March 28, 2009

 

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Terrence Williams spent part of Saturday restating the lessons Louisville learned from its last regional final.

Play harder. Be yourselves. Play like a team devoted to winning the national title, and accept nothing less.

On Sunday, Williams and his teammates will finally get a chance to exorcise those demons from last year and deliver on a pact they made to themselves by claiming the school's first Final Four bid since 2005.

"Losing last year, we kind of know what it takes to lose. Meaning that, last year we didn't play 40 minutes," Williams said. "This year, we know that coming out, to get to the Final Four, you have to play all 40 minutes. You have to play your game."

Clearly, these aren't the same Cardinals that ran out of steam against top-seeded North Carolina in Charlotte.

They won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, earned the school's first No. 1 ranking, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament and just delivered the most crushing rout since the expansion of the NCAA field in the 1970s, 103-64 over Arizona in Friday night's semifinals. Louisville has won 13 straight and 23 of 25.

Now the season really kicks into gear.

After going 31-5 and earning all those accolades, the Cardinals' season comes down to this: Win and go to Detroit, lose and go home again.

"We don't want to be in the locker room feeling the same way," Williams said. "Especially myself, because I'll be done. What you take from that (loss) is do everything in your power in 40 minutes to not feel that way again."

But in Sunday's Midwest final, they face Michigan State, one of the most successful tournament teams over the last decade.

Coach Tom Izzo has led the Spartans (29-6) to four Final Fours in 10 years, the most of any team in the nation, and he won the national championship in 2000 across the street from Lucas Oil Stadium.

For second-seeded Michigan State, the emotions are just as high.

After winning the Big Ten regular-season title, the Spartans lost in the Big Ten tournament semifinals two weeks ago in Indy and now they're back playing for a chance to go to nearby Detroit.

"It will be the biggest game I've probably ever played in because of what you just said," Izzo said. "For a guy like me, who just loves the state, I've lived there all my life, to have that opportunity to play there is just special. You know, I'm no different than a player."

The contrasts Sunday will be intriguing, too.

Izzo and Louisville's Rick Pitino both have tournament winning percentages that rank among the top four of active coaches. Both have one national championship ring.

Yet they've been successful with vastly different styles.

Pitino has always preferred relentless defensive pressure and an up-tempo pace to take advantage of his usually strong 3-point shooters. The good news is he's 9-0 in regional semifinal games.

The question is whether that style wears down his team.

Louisville has been eliminated on the second day of an NCAA tournament weekend in three of its previous five appearances and has been eliminated on the second day of a conference tournament two other times since 2002, though the Cardinals have shown no signs of weariness in either the Big East tourney or their first three NCAA games.

"I believe sometimes during this time of year, teams can get out of shape because they lay around hotels, they don't work real hard," Pitino said. "We're in very good shape right now. We haven't lost our conditioning."

Another problem for Izzo is the status of forward Raymar Morgan, one of the Spartans' most athletic players.

Morgan, who is second on the team in scoring (10.5) and rebounding (5.4), broke his nose in Friday night's 67-62 semifinal win over Kansas. He'll wear a protective face mask in the final but acknowledges that it may affect his vision.

Still, Izzo will rely on his traditional approach. He prefers to employ half-court offense, an opportunistic defense and tries to overpower teams with strong rebounders and a deep rotation. Michigan State led the nation in rebounding margin this season (plus-9.7) and grabbed a staggering 40.9 percent of its missed shots.

But players don't believe that style is the reason Izzo is 13-2 on the second day of NCAA weekends.

"One thing coach says is if we get through Friday, he'll get us through Sunday," Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas said.

It has worked in the past.

Whether it does Sunday, against a Louisville team that is determined to atone for last year and might be playing the best basketball in the nation.

"We could taste it (the victory) almost," Cardinals guard Jerry Smith recalled from last year's game. "It was crazy. We sat in the locker room for about 20 minutes, all of us, and just shook because we fought so hard and left it all out on the floor. To come so close, it was very disappointing.

"You've got to seize the moment. Today's practice was great, so hopefully we can play almost as well as we did yesterday."