The top-seeded Louisville Cardinals begin their quest back to the Final Four on Thursday as they take on the North Carolina A&T Aggies in a NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional second-round matchup at Rupp Arena.
NC A&T overcame the odds and won the MEAC Championship for the first time despite entering the postseason as the seventh-seed. It then took care of business in a thrilling first-four matchup versus Liberty to escape with a 73-72 win, the first NCAA Tournament victory in school history. Jeremy Underwood led the way with 19 points on 6-of-6 shooting from the field, while Bruce Beckford chipped in 16 points on 8-of-10 efficiency from the floor. The Aggies stopped a driving layup by Liberty's John Caleb Sanders as time expired to clinch the decision.
NC A&T is usually much more modest on the offensive end of the court, scoring just 62.4 ppg, but the team makes up for it with strong defense (61.4 ppg allowed). The Aggies are a poor outside shooting squad with only 30 percent efficiency from beyond the arc, but they force their opposition into 18.3 turnovers per game to make up for it. Adrian Powell (12.5 ppg) and Lamont Middleton (12.4 ppg) have been neck-and-neck for the scoring lead all year long. Austin Witter is the Aggies' best rebounder with 7.1 per contest which he accompanies with 3.0 rejections per tilt. Beckford and Underwood both chip in under nine ppg regularly.
This will be just the second head-to-head between NC A&T and Louisville in history. The Cardinals won the first meeting and will advance to play the winner of the Colorado State-Missouri matchup if they avoid becoming the first No. 1 seed to be upset in its first game.
Rick Pitino's Cardinals have reeled off 10 wins in a row entering the Big Dance, with the most recent being a 78-61 rout of Syracuse in the Big East Tournament title game. Louisville's last six victories have come over teams in this year's field. The team is very deep in terms of talent in both the backcourt and frontcourt.
Creating havoc for opposing teams has been the key to the squad's success this season. The Cardinals led the Big East and are in second in the nation in steals (10.7 spg). The Cardinals' opposition is scoring just 58.0 points per game and shooting 38.8 percent from the field. Russ Smith (18.1 ppg) has no limitations as a scorer. He should be able to bounce back after being limited to only 10 points by the Orange in the Big East Tournament title game. Gorgui Dieng is one of the best big men in the nation with his ability to crash the boards and protect the rim. The speedy Peyton Siva (10 ppg, 5.9 apg) runs the point for the Cardinals, while Chane Behanan (9.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Wayne Blackshear (8.0 ppg) and Luke Hancock (7.5 ppg) add even more options.