LEXINGTON, Ky. -- They knew it was coming. Colorado State sat in the stands Thursday night and observed Louisville, the tournament's top overall seed, overwhelm North Carolina A&T with their signature full-court pressure, racking up a team-record 67 deflections and stealing the ball 20 times in what devolved into a 79-48 blowout.
They talked about the quickness of the Cardinals' guards and how they would have to keep in front of them on defense. How on offense they would not only need to take care of the ball but also try to turn Louisville's aggressiveness against them. And then the next day, they spent all of practice running press-break plays, trying to simulate what awaited them.
"But it's something you really have to see," said Colorado State guard Wes Eikmeier after Saturday's game, a 82-56 defeat in which the normally sure-handed Rams turned the ball over 20 times, four more than they had in any game all season. "They're No. 1 overall for a reason."
Such has been the lesson over Louisville's opening two tournament games in Lexington, victories by a total margin of 57 points. In what has been a season of constant upheaval at the sport's perceived top with a revolving door of teams atop the polls, the Cardinals have now won 12 in a row -- 11 of them by double-digits -- to install themselves as tournament frontrunners, confirming the selection committee's stamp of approval by excelling in virtually all facets:
- Their defense, ranked first in total efficiency and second in steal and turnover rates, keyed both of the routs, somewhat predictably shutting down 16th-seeded North Carolina A&T but more surprisingly flustering a Colorado State team ranked in the nation's top-10 in offensive turnover rate. In one first-half span, the Rams coughed the ball up four times in a row.
- Coach Rick Pitino identified the Rams before the tournament as one of the squads that could give his team the most trouble: Colorado State starts five seniors and, despite only starting one player over 6-foot-6, entered the game ranked second nationally in offensive rebounding rate. Having focused the entirety of its own Friday practice on the boards, Louisville allowed the Rams to grab only a quarter of their own misses.
- Their offense is deep and clicking. Freshman forward Montrezl Harrell, who as of eight days ago was averaging 5.3 points per game, has scored 39 points in the Cardinals' last three games. Peyton Siva is getting in the lane, hitting floaters and distributing, and perhaps most importantly, Russ Smith has returned to the early-season form that had him at or near the top of many National Player of the Year lists. He followed his 23-point (and eight-steal) opener against the Aggies with 27 points on 15 shots against the Rams, including four three-pointers on seven tries. When Smith is playing like that, said teammate Chane Behanan, it is best just to "let him go."
In Indianapolis awaits what was deemed on Selection Sunday as the most dangerous of the fourth- and fifth-round matchups. A face-off looms against hot and under-seeded Oregon and, should the Cards get past that matchup, a chance of either Tom Izzo and Michigan State or Coach K's Blue Devils in the regional final. Pundits were quick to label the draw of especially tough two-through-four seeds as a cruel kind of gauntlet to which to subject a tournament's No. 1 seed. But if Louisville's play continues to justify that lofty designation so thoroughly, who they are playing against might only matter so much.
The only stretch of anything resembling doubt over the Cardinals' two games in Lexington came in the early portion of Saturday's first half (and that the closest a victory came to questionable was in a first half's earliest stages is telling). The Rams, who managed to get the ball upcourt without much trouble for nearly 10 minutes to open the contest, began the game by burying a slew of jumpers and led 16-14 going into a media timeout at the 11:38 mark of the first half. After that, the barrage of turnovers began when the Cardinals' pesky defense became something beyond what Colorado State had prepared itself for, and Louisville launched what would become a 31-15 run entering halftime. But even before the game was truly blown open, there was a sense the tides were turning, that the Cardinals had withstood what would ultimately be the Rams' strongest stretch of play and would now impose their will. The string of forced turnovers were augmented by three consecutive Louisville buckets. When Colorado State finally responded with a three by Daniel Bejarano, Smith answered with a trey of his own. After an exchange of misses, Smith drove into the lane and was fouled, earning a pair of shots as the game entered into a TV timeout. The Cardinals led by only five at that point. There were still more than 27 minutes for the Rams to rally back. Yet when Smith and Wayne Blackshear headed to the Louisville bench to the thunderous soundtrack of thousands of fans turning Rupp Arena into KFC Yum! Center East, nodding to one another without saying a word, it sure seemed like they knew what was coming, too.