Louisville coach Rick Pitino has a decisive edge over Arizona's Russ Pennell in NCAA Tournament coaching experience. And it's not even close. While Pitino owns a 37-12 record in 14 NCAA appearances, taking five teams to the Final Four and winning the 1996 championship, Pennell, who took over for Lute Olsen last fall, boasts a 2-0 record in his first NCAA appearance as a head coach.
Pitino, though, understands better than most that players – not coaches – decide hotly contested Sweet 16 matchups in March.
"I don't believe it has anything to do with coaching at this point," Pitino said. "The players are going to determine who wins and loses. Obviously the coaching staff at Arizona has done a fabulous job not only getting their team to the NCAA Tournament but perform so well in the first two games."
While players, not coaches, determine the outcome on the court, Louisville's players have to gain confidence knowing that their coach has never lost a Sweet 16 contest. Pitino has coached eight teams in the Sweet 16 (1 at Providence, 5 at Kentucky, 2 at Louisville). He's a perfect 8-0 in those games. Give Pitino a week to prepare and he knows how to get it done in this key round of the tourney.
performance from Samardo Samuels
"We've just played real good basketball in the month of March," Pitino said. "We're risk takers this time of year and we have a lot of fun with it. I think those are variables to making a team successful in March."
Louisville is certainly having fun this month. The Cardinals are 8-0 since March 1st, including three wins in New York to claim the Big East Tournament title. On the way to that title, Louisville knocked off Villanova and Syracuse, teams still playing in the Sweet 16. Coming into Friday's game against Arizona, the Cardinals have won 12 consecutive games and 21 of their last 23 games.
Though Arizona didn't finish the season strong, losing five of their last six games, the Wildcats are scorching hot after defeating Utah and Cleveland State by an average of 13 points in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
"It takes time for any adjustment," Pitino said of Zona's up and down season. "They obviously had a coaching change and started to play different. So it just takes time to get cohesion and they peaked at the right time. They have outstanding talent with those three young men. They're as good as anybody in the country in terms of being draft picks."
Those ‘three' Pitino refers are 6-9 junior center Jordan Hill, 6-7 junior forward Chase Budinger and 5-9 junior point guard Nic Wise. Hill and Budinger both average about 18 points per game, while Wise is the team's top assist man and leader in steals with 51.
"They have an outstanding point guard, outstanding five-man and Budinger seems likes he's been around college basketball for a long time because he's been so brilliant," Pitino said. "They've got outstanding talent. They're a very dangerous opponent."
Pitino sees similarities between the way Louisville and Arizona apply pressure on defense. Both teams like to press and rely primarily on half court zone defenses. There are some big differences, though, between the two teams. For one, Louisville is much deeper than Arizona. The Cardinals routinely go 9 or 10 deep off the bench, while Arizona relies on a 6-7 man rotation. That depth has helped Louisville maintain constant pressure on opponents for 40 mintues, resulting in 318 steals and 215 blocked shots this season. Arizona, by contrast, only has 212 steals and 103 blocked shots this year.
"It's almost identical," Pitino said. "It's the closest I've seen two teams in the type of pressure they apply. Even our zone and their zone treat it more like a man to man than a zone. It's almost identical in what we're trying to accomplish. Defensively we're similar but offensively we're probably different."
That's partially because Louisville prefers more of a balanced approach on offense. While Arizona has three players that account for about 70 percent of their offense, Louisville has no player averaging more than 14 points per game.
For the Wildcats, 5-foot-9 point guard Nic Wise makes the team go. In Arizona's first two NCAA games, Wise scored 29 and 21, while handing out ten assists to lead the Wildcats to a surprising Sweet 16 appearance.
"They have a lightening quick point guard who is playing fabulous basketball," Pitino said. "He's great with his hands, great in the open court and causes a lot of havoc on defense. He's on a great run and shooting the ball very well. He's also one of the best guys I've seen splitting the pick and roll."
Wise might be the focus of Louisville's defensive efforts Friday. It's the cut the head, body dies theory. In three wins over Arizona this season, Arizona State held Wise to only 12-of-34 combined shooting from the floor. Arizona State won those three by an average of 10 points per game, including a 12-point win in the Pac-10 quarterfinals.
"Right now the 16 best teams in the country are left – the 16 teams probably with the most talent," Pitino said. "And in this region it doesn't get any better in terms of talent than Arizona, Kansas, Michigan State and us. We all have a lot of talented athletes who perform well under pressure."
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:07 on CBS.