ORLANDO-- Rick Pitino has no problem with the lower-than-expected four seed his Louisville basketball team received for the NCAA basketball tournament -- or so he says. But he IS extremely critical of the Cardinals' matchups, one a certainty and the other a possibility.
Pitino doesn't like going against his former assistant coach Steve Masiello's Manhattan team in the Cards' debut Thursday night, and he also alluded to a possible rematch game with Kentucky in the Midwest semis in Indianapolis if both clubs win two games.
"Maybe they're a bunch of soccer ADs, I don't know," Pitino quipped about the selection committee.
The latter matchup, of course, is not a given, especially since eighth-seeded UK would probably have to get past top-seeded and undefeated Wichita State in St. Louis Sunday and UofL -- if it gets past Manhattan -- could be challenged by either No. 5 Saint Louis (26-6) or No. 13 North Carolina State (22-13), which beat Xavier in a First Four play-in game Tuesday night.
UofL (29-5) will meet No. 13 Manhattan (25-7) at 9:50 p.m. in the Amway Center. A victory would put them into a Saturday game, with the award being a third straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
"Sometimes when people say you fit the eye test, it depends on who's looking at it," Pitino says. "If you have a bunch of football ADs looking at it, how would they know what the eye test is?
Pitino is particularly disturbed about having to face Masiello. Their relationship started when Masiello was a 12-year-old ball boy during Pitino's stint coaching the New York Knicks. He was on Pitino's 1977 Final Four UK team, then served as his assistant at UofL for six years.
"But it (the seed) doesn't bother me; it really doesn't. What bothers me is playng Manhattan," Pitino says. "I don't like anything about this game. I think the pairings sometimes lack common sense. I don't think they would put Duke vs. North Carolina early on, so I don't know why they would put. . .if we are both lucky enough to advance. The matchups don't make any sense to me. I don't think it's fair. I don't know why they would do it."
The players who were around before Masiello took the Manhattan job three years ago shared their coach's disdain for playing the Jaspers.
"It will be different, that's for sure," said center Stephan Van Treese. "When he made the tournament, I was ecstatic for him, and then when I saw we were playing them, I felt bad. Obviously, I want to beat them, but I didn't want us to have to be the team to beat them."
No one is closer to Masiello than Russ Smith, a fellow New Yorker who was recruited by Masiello when he was an unheralded player that hardly anyone else was interested in.
"I love Coach Mas," Smith says. "We text each other almost every day. I haven't texted him since the pairings, though; I was afraid how he might take it. I hate that we're playing them."
Naturally, Pitino says Manhattan is capable of upsetting UofL, which is an 18-point favorite and the trendy pick to reach the Final Four and possibly win another title.
"This is anybody's game," Pitino says. "This is not a 1-16. It's not that type of game. He's got a veteran ballclub that I have great respect for. We could lose the game if we don't play well."
Pitino and Masiello have already met once, but with nothing approaching what's at stake Thursday night. In last year's season-opener, UofL beat the Jaspers by 28 points.
"The emotions are out of it after the first game," said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, also a Pitino protege. "Now Stevey just wants to kick his butt."
For his part, Masiello says he is looking forward to the challenge after guiding Manhattan to its first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade. The Jaspers got here by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament and Masiello says his team is hungry for more.
"I can tell them what steak tastes like, but they only know cheeseburgers," he says. "They need to taste it themselves."
Both coaches and the Louisville players say the teams are mirror images of each other, offensive and defensively -- pressing, running, emphasizing relentless defense and even using many of the same plays.
""They're the bigger, better version of us," Masiello says. "How they're a four seed, I have no idea. And they're playing THE best basketball of anybody in the country."
The Cards are a confident group as they open defense of their 2013 national championship, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be, having run roughshod over most opponents for the last 1 1/2 months.
"We're playing really well and we just need to keep doing what we've been doing," center Stephan Van Treese says.
Given their surprising seeding, will the Cards -- ranked No. 3 in the final AP regular season poll -- enter the tourney with a chip on their shoulders, feeling they have something to prove to any doubters out there?
"Maybe a little, but we haven't talked about that," senior guard Tim Henderson says. "We don't need any more movitation. We've got plenty because we want to repeat."