This game shapes up as a classic.
Both teams are quite similar in several important regards. They're both explosive offensively, they both possess quick and athletic – though not necessarily tall - players, and they can each rely on an experienced lineup – the Cardinals start two seniors and two juniors, while the Huskies start two seniors and three juniors.
Many expect the game to be a shootout. Rick Pitino's Cardinals (31-4) led C-USA in scoring this year (81 ppg.), while Lorenzo Romar's Huskies (29-5) were even better, averaging nearly 87. Louisville starts four players – 6-7 Francisco Garcia (15.9), 6-4 Larry O'Bannon (14.9), 6-3 Taquan Dean (14.1), and 6-8 Ellis Myles (10.3) – who average double-figure points; Washington boasts three players – 5-7 Nate Robinson (16.6), 6-5 Trey Simmons (16.2), and 6-6 Bobby Jones (11.3).
"They're the highest scoring team in the Pac-10," Pitino said of the Huskies. "They're an explosive offensive basketball team. You can't key on (stopping) one person, if you do, two or three other guys can burn you. So you have to play great team defense."
"They're transition game is outstanding," added Pitino. "It's not just one concern, it's about 7 or 8 major concerns for us, and we've got to be ready for all of those."
Much also has been made of Albuquerque's 5,314 feet altitude. And if the thin New Mexico air becomes a factor, depth figures to play an important role in the game's outcome.
"I really don't think it's a factor," Pitino said. "We've talked to a lot of Olympic people, and unless you're here 21 days you're not going to get acclimated to it anyway. Everybody is in the same boat. You must hydrate your players more than you would elsewhere. I've been here before as a coach and it's really not a factor. We practiced all day yesterday and didn't even notice it."
Louisville's O'Bannon, who is averaging 18 points the last seven games, thinks it's a mind over matter situation.
"(We) feel good," said O'Bannon. "I think it's (altitude) just a mental thing. It didn't affect me at all when I was playing yesterday at practice."
Romar, though, has expressed concern about the altitude. That's why he scheduled his team to arrive in Albuquerque on Monday, a full day ahead of Louisville, to better acclimate his team to the city's high elevation.
"As a result of that decision, I don't think it'll be a factor for us either," said Romar. "I think if you walk in here and get off the plane and go play a game, it's (altitude) a factor."
"We're used to it now, especially after playing in Boise (last week)," Huskies guard Nate Robinson said. "It can't be an issue. We're trying to win this ballgame so we've got to be tougher than they are and be ready to play."
While the two team's offenses and proficiency for scoring have been the focus leading up to the game, defense will likely separate winner from loser Thursday night.
With many expecting an offensive shootout,
defense could be the game's determining
"We're an interesting defensive team," said Pitino. "We're fourth in the country in field goal defense, and we've played more zone and pressed less because of injury. When we got healthy, we started pressing again and playing more aggressive man. Then we got hurt again, and backed it off again. So it's been a roller coaster for us defensively, we've had to change all year long. And it's made us a very good team. We've played some games in the 50's and 60's, and then we've played some games in the 90's."
Pitino says the balanced Huskies present an even greater challenge than the Yellow Jackets did in the second round.
"They're very different in size," said Pitino. "There's nobody 7-1, and they shoot it at all five positions where Georgia Tech at times shoots it at only two or three. So that makes it more difficult to play zone, and help off your defenses. Matching up, from a preparation standpoint, this is the most difficult opponent we've played against all season in terms of developing a scheme to stop them."
Controlling the game's tempo, and slowing the Huskies explosive offense, appears to be Louisville's primary focus. And while the Cardinals want to control the tempo, don't expect them to sit on the ball.
"We're probably looking for a game in the 70's," Pitino said.
"It will be a great game," O'Bannon said. "Two great offensive teams going at it, it's just going to come down to who plays the best defense, and who can get the most easy baskets."
"We definitely want to control the tempo, but we'll pick our spots when we run and when we'll slow the ball down," said O'Bannon. "We want to slow them down because they have an awful lot of speed, but we're definitely not going to turn into a half court type of game. We will run, but we'll pick and choose our spots when we do that."
ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb believes the Cardinals have to weather Washington's initial surge on offense to knock off the Pac-10 tourney champion Huskies.
"The match-up breaks down as this," Gottlieb said. "(Louisville) can not be overwhelmed by Washington's speed and quickness the first ten minutes of the game. There's always an adjustment that a team has to go through because (Washington) is so fast, so quick and athletic.
Now Louisville, because of their style of play and the length of their guards, I think they'll be able to keep Washington at arms length, and I think this will be a very close, hotly contested game," he added.
And while Louisville, winners of 20 of their last 21 games, will seek to dictate tempo, the Huskies insist they're not about to deviate from what got them to their first Sweet 16 since 1998.
"We can't change our (game) plan, or what we do best, which is score points and get up and down the court," Huskies guard Will Conroy said. "We can't hide what we do because they're a good defensive team. We've got to come out and make them adjust to the way we play. If we sit back and play on our heels we'll be at a disadvantage. We play better when we score in the 80's and 90's. If it's in the 50's or 60's, that plays more into Louisville's hands."
"We have to do what we've done all year," Conroy added. "Play hard, leave it all on the floor, gang rebound, and stay together. Once you get this far, it's not about changing up or doing something different, it's about doing what you've been doing and sticking to the program."
This will be the third meeting between the two programs. Louisville and Washington have split the two previous meetings.