Published March 22, 2013
LEXINGTON, Ky. – No matter where he's coaching or who his team is facing, Rick Pitino has never liked playing the first game of the NCAA tournament as a top seed.
"Normally your guys get a little tight, say, 'We're a 1 seed, uh-oh, we could lose this game,'" the Louisville coach said. "And you start playing not to lose rather than to win."
Look at fellow No. 1 Gonzaga, nearly leveled by little Southern out in the West Region. Or third-seeded New Mexico, which got schooled by Harvard.
Heck, just look next door at Rupp Arena, where third-seeded Marquette was still trying to figure out how it pulled off the comeback of the day Thursday. The Golden Eagles rallied from seven points down with less than two minutes to go for a 59-58 victory over 14th-seeded Davidson.
Marquette now faces sixth-seeded Butler, a 68-56 winner over Bucknell in the day's first game at Rupp Arena. Louisville gets eighth-seeded Colorado State, which dismantled Missouri 84-72.
"Sometimes you get the wrong opponent," Pitino said. "We just got the right opponent."
Or maybe the Cardinals are just really, really good.
Louisville (30-5) erased any doubts there may have been about the Cardinals' worthiness of being the tournament's overall top seed with a 79-48 rout of North Carolina A&T.
The Aggies like to press and trap just as Louisville does, but Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and the rest of the Cardinals never gave them the chance. The Big East champs set an NCAA tournament record with 20 steals, had 67 deflections and held the Aggies (20-17) to 42 percent shooting. Smith set a Louisville record for the NCAA tournament with eight steals, and his 23 points gave him double figures for a fourth-straight game. Siva added eight assists, four steals and six points.
The destruction was so complete that Pitino pulled Smith and Siva with about seven minutes to go, and the only Louisville players that went scoreless were the guys who came in for mop-up duty.
"I told Rick that I'm pulling for him to win the national championship," A&T coach Cy Alexander said. "He's got a Final Four-quality team. They made shots and they're as good as anybody in the country when they're going."
Pitino isn't clearing out space in the trophy case just yet, however. He's had five other top-seeded teams, and only his 1996 Kentucky squad wound up as champions. His last team to be the overall No. 1, the 2009 Cardinals, was done after the regional finals.
"It's just one game against a trapping, running team," Pitino said. "... (Colorado State) will be much different than anything we've seen."
The Rams (26-8) got off to a hot start in their first tournament victory since 1988, shooting nearly 58 percent in the first half. They dominated the boards 42-19, and Minnesota transfer and big man Colton Iverson nearly outrebounded Missouri by himself with 13.
But Colorado State had 14 turnovers, a number that's sure to get the attention of Pitino and his Cardinals.
"We're going to have to really take care of the ball and handle their different types of full-court pressure," coach Larry Eustachy said. "We might as well go home like we hadn't planned on if we don't."
Marquette coach Buzz Williams will be the first to tell you his team can't shoot, and the Golden Eagles (24-8) spent most of the game proving him right. They made just 16 of their first 54 shots, including a dismal 1 of 12 from 3-point range.
But with the game on the line, Vander Blue and Jamil Wilson couldn't miss.
"I'm not ready to go home. I know our team wasn't ready to go home," said Blue, who scored seven of Marquette's last 13 points, including the go-ahead floater with a second left.
"We just knew that game wasn't over until the clock hit zero."
With Davidson (26-8) up 54-48 with 1:10 left, Wilson hit a 3 — only Marquette's second of the game. De'Mon Brooks scored on a layup, but the Golden Eagles came right back with another 3, this one by Blue. They fouled Nik Cochran, who made both, but Wilson was good from long range again to cut Davidson's lead to 58-57.
Then, Marquette caught a huge break: Brooks' inbounds heave sailed out of bounds. Marquette didn't have any timeouts left, but they essentially got a free one as officials looked at how much time was left.
"Unfair advantage," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. "We knew they didn't have a timeout. There's not much we can do about it."
When play resumed, with 6 seconds left, Blue caught Wilson's inbounds pass at midcourt and drove left past Jake Cohen for a layup.
"All I was thinking was, 'If I get to the rim, I have to finish,'" Blue said.
Finish the Wildcats off, he did, intercepting the final inbounds pass to end the game.
"I believe this as a person, I believe this as a coach: It's not what you have done, it's what you have overcome," Williams said. "For me, for our program, for our team, it wasn't about beating Davidson on a last-second shot. It's about what we've overcome to even get to that point."
The victory sets up a rematch with Butler (27-8), which beat Marquette on Rotnei Clarke's banked in 3-pointer at the buzzer in the Bulldogs' opening game of the Maui Invitational.
Clarke came up big again late Thursday, scoring 11 of his 17 points in the final 8:44 as Butler withstood a late rally from upset-minded Bucknell (28-6). Andrew Smith had a double-double with a career-high 16 rebounds and 14 points, and Butler went 18 of 20 from the line in the last 4:43.
Butler has now won 11 of its last 13 NCAA tournament games, the only two losses coming in the 2010 and 2011 championship games.
"I just think they've played in so many big games, they're not the type of team that's going to get rattled," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said.