By ASHLEY ANDERSON
A little over a month after the Cards upset Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the University of Louisville is set for another takeover of the sports world â€“ this time in the NCAA basketball tournament.
On March 23, Coach Rick Pitino and his top-seeded team earned the right to appear in the Sweet Sixteen, where theyâ€™ll face No. 12 seed Oregon at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday, March 29. With an immense sea of red swallowing rival Kentuckyâ€™s home court Rupp Arena, the same electrifying, Cardinal-crazy crowd is expected to flood downtown Indianapolis Friday and Sunday. â€œItâ€™s going to be great seeing the stadium painted red again,â€ said UofL forward Stephan Van Treese, a native of Indiana.
After last weekendâ€™s games in Lexington, much of the Cardinal faithful assured theyâ€™d continue to follow Louisville to each playing venue throughout the entirety of the tournament. â€œIâ€™m ready to follow them as long as they stay in,â€ said fan Gary Budd, better known as â€œThe Real Red Bird,â€ an alter ego he assumes for each game, painting his face red and yellow and donning a red wig. â€œWe can always go with the past, present and whatever, but I feel real confident with this team. Itâ€™s a little something different.â€
Seeming to breeze through the second and third round of the tournament, with a 31-point win over No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T and a 26-point victory against No. 8 seed Colorado State, the Cards now face a matchup that may present more of a challenge. Thus far, Louisvilleâ€™s tenacious defense has proven too difficult for opponents and a key to Cardinal victories. â€œWeâ€™re trying to get 35 deflections per game, if you do that youâ€™re going to win 95 percent of your games,â€ Coach Rick Pitino told The Voice-Tribune.
Coming off an NCAA tournament-record 20 steals in the North Carolina A&T blowout, Louisville is focused on remaining humble and hungry, especially after falling short of the NCAA Finals and losing to UK in the Final Four last year. â€œWeâ€™re just trying to take it one game at a time and not get ahead of ourselves preparing every game like itâ€™s a huge game, because it could be your last one,â€ said co-captain Luke Hancock.
With the leadership of junior guard Russ Smith and his stellar performances in the second and third round, Louisville is predicted to fly high in the Sweet Sixteen. Smith scored 27 against Colorado State and 23 against North Carolina A&T. His efforts evenÂ earned a mention on Twitter from LeBron James of the Miami Heat. â€œHeâ€™s going to go crazy once he finds out that LeBron was tweeting about him,â€ Peyton Siva laughed after the Colorado State game. â€œNow, if (Smithâ€™s favorite NBA player) Kevin Durant tweets about him, he might lose his head.â€
Known for his â€œRussdiculousâ€ antics, Smith has kept his cool, while entertaining the masses with videos, such as his recent spoof of YouTube sensation â€œKid President,â€Â a youngster named Robbie Novak who was born in 2003 and has made several videos, including one that has been viewed more than 10 million times.
â€œI donâ€™t know (what video Iâ€™ll make next),â€ Smith told The Voice-Tribune. â€œWeâ€™re going to talk about it but I like doing things like that.â€ Rest assured, Hollywood comes second to the UofL baller. â€œWe play really hard for each other, we grind every day,â€ Smith said. â€œWeâ€™re on the floor, we do things and we practice until we canâ€™t practice anymore.â€
Smith isnâ€™t the only one to elevate his game lately. Reserves, including Montrezl Harrell and Van Treese, have played key minutes for the Cardsâ€™ impressive victories in the tournament.â€œI really didnâ€™t have any fear when I first stepped on the court,â€ said Harrell, a 6-8 freshman. â€œI never have fear when I step on this court because when I play this game, I play the game because I love it.â€
Junior Gorgui Dieng echoed the importance of the entire team stepping up in the tournament. â€œAt this time of the year, we donâ€™t need someone to have a great game, we need the whole team to step up and play your role,â€ he said.
Fans are certainly taking notice of the collective, dominant effort from the Cards. â€œI think theyâ€™re very cohesive, I think they get along well together, I donâ€™t think there are big egos,â€ said Elaine Conway, a 30-year fan of Louisville. â€œI think they have a lot of fun and I think they just know and respect what theyâ€™re doing.â€
Arguably a sort of sixth man for Louisville, the massive crowd clad in red at Rupp Arena helped amp up the energy on Pitinoâ€™s team. Now, Louisville is hoping to see the same type of support â€“ and even more â€“ in the weeks leading to the ultimate goal destination: Atlanta. â€œThey gave me a reason to tell Coach P I couldnâ€™t hear him when they were cheering really loud,â€ Siva joked. â€œWe love them. We love to see them there. Itâ€™s great for them to get to paint Rupp red. Itâ€™s great to see them there, and hopefully they follow us down to Indianapolis.â€
On Friday, Louisville will face its next test against Oregon at Lucas Oil Stadium. Should the Cards win, theyâ€™ll play the winner of No. 2 seed Duke and No. 3 seed Michigan State, the school which beat in 2009 then-overall No. 1 seed Louisville in the Elite Eight at the same Indianapolis venue. The game would be a shot at redemption for the Cards, but not just against Tom Izzoâ€™s Spartans. Itâ€™ll also be a chance to prove the naysayers wrong if they earn a spot once more in the Final Four.
â€œ(The Sweet Sixteen) is a big accomplishment because we worked so hard throughout the year,â€ Siva said. â€œA lot of people wrote us off when we went through our three-game skid. But weâ€™re playing good right now, and the main thing is our bench is playing real well right now, and … the main factor for us is that theyâ€™re playing great and helping us out. When we come out there, weâ€™re not losing a step.â€
The tip-off of the Louisville-Oregon game is 7:15 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium. The game will be broadcast on CBS.
Contact writer Ashley Anderson at email@example.com, 502.498.2051.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune