dame that beat the Cardinals in a five-overtime classic last month. Granted, Louisville won the next two meetings – handily – but they’d had some time to prepare. Pitino and his staff have one day now.
“Pure motion is very difficult,” Pitino said. “You have to have smart players who are triple-threat people – pass, catch and shoot – and you don’t get a whole lot of teams like that. This is a team that can do that.
“You can’t choreograph your defense to stop certain options in one day because they run more freelance motion,” he said. “So it is more difficult than the team that runs patterned sets and you can prepare for. They are very difficult to prepare for.”
What might impress Pitino the most, however, is the Rams’ maturity. They have six players back from the team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year. Four of their five starters are seniors, and the fifth, Jon Octeus, is a redshirt sophomore.
The Rams appreciate Louisville’s reputation, but they’re not in awe of the Cardinals.
“We respect our opponent, but we feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country, and we believe in ourselves,” said Dorian Green, who dropped a game-high 26 for the Rams in their upset over Mizzou. “If we play well, we know that we can beat anybody in the country. We just have to go out there and do it.”
The key to that will be handling Louisville’s pressure, which starts with Siva and Smith.
“Other teams chart (points) in the paint, some are offensive rebounds. Coach P’s philosophy is we get a certain amount of deflections, we feel that we’re in a capable place of winning the game,” Siva said. “We try to get as many deflections as we can, slow down the movement of passing. That’s really been our key for this year, and we just continue to keep our pressure up.
“Colorado State, they’re a good passing and moving team,” Siva said. “We got to continue to play our game, continue on slowing down the ball and focus on that.”
Though Colorado State averages just less than 11 turnovers a game, coach Larry Eustachy said “we’re not a great play-making team, we’re not a great passing team.”
What the Rams are is a smart team, and that just might be the most dangerous trait of all at this time of year.
“I’ve said this from day one, we’re built for this type of play, this tournament play,” Eustachy said. “If we’re playing right ... we’re getting back, we’re protecting the basket, we’re limiting teams to one shot, we’re not giving up easy shots, we’re not taking bad shots, we’re not turning it over, hopefully. So I think we’re hard to play against.”
James Crisp/Associated Press