DENVER — It has been only two years, but a lot has changed since Louisville beat Morehead State by 20 points in the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
The Eagles were a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed bunch happy just to be in the tournament as a No. 16 seed after beating Alabama State in the play-in game.
Bookends Kenneth Faried and Demonte Harper were young sophomores still finding their way. Faried showed a sign of things to come with a 14-point, 11-rebound performance in that game while Harper scored just two points on 1-for-9 shooting.
Things are much, much different for the Eagles now as they prepare for the rematch with U of L Thursday in Southwest Regional action in the Pepsi Center.
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Instead of needing the play-in game to get in the Big Dance, Morehead is a solid No. 13 seed that battled tooth-and-nail on the road with the tourney's top overall seed (Ohio State) and the West Region's No. 2 seed (Florida).
Faried is now the all-time leading rebounder in college basketball, while Harper, in the words of Morehead State Coach Donnie Tyndall, has gone from a "very good mid-major player to a guy who can play anywhere in the country."
"We've grown up since then," Harper said. "Now it's just totally different for us because we've grown physically and mentally."
"We've been through a lot of tough games, hard games," Faried said. "We went to Florida this year, played them tough. Ohio State, played them tough. So we know what's expected from us as a team.
"We had a very good team in '09," Tyndall said. "I think this team is a little bit better. The fact that the two guys that are going to have the ball in their hands about 80 percent of the time are seniors and been through it, and are battle-tested I think will lend itself to us playing well and with a little bit of confidence on Thursday."
The Cardinals also have a drastically different look than the 2009 team that went into the tourney as the top overall seed and featured three current NBA players (Terrence Williams, Earl Clark and Samardo Samuels). This year's version doesn't have any surefire pros, but it has been long on grit, chemistry and team play.
And according to senior guard Preston Knowles, that's a good thing. The 2009 team flamed out to Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
"I'm actually a lot more confident this year," Knowles said. "Everybody's on the same page, nobody cares about who scores or who gets shots, and nobody's worried about anything that's going on outside the locker room. To me, anything less than a Final Four is unacceptable."
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said the 2011 Cardinals have had to pay the price to get to where they're at after being picked eighth in the Big East in the pre-season.
"Really, they've had to fight every single day to not only get better — every game we've played this year, we've had to come back, hold serve to win it," he said. "We've played a lot of close, hard-fought ball games. We finished the season No. 11 in the country. We finished the season playing in the Big East championship game. We finished the season a four seed and we're really, really proud of all those accomplishments."
While Tyndall acknowledged his respect for Pitino and Louisville as a program, he also admitted that the Cards are probably a better draw than most of the other teams in a similar seeding range simply from a familiarity standpoint.
After the 2009 game, Tyndall and his staff spent time with the Louisville staff and picked up many of its defensive principles, including the 2-3 zone and the 2-2-1 press.
"We are familiar with their team, their system," Tyndall said. "We play very similar at the defensive end and I think that lends itself to us having a little bit more confidence than, say, it was a Carolina or Duke that may not be any better than Louisville, but yet we haven't played them before. We haven't familiarized ourselves with their programs or players like maybe we have with Louisville's."
The Eagles definitely feel good about their chances. When asked if his team is more confident going into the game than it was two years ago, Faried said, "Well, we're not less confident."
But the Cardinals aren't lacking for confidence, either, and they're also playing with a chip on their collective shoulders, feeling slighted after getting a No. 4 seed.
"Morehead's definitely a better team now," Knowles said. "They have better players and Faried has gotten stronger. But I think we're the better team. I think we're the deeper team. I think we have the better coaching staff. If we just come out, execute and take care of business, we should be OK."