PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)—Louisville has taken a crooked path to the NCAA tournament. Once ranked as high as No. 4, the injury-addled Cardinals fell out of the rankings by losing five games in a stretch of seven. Then they limped into the Big East tournament with losses in three of their final games.
Now healthy and on a roll, the fourth-seeded Cardinals (26-9) face Davidson (25-7) on Thursday morning to open their NCAA tournament run.
“I think this has been a confident ball club when everybody’s healthy,” coach Rick Pitino said. “I think they lack confidence when they’ve been injured.”
The setbacks, which occurred mostly early in the season, included three major knee injuries, a broken nose, a back injury and a concussion that slowed junior point guard Peyton Siva at the start of the season. Senior Kyle Kuric, who leads Louisville with 13.1 points per game, was sidelined in January with a sprained left ankle.
The Cardinals are making their sixth straight appearance in the tournament. They’ve gone to the regional finals twice in the last four seasons—but they’ve been ousted in the opening round each of the last two years.
Wearing their new “infrared” uniforms, Louisville won a grueling four games in four days at the conference tournament—capped by a 50-44 victory over Cincinnati.
“Just like the regular season, that’s over, it’s behind us,” said Siva, who dismisses all the momentum talk. “We can’t have any hangover from the championships. We’ve got to keep moving forward and focus on the next one.”
The Cardinals, averaging 68 points per game, are more known for their defense. They’ve limited opponents to an average of 38 percent shooting from the floor, and an average of just over 61 points per game.
Davidson got a tournament berth this year with a dramatic double-overtime victory over Western Carolina last Friday in the Southern Conference tournament. The Wildcats led by 12 with two minutes left in regulation but needed two overtimes to put it away.
One of the highlights of Davidson’s season came back in December when they defeated No. 12 Kansas 80-74 in Lawrence.
All five of the Wildcats’ starters are averaging in double figures, meaning matchups could be an issue for the Cardinals. Pitino also praised Davidson’s quickness.
“They are as up-tempo as any team we have faced this year on a consistent basis, the whole game,” Pitino said. “They shoot it at multiple positions. They have two player-of-the-year guys. … In order to be a great shooting team you also have to be a great passing team. And they’re also a great passing team.”
Davidson plans to maintain its style of play in the tournament. They won’t try to slow things down to counter Louisville’s pressure defense.
“We’re going to be who we are,” said Davidson coach Bob McKillup. “We have a lot of experience playing that way. To deviate from that would not be the smart thing for us.”
The Wildcats are making their 11th appearance in the tournament and first since 2008, when they were led by Stephen Curry to the round of eight. Sophomore De’Mon Brooks, who leads the Wildcats with an average of 16 points and 6.3 rebounds, said Curry—who now plays for the Golden State Warriors—is an inspiration.
“That’s why I came to Davidson,” he said, “so I could build on that foundation and hopefully leave my own mark when I leave.”
Still, the Wildcats have no illusions when it comes to Louisville, which won NCAA championships in 1980 and 1986.
“We have to play our game. We know Louisville is a good team, but we think we’re a good team too,” said junior forward Jake Cohen, who is averaging 14 points and six rebounds a game. “If we come out and play well and play our game we’ll be in it in the end.”