Mark Story: UofL bears hallmarks of an NCAA champ

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 23, 2013 

The Louisville Cardinals came to Lexington for the NCAA Tournament and — what are the odds? — found a form of red nirvana.

Wearing black and red, U of L fans packed Rupp Arena to the rafters for the Cardinals' round of 32 game with Colorado State. In what may have been a Rupp first, a couple of fans decked out in University of Kentucky T-shirts were shown on the giant video screens during the first half — and a crescendo of boos rained down upon them.

At halftime, the Cardinals-heavy crowd filled Rupp with chants of "Robert Morris! Robert Morris!"

"There was just a sea of red out there," Colorado State center Colton Iverson said later. "(And they were) very loud."

Yet for all the fun that U of L fans had filling the home of their archrival on the week the University of Kentucky lost in the NIT to unsung Robert Morris, what should have really created a sense of elation for U of L backers took place on the Rupp playing court.

Looking every bit like a team capable of claiming the national title, Rick Pitino's No. 1 overall seed Cardinals (30-5) pulverized No. 8 Colorado State (26-9) 82-56 to move into the Midwest Region semifinals against No. 12-seed Oregon.

Louisville got 27 points from Russ Smith, fried Colorado State with its withering defensive pressure and even outfought the nation's leading rebounding team on the glass.

"I don't want to put the pressure on Rick and his guys, but they're special," said Colorado State Coach Larry Eustachy afterwards. "... As impressive a team as I've ever been against."

Create a checklist of what a team with legitimate NCAA championship aspirations should show, and U of L displayed it in Rupp Saturday night.

Continue reading below the list of links.

NCAA Visitors Guide: Welcome to Lexington tournament-goers

NCAA bracket with game times, locations

Mark Story: Louisville bears the hallmarks of a champ

NCAA in Rupp: Louisville routs Colorado State, makes Sweet 16

Photos: Louisville-Colorado State fans, game action

NCAA in Rupp: Marquette over Butler

Photos: Butler-Marquette

A team that can win it all needs to be able to beat a good team at its own game. Against Colorado State, the Cardinals did just that.

Led by the raw-boned, 6-foot-10, 261-pound Iverson and forward Pierce Hornung, Colorado State had the best rebounding margin (+12.4) in the country entering the game. The Rams had only been outrebounded twice all season.

Yet U of L won the battle of the boards 29-24. Even more impressive was how the Cards did it. Nine Louisville players had between two and four rebounds.

"We knew the one thing we needed to do is beat them at their own game," said U of L center Gorgui Dieng. "We got on the glass as a group, and we mixed it up with them."

A team that can win it all needs to be able to impose its will on a good team. Before Saturday, Colorado State had not turned the ball over more than 16 times in a game all season. On average, it committed 10.9 miscues a game.

Faced with Louisville's frenetic — and, yes, very physical — full-court press, CSU already had 11 turnovers with more than four minutes left in the first half. For the game, the Rams lost the ball 20 times — which the Cards converted into 24 points.

"Just total chaos," Colorado State forward Greg Smith said of the U of L press.

Said Hornung: "We let what they did dictate how we played."

A team that can win it all needs a go-to scorer.

For the second-straight NCAA game, the 6-foot, 165-pound Smith was electric for Louisville. Draining three-pointers 4-of-7) and slithering by CSU defenders off the bounce, Smith scored 27 points.

On Twitter, even LeBron James noticed. "The lil homie Russ Smith putting on a show right now. #onfire," @KingJames tweeted during the game.

Has anyone ever loved Rupp Arena more than Russ Smith? In his last three games in the arena (vs. UK last season and two 2013 NCAA tourney contests), he has scored a combined 80 points.

"It's not 'Rupp Arena,'" chortled Louisville forward Chane Behanan, "it's 'Russ Arena.'"

Of course, in the past, the essence of Smith's game has been that, as likely as he is to shoot Louisville to victory, he has been equally prone to gunning the Cardinals out of a game.

"He's maturing, makes a lot better decisions now," said Louisville point guard Peyton Siva.

Next up for Pitino's Cardinals is Pac-12 Tournament champion Oregon. The No. 12 seeds have recorded NCAA tourney upsets of No. 5 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Saint Louis. A Pitino-coached team has never lost a round of 16 game (the coach is 10-0).

If Louisville plays four more games like it did in Lexington, Cardinal nirvana may just be getting started.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: Twitter: @markcstory. Blog:

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