CRAWFORD | Five thoughts on Louisville's NCAA Tournament draw - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Five thoughts on Louisville's NCAA Tournament draw

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford WDRB photo by Eric Crawford

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- This time a year ago, Donovan Mitchell went into the gym, started lifting weights, cranked up the music in his headphones and blocked out the world. The NCAA bracket announcement did not exist for him. Selection Sunday was just another day.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino had vowed not to watch the tournament, but couldn’t stay away.

“It’s my favorite time of the year,” Pitino said.

After a one-year absence from college basketball’s Big Dance because of self-imposed NCAA sanctions, the Cardinals are back this season, and in a big way. They were selected as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Midwest Region and will begin tournament play against Ray Harper’s Jacksonville State team on Friday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Game time has not yet been set.

Jacksonville State punched its ticket when it won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament when it upset Belmont, then beat Tennessee Martin a night later. Harper knows his way around postseason tournaments. He’s won four national championships, two at the NCAA Division II level and two at the NAIA level. When he took over at Western Kentucky University in midseason in 2011-12, he’d been to a national championship game 9 times in the past 11 seasons.

He quickly shocked everyone by leading WKU to the NCAA Tournament, and had another Cinderella team in Bowling Green the next season.

Louisville is familiar with Harper, having faced his WKU teams, including a 2014 meeting that got so intense that Cardinal Montrezl Harrell was ejected for throwing a punch. The teams did not meet after that.

Now, the Cards will face Harper and Jacksonville State. A few thoughts on the Cardinals’ tournament draw.

1). LOUISVILLE WILL BE PRIMED FOR THE OPENER. Pitino knows how important this first game is, because so few of his players have NCAA Tournament experience. Playing in front of some friendly faces in Indianapolis will help -- but the presence of the University of Kentucky in Indianapolis may also make for some not-so-friendly ones.

Regardless, the Cardinals have faced some of the nation’s top offenses over their past eight games. Jacksonville State will give them a break from that. At least for one game. And they should be well-rested, having not played since Thursday in the ACC Tournament.

2). LOTS OF FAMILIAR FACES DOWN THE ROAD. If the Cards get past their opener, they could face a trip down 2013 memory lane. They’ll face the winner of Michigan-Oklahoma State. Pitino and the Cardinals faced Beilein and Michigan in the 2013 NCAA finals. Should they advance to the Sweet 16, they could see Oregon, a team they beat in the 2013 Sweet 16.

But that’s a long way off.

The Cards also have had good luck in Indianapolis, site of their 1980 NCAA championship. They’re 9-2 in NCAA play in the city, and 13-7 there in neutral site games, including a victory over Indiana in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in December. The Cards have never lost as a No. 2 seed, winning national titles in 1980 and ‘86.

3). BEWARE THE COWBOYS. Louisville is familiar with teams who can light it up offensively. Oklahoma State, the No. 10 seed, is the nation’s top-ranked offensive team in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings.

The Cowboys lost to North Carolina by 32 in Maui in November, and had a brutal six-game winning streak to open Big 12 play, not getting their first 2017 win until Jan. 21. They then won 10 of their next 11 games before losing three straight at the end of the regular season and beginning of the Big 12 tournament.

4). SO, ABOUT THE DUKE LOSS. It was a crestfallen Pitino and team that left Brooklyn after losing to the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament. Having watched the Blue Devils run through the ACC Tournament to the title, however, perhaps they shouldn’t feel so bad.

They played Duke closer than anyone in Brooklyn. Still, their free-throw problems will lead to an NCAA early exit if they continue.

The NCAA rewarded the Cards No. 2 overall schedule (in the RPI) with a No. 2 seed. They get early round games close to home, though are in a Kansas City Regional with No. 1 seed Kansas. Still, the way they have played when at their best this season leaves little doubt they could get through the regional.

Charles Barkley of TBS Sunday night picked them to do just that. Jeff Sagarin’s Predictor ratings actually give Louisville a slightly better chance of reaching the Final Four than Kansas.

None of that matters, of course, if you can’t hit a free throw.

5). PITINO ON THE DRAW. Pitino doesn’t generally hold selection Sunday news conferences. He got used to being disappointed in his team’s seed. This year, the Cards actually got a higher seed than many predicted. In a statement released by the school, Pitino credited the team’s schedule.

"We're very excited to be going to Indianapolis for our fans," Pitino said.  "If our fans can find tickets there, it can be a great site for us to play some outstanding basketball.  Obviously, our strength of schedule was important.  We've had the best or second-best ranked schedule and a high RPI.  Half of our schedule was played against teams that now are competing in the tournament and we didn't lose to a team below 40 in the RPI."

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