BIRMINGHAM, Alabama The NCAA Tournament always poses intriguing match-ups, the little guy vs. national power storyline and almost inevitably the memorable upset that makes the nation take notice.
Boise State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 14 years puts them in position to enjoy all of the press, glamour and possibilities that come with playing on the biggest stage in college basketball. The Broncos will meet the Louisville Cardinals on Friday evening in the first round of the East Regional bracket from Birmingham, Alabama (approximate tip-off time of 7:40 p.m., KBOI Radio and CBS TV).
A game matching tradition rich Louisville with a Bronco team searching for its first NCAA Tournament win and in the “Big Dance” for the first time since 1994. A Cardinal squad very familiar with playing games late into March against a Boise State basketball program working its way out of the shadow of its football brother. A post-season magnetic draw bringing Boise State and Louisville together again, rekindling a unique cross-country rivalry that has included meetings in the 1994 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (won by Louisville), the 1999 Humanitarian Bowl (won by Boise State) and the 2004 Liberty Bowl (won by Louisville).
Boise State’s road to the NCAA Tournament went through Las Cruces, New Mexico and three victories in three nights at the WAC Tournament, culminating with a dramatic three overtime 107-102 win over host New Mexico State last Saturday. The Broncos landed the #14 seed in the East Region, the team’s first NCAA trip since 1994.
Louisville, meanwhile, was ousted in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament last week by Pittsburgh after going 9-1 in the final 10 games of the regular season. A Cardinal resume that included finishing second in the rugged Big East Conference regular season standings and nine wins over NCAA Tournament teams was more than enough for an at large berth and #3 seed in the East Region. It’s a stage very familiar to Louisville, with 34 NCAA Tournament appearances, eight Final Four’s and two national championships.
A contrast in styles might be the best way to describe this game. Boise State ranks among the top 10 nationally in scoring, averaging 82 points per game. They do so by shooting the ball extremely well, ranking second in the country in field goal percentage and 16th in three-point field goal percentage. Louisville counters with one of the stingiest defenses in the nation, allowing just 61.3 points per game, with opponents shooting just 38.3 percent against the Cardinals. Proof of the Louisville defensive attack lies in one amazing stat: In the last six seasons just 15 Cardinal opponents have been able shoot 50 percent or better from the field, a span of 199 games.
The challenge for Boise State will be the physical inside presence of Louisville. The Cardinal frontline includes David Padgett at 6-11, Earl Clark at 6-9 and three players with significant minutes off the bench at 6-8 or bigger. The senior frontcourt tandem of Matt Nelson and Reggie Larry will without question face their biggest challenge. The duo has been rock solid all year, combining for 35 points and 17 rebounds per game. Coping with Louisville’s size on the rebounding front and in establishing the low post on offense will go a long way in determining the Broncos’ fate.
Offensive execution is what carried Boise State in the WAC Tournament, averaging nearly 92 points per game. It started with a 53 point second half outburst in the quarterfinals against Hawaii and carried through the championship game. All told, the Broncos shot 53 percent from three-point range, averaging 10 made three’s per game in winning the WAC title. Without oversimplifying the game, putting the ball in the basket in similar fashion is a must in off-setting the aggressive and lockdown Cardinal defense.
Putting the Broncos in position to execute offensively will fall on the shoulders of point guard Anthony Thomas and backcourt mates Matt Bauscher, Jamar Greene and Aaron Garner. The Cardinals will bring pressure from tip to finish with active guards Jerry Smith, Andre McGee and Preston Knowles. How Boise State guards, and specifically Thomas, handles the pressure will be a key storyline as this game unfolds.
On the other end of the court, Louisville has been very balanced offensively, with four players in double figures, led by center David Padgett’s 11.7 per game average. The Cardinals average just under 72 points per game and hit stride in early-January when Padgett returned to the lineup after missing 10 games with a broken kneecap.
A 15-2 stretch when Padgett returned led to Louisville’s second place finish in the Big East and continual climb in the national rankings (currently ranked #13 in both major polls heading into the NCAA Tournament). During that stretch, the Cardinals outscored the opposition by a margin of nearly 12 points per game (74.2 to 62.8 scoring averages).
Fans familiar with Boise State’s long range arsenal will appreciate what Louisville does from beyond the arc and how dangerous they are. The Cardinals have made 241 three’s this season, just shy of Boise State’s 267 on the year and in one less game. Four UL players have hit 40 or more three’s, including 6-6 swingman Terrence Williams’ 46 three’s and guard Jerry Smith’s team high 57 long range bombs. In comparison, Tyler Tiedeman and Matt Bauscher were the only Bronco players to hit 40 or more three’s during the season.
The game within the game will inevitably create the outcome and determine winning or losing for Boise State. The battle inside for rebounding and establishing a low post presence, handling the Louisville pressure and most importantly staying composed on the stage of the bright NCAA lights jump out as obvious keys to the game.
This senior laden Bronco team has produced one of the greatest seasons in school history, doing so by winning on the road and playing an ultimate brand of team basketball. Now, they have a chance to pen a post-season chapter that no other Bronco team has been able to do. It’s what makes the NCAA Tournament one of the great sporting events and why they call it “March Madness”.
Check back to www.broncosports.com following Friday’s first round match-up for a tournament photo gallery and complete post-game coverage.