The road begins in Rupp for the Cardinals

LEXINGTON – The quest towards a third national title for the University of Louisville men's basketball team will begin on Thursday in a strange place – Rupp Arena. The Cardinals talked with Cardinal Authority about playing the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the arena of their biggest rival. U of L will play North Carolina A&T at 6:50 p.m. on Thursday night.

University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino walked onto the floor in Rupp Arena on Wednesday afternoon to a round of cheers.

It was likely the first time since Pitino left the University of Kentucky after the 1997 season that he wasn't booed when he entered the building.

Pitino led the top-seeded Cardinals into Rupp Arena where they'll open NCAA Tournament play on Thursday night against North Carolina A&T. The Cardinals will begin play at 6:50 p.m. and could play two games at Rupp Arena.

"It's weird being here and not playing Kentucky," senior guard Peyton Siva said. "But I'm happy not to be playing Kentucky here, because I haven't had great success playing Kentucky at Kentucky. It feels good to have the No. 1 overall seed, play in a close location for our fans.

"And we look forward to going out there and playing our hardest like we would at any other court. We could play at the YMCA, and I guarantee Coach Pitino would have us pressing full court. We're going to play hard no matter where it is."

But it was a little odd to watch the Cardinals and about 750 fans in Rupp Arena the day after Kentucky's season ended with an NIT loss at Robert Morris.

"It is kind of weird," U of L center Stephan Van Treese said. "The crowd is going to be red and not booing us and that's going to be different from the other times we have been in this building. We'll have fans cheering for us."

U of L is expected to have a majority of the fans but Rupp Arena officials said on Wednesday afternoon there were still tickets available.

"I think we're going to end up seeing a lot of fans and that will be nice," freshman Montrezl Harrell said. "Louisville fans are the greatest and I think they're going to come out and see us here."

U of L coach Rick Pitino was asked several times during his news conference about playing at Kentucky and if it was "any extra special," especially after UK lost on Tuesday night in the NIT.

Pitino noted that he doesn't have "the personality to revel in anybody else's failure," after asked the question for a second time.

"We wanted to beat their brains in (last year's Final Four) semifinals, and we didn't," Pitino said of UK. "When we didn't, I wanted them to bring the championship back to Kentucky. I was rooting for them. I don't root against Kentucky except one game a year. I've very, very proud of this place.

"I had eight years where I didn't have a bad day here, so how could I root against them? So it wouldn't be that rewarding winning here. What would be rewarding would be the fact that we would get to Indianapolis."

It's not the first time that U of L has played in Rupp Arena and not been playing UK. The Cardinals beat Stanford and then lost to Texas A&M in the 2007 NCAA Tournament held at Rupp Arena.

But for many of the players, the close proximity to campus is nice because there will be more fans in the stands. U of L played the first two rounds in Portland, Ore., last season before traveling to Phoenix and ending up in New Orleans.

"We were away last year and didn't have many fans." Van Treese said. "But we pushed through it. I think it will be much nicer to have fans cheering for us."

Junior guard Russ Smith said playing at Rupp Arena is not on his mind and won't be when the ball is tipped on Thursday.

"We have business to handle," Smith said. "We have to win the game tomorrow and I know that's what's on my mind and not the environment."

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