Rival Wildcats look to derail Cards’ repeat hopes

Louisville's Russ Smith, left, battles Kentucky's James Young for a loose ball during a game in December. The Wildcats won that game and have won five of six against the defending champions. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Louisville’s Russ Smith, left, battles Kentucky’s James Young for a loose ball during a game in December. The Wildcats won that game and have won five of six against the defending champions. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville’s quest of fulfilling coach Rick Pitino’s hopes for the Cardinals repeating as national champions and becoming a “mini-dynasty” hinge on beating archrival Kentucky.

That’s going to be a tough challenge against the Wildcats, who have been a thorn in the Cardinals’ side.

Eighth-seeded Kentucky (26-10) enters Friday night’s Midwest Regional showdown against fourth-seeded Louisville (31-5) with a 3-2 edge in the NCAA tournament and a 31-15 series lead. The Wildcats have won five of the last six against Louisville, including at the 2012 Final Four en route to their eighth national championship, and a 73-66 victory in Lexington on Dec. 28.

Kentucky would love to dash Louisville’s dream of a third straight Final Four appearance, considering the Wildcats are trying to win their own second title in three years.

For Louisville to win, the Cardinals need to forget history and focused on what they’ve been doing to win 14 of their last 15.

“We’re looking for revenge,” former Louisville great Darrell Griffith said Wednesday. “We didn’t play a good game at Kentucky, and they’ve got a real good team (that’s) playing the way a lot expect them to play now.

“We’ve got a great team. We’re undersized, but that doesn’t matter. You see a lot of teams on the sidelines now. You play to your strengths and which team’s strengths prevail is the one that’s going to win. Everybody’s got to have their ‘A’ game from here on out.”

Both teams practiced on Wednesday before heading to Indianapolis and were unavailable for comment. They will hold news conferences on Thursday.

Louisville’s veteran squad aims to become the first repeat champions since Florida went back-to-back in 2006 and ‘07. Pitino set that as a goal and said before the season that the Cardinals have a chance to achieve “mini-dynasty” by running the table once again.

The Cardinals couldn’t get it done in their first meeting with the latest group of heralded Kentucky freshmen, who began the season ranked No. 1, expectations of winning the school’s ninth title and possibly going unbeaten.

And now they’re playing their best basketball of the year.

While the unbeaten projection went bust with the Wildcats’ loss to Michigan State in the season’s third game – not to mention, several defeats down the stretch – they’ve revived their title prospects with an impressive postseason highlighted by Sunday’s stunning upset of Wichita State.

The Wildcats seek another upset of a higher seed when they take on Louisville.

“It’s a big step for” the Wildcats, said former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who won the 1978 title. “They had a tough road in the second game against Wichita State, the only undefeated team in the tournament, and now they face Louisville.

“If they win that game, they’ll (possibly) have to face a No. 2 seed (Michigan) and maybe have to face two No. 1 seeds.”

Former Cardinals coach Denny Crum considers Friday’s game a fitting challenge for Louisville’s march toward another championship.

“It’s a rival game and it means moving on to the next level in the NCAA tournament, getting to the round of eight and having a chance to make it to a Final Four again,” said Crum, who won two titles with Louisville. “That’s the biggest motivation. Sure, it’s a rival game, but that’s just part of it. Both want to win, and that’s the way it should be.”

Pitino has been on both sides of the rivalry, winning the 1996 title with Kentucky while going 6-2 against Louisville. With the Cardinals he’s just 5-9 against the Wildcats and has called the 2012 Final Four loss to Kentucky in New Orleans one of the hardest to get over because of his belief in Louisville’s title potential.

The Cardinals fulfilled their coach’s dream last spring with the program’s third title and Pitino no doubt is hungry for another. It involves beating an old nemesis, but Griffith believes if Louisville can knock off Kentucky and everybody else, its dynasty credentials are set.

Said Griffith, “there’d be no doubt, with two titles and three straight Final Fours.”

Today’s games

Dayton vs. Stanford: Matt Kavanaugh has watched over the past several years as mid-major programs like Butler, VCU and George Mason have made runs to the Final Four.

The 6-foot-10 Dayton center said the Flyers would be a good addition to that list.

But another upstart double-digit seed stands in the way of that dream.

No. 11 Dayton (25-10) faces No. 10 Stanford (23-12) in the Sweet 16 of the South Region with the winner earning a shot at playing for a spot in the Final Four.

“Every year there’s that one team in the like final eight, Final Four that no one expected to be there, and that’s been our mantra like ‘Why can’t that be us this year?’” Kavanaugh said.

Both have reached this point by winning games against favored opponents. Dayton toppled Ohio State and Syracuse. Stanford foiled New Mexico and Kansas.

Now they’re into the second weekend of the tournament and ready to prove the early upsets were no fluke.

Wisconsin vs. Baylor: Baylor and Wisconsin have never met in a men’s basketball game. The Badgers are in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years, while the Bears have made it three times in the last five.

The teams studied their unfamiliar opponents during the break and emerged with mutual respect. The Bears admire the tenacity displayed all winter by Wisconsin, which beat five of its seven Top-25 opponents while playing one of the NCAA’s toughest schedules.

Wisconsin is similarly impressed by Baylor’s athleticism and offensive balance.

Arizona vs. San Diego State: It’s the third Sweet 16 appearance in four years for the Wildcats. The Aztecs are back for the first time since a 2011 loss to Connecticut as a No. 2 seed.