PORTLAND - Although the opening game of the NCAA West Regional Thursday features a matchup of two teams from the South, Louisville and Davidson, it also has a distinct New York City flavor. That's because both coaches and one the the best players hail from the Big Apple.
Sophomore guard Russ Smith, the Cardinals' spark off the bench, honed his skills and took his lumps on the New York playgrounds. Davidson coach Bob McKillop is from Queens and says he played in pickup games against UofL coach Rick Pitino, who was born a few blocks from Madison Square Garden.
Fourth-seeded UofL (26-9) will try to avoid its third-straight first-round exit when it meets Davidson (25-7) of the Southern Conference at 1:40 p.m. EDT in the Rose Garden.
McKillop says Smith's go-for-broke, fearless style of play is clearly a product of a youth spent in no-holds-barred city pickup games, which made him tougher.
"There are steel backboards and steel rims, and there's no nets and there's wind and cold," McKillop said. "So the touch on the ball, the feel on the ball is not conducive to shooting jump shots, it's conducive to going to the rim, to finding a crack, to finding an opening. You're going to fight every way possible to score so you can stay on the court. And you're going to get hit."
Russ, who is UofL's second-leading scorer at 11.4 ppg and is third in assists (70), says he considers it a compliment when people refer to him as a city guard.
"It means always being in attack mode, playing aggressive, fearless," he said. "No matter what size you are, just giving it your all, playing with no conscience and a high level of confidence. If you make a mistake, go out there and try and get it done next time. A lot of New York city guards are like that; I guess that's what makes us so good."
McKillop says he has known Pitino since the 1960s, played against him in summer pickup games and also in college. McKillop also recalled that when he was coaching at Holy Trinity High School and Pitino was just starting his career as an assistant at Syracuse, Pitino played pickup games on his recruiting visits to the school.
"I've known Bob for a long, long time," Pitino said. "I always had great respect for him. He's not only a tremendous basketball coach, he's a tremendous person. Great for the game. It's great to rekindle from playing against him to now coaching against him."
CARDS' TRIO 'FEROCIOUS'
McKillop described UofL's front line of Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan and Kyle Kuric as "ferocious." "They're ferocious defensively, they're ferocious on the glass and when they have the ball in their hands. They find a way to get to the rim, they find a crack. And they're highly skilled."
HOMECOMING FOR SIVA
The game marks a homecoming of sorts for UofL junior point guard Peyton Siva, who is from Seattle, three hours north and an easy drive on I-5. So he expects a large contingent of friends and family -- including his mother, father, brother and sister -- to make the trip to watch him play.
"Nobody else on the team really wanted to come to Portland except me," Siva said. "It's great to come back to the Northwest. It's pretty exciting and it should be fun."