Writer: Lars Anderson
Post Time: 8:03 p.m., Sunday
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Overtime between Tennessee and Butler was three minutes away from tipping off, and I bolted out of my courtside seat to make a phone call from the relative quiet of an interior hallway at the BJCC in Birmingham. But as I turned a corner into the corridor that leads to the locker rooms here, I was nearly flattened by Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who was pacing back and forth with his head down like an expectant father. If there had been a referee there, I'm certain Pitino would have been whistled for a charge.
But Pitino shouldn't have been anxious about his upcoming second-round game against Oklahoma, because right from the opening minutes, it was clear that the Cardinals were the vastly superior team. Louisville sped to a 35-16 lead, held a 44-22 halftime advantage, and won 78-48 in playing their most complete game of the season. The Cardinals, a No. 3 seed, are a dangerous team. Even though they entered the tournament on a two-game losing streak, they're playing as well as any team in the country right now. Their pressure defense appears to be second to none, and it's the big reason why over the last two games Louisville is shooting 57.5 percent from the field while its opponents (Boise State and Oklahoma) have shot only a combined 40.6 percent.
But the Cardinals road to the Final Four won't be easy. In Charlotte on Thursday they'll face Tennessee, the No. 2 seed in the East region. If the Vols can get anything out of guard Chris Lofton, a consensus preseason All-America candidate who stunk it up in Tennessee's two wins in Birmingham (he was a combined 4-for-18 from the field), it'll add a dimension that UT has been lacking so far in the tournament. Then, awaiting the winner of the Tennessee-Louisville game, will likely be North Carolina, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament.
Since I'm off to NASCAR duty next week, I'll make my East Regional pick now. And so, the team that will emerge from what I think is the toughest section of the bracket and reach San Antonio will be:
Tennessee, because after spending a lot time talking one-on-one with Lofton over the past few days, I think he's going to come up big next weekend. Check out Grant Wahl's story in the magazine this week for more on Lofton.