SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) At first glance, it seems like just another Atlantic Coast Conference game - North Carolina State vs. Louisville.
Except it isn't. The winner advances to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and the loser goes home.
''Even though it's the Sweet 16 game, it's pretty much a league game. We knew at some point we would play an ACC team, and we're ready for it,'' North Carolina State guard Cat Barber said after practice Thursday. ''Our league prepares you for the moment.''
The Wolfpack (22-13), the eighth seed in the East, meets fourth-seeded Louisville (26-8) on Friday night in the Carrier Dome in a matchup of teams somewhat familiar with each other. The Wolfpack had the upper hand against the Cardinals in Louisville's first season in the conference, beating them 74-65 on Feb. 14 in the difficult atmosphere of the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.
''We have great respect for them,'' Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. ''They beat us at home. A lot of teams don't beat us at home. It was a close game, and then they pulled away. They're a team right now that can beat you so many different ways.''
Louisville, in the Sweet 16 for a school-record fourth straight year under Pitino, isn't the same team that lost to the Wolfpack. Standout guard Chris Jones, a fierce defender, had 20 points in that game, but when Louisville traveled to Syracuse four days later Jones didn't make the trip and was later dismissed from the team for off-the-court problems.
The changes have been noticeable. With seven freshmen, the pressure-style play Pitino's teams thrive on has picked up. In Louisville's 66-53 win over Northern Iowa on Sunday night, the Cardinals held the Panthers to 39 percent shooting, forced 10 turnovers and outrebounded them 30-25.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried has noticed a change at the other end, too.
''They're all more aggressive offensively,'' Gottfried said. ''Sometimes, when you lose a good player, especially a guy offensively that can do what Chris Jones could do, those other guys, they know they have to play at a higher level.''
Added Barber: ''Sometimes, you get overconfident and don't come out as aggressive as you did the first time. But we know what we have to do and what we want to do. Now it's about coming out and playing hard.''
Some things to know when North Carolina State plays Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday night in the Carrier Dome:
Six of Louisville's losses this year were inflicted by teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament - top-ranked Kentucky and four ACC teams: Duke, Notre Dame, North Carolina State and North Carolina (which beat Louisville once in the regular season and in the conference tournament).
For the Wolfpack, that win was pivotal.
''It was kind of a turning point for us,'' Gottfried said. ''We changed our starting lineup, put (6-foot-8 sophomore forward) Lennard Freeman in. (He) gives us a little more defense and rebounding. I thought he helped us execute our offense a little better and get better shots. From that point forward, at times we have really guarded people well. Not every game, but I do think it's helped us, especially here down the stretch.''
Freshman Quentin Snider replaced Jones in the Louisville lineup and should feel somewhat at home in the Carrier Dome - it's where he made his first career start, scoring 13 points. Snider has combined for 26 points and nine rebounds in Louisville's two tournament wins.
''I said from the beginning he was going to be special,'' said sophomore guard Terry Rozier, the Cardinals leading scorer (17.2 points per game).
Louisville is making its 21st Sweet 16 appearance and is 5-1 under Pitino, who has guided the Cardinals to two of the past three Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2013.
In their victory over the Cardinals last month, the Wolfpack held Louisville to 33 percent shooting and dominated 32-16 in the paint to earn their second win against a top 10 conference opponent. But beating a team twice in the same season can be a tall task.
''We know them better, and they know us better,'' said Pitino, who is 52-17 in the NCAA Tournament. ''One of us may make a big change in this game that the other team's not ready for and maybe surprise someone.''
BRING `EM ON
North Carolina State has heard the critics who wonder how a team with 13 losses could still be alive and in the Sweet 16. Easy answer: besides Louisville, the Wolfpack also has beaten North Carolina on the road and Duke at home, and they barely lost to Notre Dame (81-78 in overtime) and Virginia (51-47) in the grueling ACC.
''Sometimes NC State is not as well-noticed on Tobacco Road as, say, Carolina or Duke, but they beat both of those teams, and they can beat anybody,'' Pitino said. ''They're that good.''
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