The No. 4-seeded Louisville Cardinals (26-8; 12-6) are once again tearing through the bracket in the NCAA tournament. They take on ACC rival North Carolina State on Friday in Syracuse, marking the fourth straight year the program has advanced to at least the Sweet 16.
Coach Rick Pitino, similar to Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, has the uncanny ability to get the most out of his teams come tournament time. Since taking over as head coach in 2001, Pitino has stewarded the Cardinals to one championship (2013), three final four appearances (’13, ’12, ’05) and five Elite Eight appearances (’05, ’08, ’09, ’12, ’13).
The 2015 Cardinals have a distinct style—they’re stingy on defense and play an organized, tough-to-breakdown game. Louisville allows just 59.3 points per game, good for 17th in the NCAA. But they only score 69.2 points per game (130th in NCAA) on 42.9 percent shooting (211th). They’re considered a less talented group than prior Pitino-led Louisville teams, but the Cardinals are peaking at the right time.
"Tonight, we played our best game of the season," Pitino said in a press conference after a 66-53 dispatching of No. 5 seed Northern Iowa in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
The team is not necessarily flush with talent, but it does play hard. They’re not an easy out either. Of Louisville’s eight losses this season, six were to teams ranked in the top 25 at the time.
“We have a short bench,” Pitino said in a press conference. “But these guys don't take a play off, and that's unusual in this world."
That attitude might be a reflection of senior forward Montrezl Harrell and sophomore guard Terry Rozier, who play a ton of minutes and generate a lot of Louisville’s offensive production. Harrell averages 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds, and Rozier averages 17.2 points and 5.2 rebounds. They score, using season averages, 54.9 percent of Louisville’s points.
“These two guys kind of amazed me, because I prod them the whole game because I can't take them out,” Pitino said in a press conference after the NIU game. “Montrezl was just working so hard and he was so dead, and I kept saying: You got to give us more, son. You got to give us more. You can't tire. And I don't know how they do it, I really don't know how both of them do it, but they have done it the whole year. They have carried a team on their back”
Pitino will likely have to lean on his two workhorse stars again when the Cardinals take on NC State in the Sweet 16. The Wolfpack handed the Cardinals a 74-65 loss on Feb. 14, upsetting the Louisville squad that was ranked No. 9 at the time. It was one of the more disappointing losses of the season.
If Louisville can reverse that result, they’ll see either Oklahoma or fellow perennial contender Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
The Cardinals are three-point favorites to beat NC State and move on to the Elite Eight, according to bovada.lv. Louisville is getting 13/5 odds to win the East region and advance to the Final Four, and 25/1 odds to win the entire tournament, according to bovada.lv.