Stevens: Lobos' Path To Sweet 16 Goes Over Louisville Cardinals

March 17, 2012

Looking Ahead to Louisville:

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

In their NCAA bid for Lobo history and a Sweet 16 sweetness this New Mexico program has never tasted, Steve Alford's Lobos are more focused on the here and now - and each other.

Which could bring another tomorrow.

"We think of it as another opportunity to get a win for each other and another opportunity to play basketball for another week," said Lobo Kendall Williams of Saturday's second-round NCAA tip with Louisville.

"We're ready to get after it. No pressure. We haven't had pressure all year. The coaches have done a great job of taking that off our shoulders. We're ready to go out (Saturday) and really show what we're about."

What Lobo fans hope these Lobos are "about" is being a Lobo team that can take the court in Portland's Rose Garden, beat down tradition-rich Louisville and its GQ coach Rick Pitino, and carry a New Mexico program and its fans to their first-ever Sweet 16.

Yes, it's been a long time coming and too long by the count of most Lobo fans. Never is a long time.

And here comes another opportunity. This one comes in the form of the Cardinals, the Big East champions, who are favored by their No. 4 seed to be slightly better than No. 5 New Mexico. Ah, a chip for Alford to place on his Lobos' collective shoulder.

It's also a game of déjà vu, pay back, revenge.

The Lobos were on the cusp of the Sweet 16 in 1997 and trailing Louisville by a point in Pittsburgh as the clock ticked away. UNM's top scorer, Charles Smith, turned down a possible game-winning drive and passed the ball to defensive ace David Gibson, who drove and missed a shot off the glass after failing to see Lamont Long open on the baseline.

Louisville won 64-63 and went on to the Sweet 16.

It's a different time, a different place and different teams, but the 40 minutes of basketball to be played in the Rose Garden dangle the same carrot in front of Lobos and Cardinals' noses. Win and advance to another tomorrow. Lose and go home.

"You're in season 4 (postseason) where if you lose you don't get another one," said Alford. "So, there's pressure of that magnitude. But I think players have to deal with it. That's part of going through it."

The Lobos had pressure in their Thursday NCAA run with Long Beach State and Alford's Lobos stood the test. They won as a No. 5 seed and sent No. 12 Long Beach State home.

There will be pressure again against Louisville because not only is this a storied program richly decorated in basketball tradition, but the Cardinals are better than the 49ers.

The 49ers won the Big West. The Cardinals won the Big East. There is a difference.

Louisville advanced with a 69-62 win over No. 13 seed Davidson with Peyton Silva scoring 17 points and dishing out six assists. Silva is slick.

"Siva is somebody that's very creative with the basketball," said Alford. "He dribbles at teams. He'll come off multiple ball screens. He'll make multiple drives in the same possession.

"Him getting in the paint creates a lot of problems for a lot of defenses. He creates offense, not just for himself, but for his teammates."

Silva can score, but he is more a facilitator for the Cardinals. He averages 9.3 points and 5.5 assists. Against Davidson, the Cardinals also got 14 points and 11 boards from Chane Behanan. Louisville shot 51.9 percent from the field in the first half and then scored 22 points from the line in the second half.

It was a New Mexico type victory for the Cardinals. They won with good shooting, good defense and also leaned on the line. These Lobos and Cardinals are similar in the foundations they use to win. They do have different styles.

"They do a lot of pressing, a lot of zoning," said Alford. "We do no pressing, no zoning, so you've got a contrast of styles."

What both teams like to do is run and play defense. New Mexico holds its foes to 38 percent shooting. So does Louisville. New Mexico holds it enemy to 30.6 percent from behind the line. Louisville is at 30.5 percent.

"Points may be difficult to come by," said Pitino, whose Cardinals held Davidson to a season-low 35 percent shooting.

What a low scoring game might do is bring all those other factors of basketball into play: turnovers, rebounding, shot selection, momentum, execution. This could be a grind-it-out game featuring a lot of dazzling plays and some ugly moments.

The Cardinals have only two players in double figures: 6-4 Kyle Kuric (13.1) and 6-foot Russ Smith (11.2). Kuric had 13 points vs. Davidson. The Cardinals have four players averaging 9.8 to 9.1 points, so Louisville, like UNM, has a variety of scorers. The Lobos have three players in double figures in Drew Gordon (13.5), Williams (12.1) and Tony Snell (10.7).

"They have so many different weapons," said Pitino. "They are very physical. They play great defense. They shoot the ball well."

The Cardinals are not a huge team, and need 6-11 Gorqui Dieng to stay out of foul trouble and control the paint. He averages 9.4 points and 9.1 rebounds.

The Cardinals also like to score off their press. They are good in transition, not as good in the half-court game, but they are quick to the basket and know how to get to the line.

"That's obviously something they want to do," said Alford of Louisville's running ways. "We don't mind playing fast. We like that style. But we've got a very good half-court defense. We need to make them go against that half-court defense.

"If we're in a situation where they're three-on-one and four-on-two all night, that's obviously going to benefit Louisville. Taking care of the ball, being aggressive and handling that press is going to be something that's obviously very important to us."

Pitino has called his guards "mosquitoes" because of their defensive ability to pester ball handlers. The Lobos have a mosquito, too, in Williams, who likely will be guarding Silva.

"Kendall Williams is one of the best defenders in our conference," said Alford. "He got no credit for that, which was a shame. Our team is a very good defensive team and he heads that up. Kendall always gets the top assignment.

"If (Silva) is the top assignment, Kendall will get that assignment."

Alford and his Lobos are aware that New Mexico has never advanced to the Sweet 16, but ending that skid would only be a product of what they plan to do in the Rose Garden - beat Louisville.

"This team just wants to continue to do some things," said Alford. "And that (Sweet 16) is kind of the next step. If they can get to the round of 16, that's unchartered waters for UNM.

"We've had a lot of fun this year, and it's a team that doesn't want the season to end, very much like Louisville. (On Saturday) you'll see two teams beating on each other and fighting like crazy to keep their season alive. "