LOUISVILLE — The way Rick Pitino sees it, the fun doesn't really start in the NCAA Tournament until you reach the Sweet 16. As the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, the Cards escaped a tougher-than-expected opening weekend and can now focus on Friday's Midwest Regional semifinals matchup with No. 12 seed Arizona.
"The first two games, there is pressure," Pitino said. "You have four games to play before you get to the Final Four. Now, you're a weekend away from the Final Four. You can touch it. You can smell it."
One reason Pitino probably views the Sweet 16 as fun is because he's never lost a regional semifinal game in eight tries.
"He's been in this position so much that nothing's new to him," senior guard Andre McGee said. "Times have changed, and decades have passed, but he's still running the same plays and playing the same style of ball. We trust in him that, at the end of the game, what he tells us is going to work."
Pitino's past NCAA Tournament teams at Kentucky and Louisville often manhandled opponents in the early rounds, but the Cardinals had to work to get out of Dayton. They led No. 16 seed Morehead State by two points before pulling away in the second half, and they trailed eighth-seeded Siena by four with 7:45 left before rallying for a 79-72 win.
That wrapped up a taxing two-week period for Louisville. The Big East might be the toughest conference ever, validated by a record five teams reaching the Sweet 16, and the Cardinals won a meat-grinder on the road at West Virginia to clinch the regular-season title. Then they had to erase halftime deficits against Villanova and Syracuse to win the conference tournament.
Sensing his team needed a break after the Siena victory, Pitino gave the players Monday off before resuming practice on Tuesday.
He used the team's post-game demeanor after the Siena game as an indicator.
"When you went in the locker room, you didn't see a lot of celebration," he said. "That didn't mean they weren't happy. It was just that, mentally, they were beat and needed a day off. You had to fight your brains out mentally, playing in this conference, doing what we accomplished. Let's get home and have a day off."
U of L went back to practice on Tuesday to prepare for an Arizona team that Pitino said is 'almost identical' to the Cardinals in terms of style of play.
"You'd think you're watching us, the way they play," Pitino said. "They press the same way. They play zone with a half-court trap the way we run it. They cause turnovers and try and create havoc the way we do. It's kind of eerie watching how similar they are."
The Wildcats (21-13) were one of the last teams to make the field. but they easily dispatched No. 5 seed Utah and No. 13 seed Cleveland State in the first two rounds. Pitino said Arizona has three future NBA players in junior forward Chase Budinger (17.9 ppg), junior center Jordan Hill (18.4 ppg, 11 rpg) and point guard Nic Wise (15.7 ppg), and Louisville recruited Arizona sophomore forward Jamelle Horne out of high school.
The last time Pitino faced Arizona in the tournament was 1997, when the fifth-seeded Wildcats beat Kentucky in the championship game.
"It's obvious how much talent they have and how well they're playing," Pitino said. "And sometimes you throw out the regular season. I know that first-hand because they beat three No. 1 seeds (in 1997), including us in overtime to win the national title."