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March 22, 2013
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Maybe it's gamesmanship. Maybe Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino is just trying to give Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy something else to think about. Or maybe Pitino was serious Friday afternoon when he indicated during a press conference that he is considering a change in his starting lineup for today's third-round NCAA Tournament game against the Rams of the Mountain West Conference.
We'll find out at 5:15 p.m., which is when top-seeded UofL (30-5) and No. 8 Colorado State (26-8) meet in Rupp Arena to determine which team will advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the Midwest Regional next week in Indianapolis.
What has Pitino concerned is the Ram-tough rebounding of CSU, which leads the nation with a 12.4 rebounding margin and clobbered No. 9 Missouri on the boards 36-18 in Thursday's 84-72 second-round victory. UofL's rebounding margin, meanwhile, is a modest 3.8, which ranks 64th.
"I probably have to make a change or two, definitely maybe one tomorrow," Pitino said. "I have to get a little more rebounding into my team starting out the game to make sure we don't get too far behind. I'm going to sleep on it, watch a little more film before I decide. But it's really important, especially in the beginning of this game, that we don't get killed on the backboard."
The Rams use an rare approach, sending virtually everyone to crash the glass. Four players are averaging five rebounds or more, led by 6-10, 261-pound center Colton Iverson, a Minnesota transfer who is pulling down 9.8 per game and had 13 against the Tigers.
The Cards have only two players averaging five or more boards -- center Gorgui Dieng at 9.9 and forward Chane Behanan at 6.6. If Pitino does, indeed, make a change, the logical one would be to replace small forward Wayne Blackshear (3.2 rpg) with either Montrezl Harrell (3.7 rpg) or Stephan Van Treese (3.2 rpg), the latter UofL's most effective boardman per minute played.
Aside from rebounding, CSU has some other strong suits too. The five seniors are all seniors, the Rams average only 10 turnovers per game and they're deadly free throw shooters. They hit 27-of-33 against Missouri.
"They do it all," Pitino says. "They pass, they shoot. They do everything fundamentally almost perfect."
Of course, CSU coach Larry Eustachy -- a close friend and former high school teammate of UofL athletic director Tom Jurich and a candidate to replace Denny Crum before Pitino was hired 12 years ago -- also has plenty to worry about. Foremost is UofL's full-court pressure defense, which is forcing nearly 19 turnovers per game. In Thursday's 79-48 rout of No. 16 North Carolina A&T, the Cards set an NCAA Tournament record with 20 steals. Russ Smith had eight, while Peyton Siva and Blackshear got four each.
"Apparently, they're the best team in the country," Eustachy says. "They do the best job in getting teams to turn it over, so we're going to have to really take care of the ball and handle their different types of full-court pressure. If we don't do that, we might as well go home."
Eustachy says the Rams are playing their best basketball of the season, but "I think we can play better. I really do. We're limited, we're not the most athletic or the highest-jumping team, but we have a lot of heart. I believe in these guys. More importantly, they believe in themselves, and it's quite a team."
Colorado State's win over Missouri was its first in the NCAAs since it beat Florida in 1989. Last year the Rams lost to Murray State 58-41 and they're 3-7 overall in the tournament.