ORLANDO-- Feeling fortunate to have survived their 'Whew!' moment in the NCAA Tournament and avoid joining other high seeds on the sideline the first weekend (see Duke, Cincinnati, Ohio State, Oklahoma, etc.), Louisville's Cardinals hope to get their February-March mojo back Saturday afternoon.
Seeking their third straight Sweet Sixteen appearance, the fourth-seeded Cards (30-5) will meet No. 5 Saint Louis (27-6) at 2:45 in the Amway Center.
Both teams proved to be escape artists in Thursday night's games. The Billikens overcame a 14-point deficit in the last five minutes against North Carolina State to pull out an 83-80 win in overtime and UofL struggled against upset-minded No. 13 Manhattan for 38 minutes before Russ Smith and Luke Hancock came to the rescue in a 71-64 victory.
Center Stephan Van Treese, a veteran of four previous NCAA teams -- one as a spectator while sidelined with an injury -- and the victim of two one-and-done losses, says the Cards are glad to have their first game behind them.
"It is a big relief," Van Treese says. "I lost in the first round two years in a row and I feel like the first game is always the toughest, just trying to get over the hump. Everyone's kind of nervous, you don't want to miss shots or mess up in other ways and to get past the first game is always a big relief."
The Cards have been challenged only a few times the past 2 1/2 months or so -- this was just their fourth single-digit win all season -- and they think the adversity they faced from Manhattan will pay dividends against Saint Louis and possibly farther along the tournament trail if they beat the Billikens.
"I think it was very good for this team," guard Tim Henderson says. "I feel like it was a big-time wakeup call in a sense. Now we know if we do face adversity and we're down three with a minute left, we can come back from that. We knew last year's team had that poise and determination in them, and now we know we've got it in this year's team too. It just really boosted our confidence even more."
Said Chris Jones: "If we had gotten settled we would have beaten them by 40 and probably lost to Saint Louis. Being in a tight game like that to start the tournament is great for everyone. You're not going to beat people by 30 points every game."
Henderson's and Jones' theory will get no argument from their coach.
"We needed a win like that desperately," Pitino said. "Winning by 60 and 40 doesn't make you a better basketball team. We're really excited we had a tight, hard-fought win."
Jones and freshman guard Terry Rozier said they were impressed by the Billikens' intensity and expect the same Saturday.
"We're going to have to battle the whole game, no matter how many points we're up," Rozier said. "Because that team is going to fight to the end of the buzzer."
Saint Louis is a veteran team featuring five senior starters, four of whom average in double figures. Like UofL, the Billikens' calling card is defense; they've held opponents to 40 percent shooting, including jut 28.7 from three-point range, and 61.8 ppg.
The game could feature a bruising battle inside between Louisville's 6-8, 235-pound Montrezl Harrell and Saint Louis' 6-11, 245-pound Australian, Rob Loe, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds against N.C. State and can also move outside, where he hit 4-of-6 from behind the arc Thursday night. Harrell also had a double-double of 12 points and 13 boards, along with four blocks. Harrell played the last six minutes with four fouls, and the Billikens will try to attack him and Van Treese in the paint immediately.
"We're going to try and get the ball inside a lot and early," Saint Louis guard Jordair Jett said. "See if we can get their big men a couple of quick fouls."
Saint Louis coach Jim Crews says there are two keys to beating the Cards that go hand-in-hand.
"Number one is you've got to be ball strong," Crews says. "You've got to be able to handle the basketball because they put a lot of pressure on you. If you're not good offensively, it hurts your defense and you've got to do a lot of things in the half-court defense."
After their close call against Manhattan, there are surely a number of people who are saying the Cards proved they are vulnerable.
"It's better than saying we're out," Harrell said. "We're still here."
For at least another day.
RUSS MADNESS-- Smith said his NCAA bracket is a total mess, and Pitino was asked if he had helped his zany senior guard make his picks, prompting a humorous response from the coach.
"I try to spend as little time with that maniac as possible," Pitino said. "I would lose my mind. I spend enough time with him, with his texts late at night, his videos late at night, what he watches. On my 60th birthday at 1:30 in the morning, I get videos of Samurais being stabbed 100 times. I spend as little time with him as I possibly can so I can keep my sanity."
MVP--Although Smith had 18 points, Hancock 16 and Harrell a double-double, Pitino's choice for MPV of the win over Manhattan was Jones, his junior guard.
"By far," Pitino said. "Now, he may have been 2-for-11, but he was 6-of-6 at the free throw line, five rebounds, three assists, no turnovers playing 33 minutes. Russ and Montrezl played very poor, but played like All-Americans when the game was on the line. But Chris Jones played a terrific game."
SLEEPLESS IN ORLANDO-- The Manhattan game didn't end until nearly 1 a.m. Friday and the Cards didn't get back to their hotel room until 2 o'clock. Jones said he didn't go to sleep until 4, but that Pitino let the players sleep in that morning.
"He knows the benefits of rest for the NCAA Tournament," Jones said. "We needed that, or somebody was going to get sleepy on the bench during the game."