INDIANAPOLIS — As Louisville and Duke meet in Sunday's Midwest Region finals in Lucas Oil Stadium, the two teams can draw on the fact they have already met once this season.
Then again, they haven't.
Louisville center Gorgui Dieng, out with a wrist injury, did not see the floor in U of L's 76-71 loss to the Blue Devils in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas back on Nov. 24.
And yet, with 8:17 left, even without Dieng, the Cards led Duke 59-58.
"In the Bahamas, it was a battle," Duke guard Quinn Cook, who was the Atlantis MVP, said Saturday. "All 40 minutes. Guys stepped up at the end of the game and I was fortunate enough to hit a shot down the stretch and hit some free throws."
Indeed, Cook scored Duke's final eight points over the game's final 1:13 as the Blue Devils secured the win.
"We played a very good game that night, had a chance of winning," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said Saturday. "They were just a little bit better down the stretch."
Four months have passed. Louisville tied for the Big East regular-season title. Duke finished second in the ACC. After winning the Big East Tournament, Louisville was seeded No. 1 overall for the NCAA Tournament. After losing in the ACC semifinals, Duke was seeded second in the loaded Midwest Region.
And while Louisville had to play without Dieng for much of December, Duke played with Seth Curry battling a stress facture and without Ryan Kelly for much of January and February.
"Curry has gotten healthier," Pitino said of the Duke guard who scored 29 points in the Blue Devils' win over Michigan State on Friday night. "They learned to play without Kelly and we learned to play without Gorgui. Now (Kelly) comes back and they're better. Gorgui comes back and we're better."
According to Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, there aren't many better than Louisville's guards.
"Their guards lived in our paint," remembered Krzyzewski from the November meeting. "and they've lived in a lot of people's paint over the year."
That included Friday night when, despite a cold, Louisville's Russ Smith matched a career high by scoring 31 points in a 77-69 win over No. 12 seed Oregon.
"There's not a better transition guard in the country — I'm trying to think of one in recent memory — than Smith," Krzyzewski said. "He is courageous, plays with great heart."
Louisville also applies great pressure on the defensive end, turning opponents over at a near-record rate. Its offense feeds off its defense.
"We didn't play a stitch of defense (Friday) night," said Pitino of the Oregon game. "We're well-rested."
Does it help that the Blue Devils have already faced that pressure earlier in the season?
"It helps a lot," Duke freshman Rasheed Sulaimon said. "To have that familiarity that we had playing them earlier in the season is a great help. We know how they are defensively and we know one of the big keys in the game is to handle that pressure."
On the other hand, "I think they're a better team now," Cook said of the Cardinals, "and they're playing the best basketball in the country."
That may be, but only one coach has been better than Krzyzewski in regional finals. The Duke coach is 11-1 — the one loss coming to Kentucky in 1998 — in Elite Eight games.
A win Sunday and Krzyzewski ties UCLA's legendary John Wooden in Final Four appearances with 12.
That Coach K is 1-0 over Louisville this season doesn't really matter, however. That was the Battle 4 Atlantis. This is the battle to make it to Atlanta.
"Elite Eight games are huge anyway," Krzyzewski said, "but this one, I think it's like a national championship game."
Louisville vs. Duke
What: NCAA Tournament Midwest Region finals
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis
When: 5:05 p.m.
Radio: WHAS-AM 840
Records: Louisville 32-5, Duke 30-5
Seeds: Louisville No. 1, Duke No. 2
Series: Duke leads 5-3
Last meeting: Duke won 76-71 on Nov. 24, 2012, in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.