AP Sports Writer
The Louisville Cardinals have shown that they are comfortable being front-runners in their season-long quest to go farther than last year's Final Four appearance.
Now, they enter the NCAA tournament as the overall No 1 seed. A familiar position for this squad, which was ranked No. 2 to start the season and was the preseason favorite to win the Big East.
Last year Louisville got hot during a surprising run in the Big East tournament and continued rolling to the Final Four.
Not this year.
The Cardinals (29-5) are on a 10-game winning streak and have captured their second straight Big East championship. Louisville opens play Thursday at Rupp Arena, about 75 miles east of its campus, against the winner of Tuesday's game between North Carolina A&T and Liberty.
"We are ecstatic to be the number one seed, particularly after finishing off one of the greatest conferences in the history of college basketball with a Big East Championship," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after the team returned home Sunday from New York, minutes before their seeding was announced.
"We know we will be challenged right away in one of the toughest brackets that I've seen in quite some time. I think our guys are up for the challenge. We look forward to it."
Louisville stumbled in January, losing three straight after rising to No. 1 in the poll. An epic five-overtime loss at Notre Dame followed a few weeks later, a game Louisville laments letting slip away in the final minute of regulation.
The Cardinals haven't lost since.
They enter the tournament off a 17-point win over Syracuse in the Big East final after trailing by 16 points with 15 minutes remaining. More importantly, Louisville begins a quest for a third NCAA title on the same roll that led to last year's Final Four berth before the Cardinals' semifinal loss to archrival Kentucky, which went on to win its eighth championship.
Stinging as that defeat was for Pitino, he has said it also revealed his team's potential for this season. And save for that midseason lull, the Cardinals have carried out their coach's vision.
They have ranked in the top three in turnovers per game and turnover margin thanks to a trademark trapping defense that has made things easier on the offensive end. Junior Russ Smith (18.1 points, 2.0 steals per game) and senior Peyton Siva (10.0 points, 2.2 steals, 5.9 assists) have been the most effective thieves, but everybody has bought into the program and contributed.
Those two also key an offense that doesn't shoot well at times but can be dangerous when it gets going. A lot depends on the mercurial Smith, nicknamed "Russdiculous" by Pitino because of his extremes in play.
Siva, twice named the Big East tournament's most outstanding player, is the veteran facilitator who can be a good option when his shooting is on. Center Gorgui Dieng (10.0 points) has developed a nice jumper to go along with solid rebounding (9.9) and shot blocking (2.5), while Chane Behanan continues growing as a power forward.
Louisville's main question is whether it has enough offense to make another deep run. The Cardinals are most effective in transition and have sometimes struggled when forced to play a halfcourt game. But a lot of work has yielded improved against zone defenses.
Siva and Dieng have also shown a knack for getting into foul trouble.
Unlike last season, Louisville returns with everyone healthy. Dieng, who missed seven games with a broken left wrist, has been able to hone his jumper as has Luke Hancock, who began the season with shoulder injuries.
The Cardinals also seem to have found their resolve after the Notre Dame loss. It took Pitino challenging them to win the final seven regular season games, but they've responded with a streak that has them with the target on their backs.
"I agree with the NCAA committee that they're the No. 1 overall seed, after watching them play last night and what they've done lately in the Big East," said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, 1993 Southeast Regional MVP on Kentucky's Final Four team coached by Pitino. The Cowboys could face Louisville if both schools advance to the Round of 16.
The way the Cardinals are playing right now, they appear to be in good shape of holding up their end of that potential matchup. Ford certainly believes so.
"That's, I would say, definitely the team to beat at this point," he said. "It would be nice to have the opportunity to make it that far and have a chance to play."
AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Stillwater, Okla., contributed to this report.
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