LEXINGTON, Ky. — Before the NCAA Tournament begins, Rick Pitino likes to scan the list of teams, looking for a few sleepers he considers “dangerous.”
“It’s based on how many upperclassmen do they have that have stayed together and how much talent do they have,” the Louisville coach said Friday. “You have a lot of upperclassmen, but they may not be that good.”
Saint Louis made his cut. So did Oregon, which promptly reinforced Pitino’s genius by knocking off fifth-seeded Oklahoma State.
He was right on with La Salle, which took down Kansas State.
Davidson didn’t win, but Pitino could have told Buzz Williams days ago that the Wildcats were going to give his Marquette team fits.
Another team that would have been in his bracket is Colorado State, the overall No. 1 seed’s opponent today in the third round of the Midwest Regional.
“Five seniors, No. 1 rebounding margin team in the country, I know Larry (Eustachy) is a terrific coach,” Pitino said, ticking off the qualities that make the Rams so fearsome. “They have all the ingredients to be a great basketball team, and they are.
“I always look at talent and experience coming together, and Colorado State has both.”
The Cardinals’ 79-48 dismantling of North Carolina A&T on Thursday was so thorough, so ferocious it’s hard to imagine anyone interrupting their march to Atlanta.
Louisville set an NCAA Tournament record with 20 steals, and Russ Smith tied the individual mark with eight. Pitino couldn’t wait to tell Florida coach Billy Donovan, who played on Pitino’s 1987 Providence team that had shared the record with three other clubs.
The Cardinals forced a season-high 27 turnovers and had 67 deflections.
But, no offense to A&T, the Aggies were a dream matchup. They play a similar running, trapping style as the Cardinals but without the same blue-chip personnel.
The eighth-seeded Rams, however, are a team unlike many Louisville has seen this season.
Colorado State (26-8) is averaging a little over 40 rebounds per game — no, that’s not a misprint — and Colton Iverson is such a beast that, 27 minutes into Thursday’s game, he single-handedly had Missouri outrebounded (13-11).
“We have to do a better job on the glass,” Louisville guard Peyton Siva said. “We haven’t faced a team like this that rebounds with such tenacity.”
The Cardinals know that, though. It’s Colorado State’s offense that is something of a mystery.
The Rams use a motion offense much like Notre Dame — the same Notre Dame that beat the Cardinals in a five-overtime classic last month. Granted, Louisville won the next two meetings — handily — but they’d had some time to prepare. Pitino and his staff have one day now.
“Pure motion is very difficult,” Pitino said. “You have to have smart players who are triple-threat people — pass, catch and shoot — and you don’t get a whole lot of teams like that. This is a team that can do that.
“You can’t choreograph your defense to stop certain options in one day — because they run more freelance motion. So it is more difficult than the team that runs patterned sets and you can prepare for. They are very difficult to prepare for.”
What might impress Pitino the most is the Rams’ maturity. They have six players back from the team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year. Four of their five starters are seniors, and the fifth, Jon Octeus, is a redshirt sophomore.
The Rams appreciate Louisville’s reputation, but they’re not in awe of the Cardinals.
“We respect our opponent, but we feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country, and we believe in ourselves,” guard Dorian Green said.
“If we play well, we know that we can beat anybody in the country. We just have to go out there and do it.”
LOUISVILLE VS. COLORADO STATE
■ WHEN: 2:15 p.m. today
■ WHERE: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
■ TV: CBS (8)
■ LINE: Louisville -10.5; total 134.5