NEW ORLEANS – In a tournament dominated by the big guys, you could make the argument that Louisville is this year’s underdog. Not exactly Butler or VCU from recent years, but consider that Louisville is the smallest school in the field and the lowest seed to make it to this Final Four.
Cardinals’ coach Rick Pitino was asked about just that to open his news conference Friday.
“You know, I really haven’t used it this week, to be honest,” said Pitino, who took Louisville to the 2005 Final Four. “I have used it before in my life. I really haven’t used it [this week] mainly because I want my team to have confidence that they can play with Kentucky.”
At which most Kentucky fans would probably scoff. After all, Kentucky is the only remaining No. 1 seed heading into Saturday’s national semifinals and all it has heard all week is how upstart Louisville, a No. 4 seed, is primed for the upset.
“We’ve been the favorite the whole year,” UK sophomore guard Doron Lamb said. “Everybody wants us to win every game.
“There is really no pressure on us. We are used to this. Everybody is expecting us to win the whole thing. We have to go out there and prove to the world that we are one of the best teams in the country.”
There’s not much doubt about that.
Kentucky (36-2) lost only on a last-second shot at Indiana on Dec. 10 and at Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game, just across the street in the New Orleans Arena. Since then, the uber-talented Wildcats have rolled past Western Kentucky (81-65), Iowa State (85-71), Indiana (102-90) and Baylor (82-70). In other words, four victories by an average margin of 12 points.
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Kentucky coach John Calipari is seeking his first national title. He took UMass (1996) and Memphis (2008) to Final Fours, but because of NCAA violations those appearances were taken off the books. This time he’s the favorite playing Kentucky’s cross-state bitter rival.
“It’s another basketball game for us and our team,” Calipari said. “I know the fans on both sides are going crazy, and that’s great. That’s part of why you do this thing. But we’re not buying into it. I don’t believe their team is buying into it.
“I say it again. The physiology in your body, if it’s hate, anger, meanness, turns to fear within your body. I don’t think any of us are doing that. Our team will be ready to play. Their team will be ready to play. All I’m concerned with is how do I get my team to play at their best. We’ll deal with the results.”
Louisville (30-9) took a different route to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The surprise winners of the Big East tournament, the Cardinals had a stretch in mid-January where they lost five of seven games. That included a 69-62 loss at Kentucky and a 67-65 double-overtime loss to Notre Dame.
Louisville is trying to win its first national championship since 1886.
“I feel that we’re not really underdogs but everybody will call us underdogs,” U of L senior guard Chris Smith said. “We don’t think we’re underdogs. We’re expecting to win this game [Saturday]. We’re not going to let our confidence down and let our fans down or even ourselves. We’re just going to go out there, play hard, play our style of basketball.”
Kentucky’s national championships came in 1996, when Pitino was its coach, and 1998, with Tubby Smith at the helm after Pitino left for the Boston Celtics. That 1996 team, much like today’s group of Wildcats, was loaded, albeit with more upperclassmen.
“I was probably in the shoes that John is now and a little bit different,” Pitino said, recalling that his team stayed out in the New Jersey Meadowlands near where the tournament was played.
“Really when you finally win it, it’s an awful lot of fun and you feel relief not only for yourself, but you feel it for the players. This team, their team and our team, was No. 1 for a long period of time and you expected to win it. Your expectations as a coaching staff were you have to win it. Not only would the fans be disappointed, but we would have been very, very disappointed.
“So it is a lot of pressure. It’s good pressure because you’ve got the goods to deliver. But as we all know, anything can happen in a basketball game.”