Rick Pitino's Louisville basketball team needs to win at SMU Wednesday to remain in first place in the AAC.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This is a basketball game the University of Louisville needs to win.
The Cardinals need to roll into Dallas Wednesday night and defeat Southern Methodist. The stakes are as big as they have been in any game U of L has played this season.
First-place in American Athletic Conference is at stake. So is the top seed in the AAC Tournament. So is a premium seed in the NCAA Tournament.
People in Dallas are no longer ignoring SMU basketball. The Mustangs are 23-6, ranked 18th by Ken Pomeroy, ahead of Cincinnati, Connecticut and Kentucky. Their coach, Larry Brown, has taken care of that. Sure, Moody Coliseum only seats 7,000. When U of L arrives, it will be sold out for the seventh time this season.
The Cards (13-3) are tied with Cincinnati for first place in the AAC. They're favored by 2 1/2 against the third-place Mustangs, a program that has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1988 (against Digger Phelps and Notre Dame). This is a basketball game the University of Louisville needs to win.
But guess what?
One price we continue to pay for a 68-team NCAA Tournament is that few people fret about regular-season games the way they should. That's why Louisville coach Rick Pitino talked for 20 minutes Tuesday afternoon and about 20 seconds was about SMU, a team that won seven of its last eight games. He even tossed in mention of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio when Pitino was asked about one of his assistant coaches (Mike Balado) who came from the Sunshine State.
Pitino was asked about Kentucky, which isn't playing as well as SMU. Initially he said he didn't understand the questions about John Calipari. But when he was reminded that some are squawking about the Wildcats' eight defeats, Pitino understood. He worked in Lexington for eight seasons, three more than Calipari.
They're not buddies. But Pitino said the right things about Calipari and the Wildcats' 21-8 season.
"Look," Pitino said. "I think he's excellent. I don't think Kentucky can get any better than John Calipari. I'm objective. He's not a close friend. We're friendly. But how are you going to get better than him at what he does? He's great at what he does.
"Are they having a great year? No. You wouldn't want to play them come tournament time with that size and ability and his coaching. I'm a big believer in the way he teaches and the way he recruits. They can't get better than him."
He was asked about the national outlook two weeks before the NCAA Tournament. Everybody is saying this will be the most competitive tournament in years. Everybody always says that this will be the most competitive tournament in years.
This year it's not hyperbole. I believe that. So does Pitino.
"This year in college basketball is really fascinating," Pitino said. "This year more than any other year I can remember. This is the most unpredictable season.
"I know you guys all fill out brackets. Don't go to the bank thinking you're going to take Warren Buffett's money because you're not. Just to even get anything right this year is going to be very difficult.
"Can you pick a Top 20? You have teams that are ranked 18, 19, 20 that can flat-out play. You have Kentucky at 25 that can flat-out play. Maybe not that night in Columbia (S.C., Saturday night), but they can play. There are so many teams that are really, really good and terrific coaches. I'm blown away by it."
Louisville is listed as high as a three-seed on some NCAA Tournament bracket projections. The Cardinals are listed as low as a six-seed on others. That's a gap of at least nine spots on the S-curve used to seed the teams. Where does Pitino believe his team fits in those projections?
"I think three to five is where we're going to be," he said. "Now if we fall flat on our face in the (conference) tournament … but I don't think we will. I think we're a good basketball team.
"We'd have to win the remaining two games and the conference tournament to be a three, even though we're ranked very high. We've been ranked very high the whole year … we could lose a (conference) tournament and get (a three). It all depends on what other teams do. They could lose as well."
More five seeds than four or three seeds get toppled in the first weekend of the tournament. The history of the bracket is evidence of that. Pitino believes that history will be reinforced this season.
"I actually think this year the seed is very important, more so than other years," he said. "I think it's very, very important. If you're a five seed, you're going to play a great basketball team. You're going to play a terrific basketball team.
"The difference between a four and a five could be substantial. The difference between a three and a four could be substantial."
Wednesday night in Dallas Louisville will play a game that could be the difference between a three-seed and a four-seed. It's a game the Cardinals need to win. Even if everybody wanted to ask Rick Pitino about everything but SMU.