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    Photo courtesy University of Louisville Men’s Basketball Facebook Page
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    The last time the University of Louisville men’s basketball team headed West for the NCAA Tournament it ended its season in the Final Four.

    Cardinals fans and UofL coach Rick Pitino are hoping for a similar result this time around.

    Louisville (24-8), the No. 4 seed in the East Region, will play 13th-seeded UC Irvine (21-12) in the second round at approximately 4:10 p.m. Friday afternoon in Seattle (home of former UofL stars Peyton Siva and Terrence Williams and current benchwarmer Shaqquan Aaron).

    Three years ago the Cards played their first two games in Portland, then their next two games in Phoenix to win the West Region and a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans, where they lost to their archrival - and eventual national champion - Kentucky.  

    “We really did want to go West. We’re excited about it,” Pitino said at a press conference earlier this week. “We went West to Portland last time around and had a great trip. We won’t be going to Phoenix next (like in 2012), but if we get lucky we’ll come home and (then) go to Syracuse (for the next round of the regional).”

    Whether that was just coach-speak, or not, UofL fans and Pitino had to be fairly pleased with the Cards’ draw, especially that they weren’t in the same region as No. 1, and unbeaten, UK. The Louisville coach admitted as much Tuesday.

    “The only sure thing in looking at it as an analyst myself is that Kentucky’s in a league of their own. Anybody who’s not in Kentucky’s region is very happy, including myself. And everybody else can be beat," he said. 

    Villanova, the top seed in the East, is unquestionably the weakest of the No. 1’s and if UofL can win its first two games, which won’t be easy, it would match up fairly well with its former Big East rival.

    But first things first. The Cards have to get past the wonderfully-nicknamed Anteaters, who tied for second in the Big West during the regular season before winning the league’s postseason tourney.

    UC Irvine is led by 6-foot-8 senior power forward Will Davis II (12.9 points per game, 7 rebounds per game), 6-3 sophomore guard Luke Nelson (10.5 ppg, 4 assists per game), 7-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye (10.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.7 blocks per game), 6-1 junior guard Alex Young (9.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.6 apg) and 6-5 senior guard Travis Souza (7.4 ppg, 3 rpg).

    The Anteaters shoot 46.1 percent from the field, including 39 percent from 3-point range led by Souza, who shoots 46.4 percent from long range.

    “They shoot it very well,” Pitino said. “Obviously, they can make the three and they have the tallest player in college basketball, and he’s a great rim protector. They have a terrific power forward and they’re certainly a formidable opponent.”

    If the Cards, who are No. 16 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 17 in the Associated Press Top 25, can get past UC Irvine they’ll likely face fifth-seeded Northern Iowa, which is ranked No. 9 in USA Today and No. 11 in AP, on Sunday. The Panthers (30-3) play 12th-seeded Wyoming (25-9) before UofL plays UC Irvine on Friday.

    Pitino hopes his team is refocused and ready after its 70-60 loss to North Carolina last Thursday in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinals.

    “Every team is different and this team, for some reason, got very distracted around family and friends,” he said. “I don’t know why, couldn’t figure it out. More than any team I’ve coached in 40 years, this team just got very distracted. Maybe it’s the world of social media and listening to Twitter and fans, maybe it’s the fact that they’re very young. I’m not sure what it was, but I wanted to get away.

    “We’ve had enough practice for about three weeks of games and our guys are definitely improving and looking forward to the opening of March Madness.”

    Photo courtesy University of Louisville Men’s Basketball Facebook Page

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