Can anyone stop Louisville? The Cardinals (31-5) only bolstered their status as pre-tourney favorites with a pair of blowout victories against North Carolina A&T (79-48) and Colorado State (82-56) in their first two games, running their overall winning streak to 12. As is often the case, Louisville's suffocating press overwhelmed their opponents, as it notched a combined 47 opposing turnovers. Cardinals star Russ Smith posted a tournament-record eight steals in the first game, followed by a 27-point night against Colorado State. Pitino described his team's latter performance as "the best we've played so far at both ends of the floor," but not before stating "We can play much better." That's a scary proposition for future opponents. On the other hand, those opponents will be much more dangerous than the previous two.
Despite landing the tournament's top overall seed, Louisville arguably drew the toughest region of any No. 1 on Selection Sunday, and that appears even more so today. First up is deceiving 12th seed Oregon (28-8), which just got done handing fifth seed Oklahoma State (68-55) and fourth seed Saint Louis (74-57) their worst defeats of the season. Should the Cardinals reach the Elite Eight, they'll face either second seed Duke (29-5) or Michigan State (27-8), the No. 6 and 9 teams in the final regular-season AP poll. Each may have its own Louisville antidote. The Blue Devils rank fourth nationally in committed turnovers (15.7 percent of possessions). The Spartans have a penchant for locking down opposing three-point shooters (29.8 percent). But it may not matter if Louisville continues to play defense to the suffocating extent it has in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
Oregon is plenty athletic, but it's young and has no individual talent on the level of Louisville's Smith, Peyton Siva or Gorgui Dieng. "I've never played against a press like theirs," Loyd told the
Izzo, in particular, is renowned for his in-tournament game-planning, as evidenced by his staggering 18-3 record in second games at a tourney site. But Altman is quietly developing a similar reputation. For last Saturday's Saint Louis game, Altman employed a zone defense much more than usual and it flustered the Billikens into an uncharacteristic 3-of-21 shooting day from the perimeter. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles Izzo and Altman have in store for their favored opponents.
For their part, the Spartans can get their points from any number of players, most notably guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris, and it will be interesting to see how Duke defends them. The Blue Devils have done a nice job neutralizing an opponent's primary scorer, as they did Creighton star Doug McDermott, who shot just 4-of-16. They're able to rotate several different players outside, including Kelly. But Michigan State presents a more balanced attack. "We're a hard [team to] scout," said Izzo, "because the head coach doesn't know who to expect it from all the time, so I don't know why the opponent would."
Team With the Most At Stake
Number to Ponder