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Pitino wants rematches in ACC tourney, but Cards facing a rough road in return to postseason action

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE — Revenge of sorts was on coach Rick Pitino’s mind when his thoughts turned to the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament following Louisville’s 71-64 victory over Notre Dame Saturday afternoon.

“We’d like to play some of the teams that beat us,” Pitino said before the seeds were finalized.

But he will have to wait awhile for any possibility of that to happen. The Cardinals (24-7, 12-6), who finished in a three-way tie for second place in the ACC, were seeded No. 4 and earned a double bye in the tourney that started Tuesday afternoon at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., based on tiebreakers.

That means, barring an upset in the second round, UofL will face No. 5 Duke (23-8, 11-7) in the quarterfinals at 2 p.m. Thursday (ESPN). The Blue Devils will meet Tuesday afternoon’s survivor of No. 12 Clemson vs. No. 13 NC State Wednesday afternoon.

Guard Donovan Mitchell, UofL’s leading scorer at 15.8 ppg and a member of the All-ACC first team, believes he knows what to expect after enduring the 18-game regular season ACC grind (UofL Athletics Photo)

Louisville defeated Duke 78-69 on Jan. 14 in the KFC Yum! Center, but star forward Amile Jefferson missed the game with an injury and the Devils were also without coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was recovering from back surgery. Jefferson is averaging 11.2 points, a team-best 8.5 rebounds and is shooting 62 percent from the field.

Most of the statistics in the first meeting were virtually even, with the difference being turnovers. The Cards, who had four players in double figures, scored 13 points off a season-high 18 Duke turnovers.

After losing in Louisville, Duke put together a seven-game winning streak, but has dropped three of its last four. The Blue Devils are 4-1 on neutral courts, their only loss coming against now-No. 1 Kansas 77-75 in Madison Square Garden.

If, by chance, the Devils lose Wednesday, UofL would play one of two teams it clobbered during the regular season when it hammered Clemson 92-60 and NC State 85-60 even though point guard Quentin Snider was sidelined with a hip injury.

Either way, the Cards were probably relieved when the seedings were announced because it put them in the opposite bracket from nemesis Virginia, which has beaten them four straight times, including two double-digit wins this season. Now, UofL can’t face the Cavaliers until Saturday night’s championship game.

Nevertheless, the Cards still face a tough road in the bid for their first ACC Tournament championship and their first league title since claiming the American Athletic Conference trophy in 2014. In its only appearance in the ACC event, UofL lost to North Carolina 70-60 in 2015.

If the Cards advance to Friday night’s 6 o’clock semifinal, they will likely meet the top-seeded Tar Heels (26-6, 14-4), a 74-63 winner in Chapel Hill on Feb. 22. In fact, UofL hasn’t beaten a ranked ACC team away from home this year, going 0-5 against Virginia, Notre Dame, Florida State and UNC.

Still, Pitino says, “This is a team that can accomplish anything because of their attitude and we will see what happens in the tournament.”

Guard Donovan Mitchell, UofL’s leading scorer at 15.8 ppg and a member of the All-ACC first team, believes he knows what to expect after enduring the 18-game regular season ACC grind.

“It’s going to be grueling, that’s the type of league we have,” Mitchell says. “Everybody beats up on each other and there are a lot of teams, that if they weren’t in the ACC, would be ranked in the Top-25 right now. So that speaks a lot to the kind of league this is. It’s going to be a long and exciting week.”

With a successful showing, UofL could possibly improve its NCAA Tournament seeding. The Cards are currently a consensus No. 2 in the projected seedings, but might be able to move up to a No. 1 if they win the ACC Tournament, depending on what happens in the other conference tourneys. The probable No. 1 seeds now are Kansas, North Carolina, Gonzaga and defending national champion Villanova.

Other than the 2014 ACC tourney, Pitino’s teams have fared well in league postseason play, having won back-to-back Big East titles in 2012-13 before moving to the AAC for one year and taking that crown too.

Since Louisville was sidelined by a self-imposed ban from postseason action last season due to the sex scandal, this will be the first ACC tourney for starting sophomores Mitchell, Deng Adel and Ray Spalding, along with freshman V.J. King.

Mitchell, the son of a New York Mets executive and a native of nearby Greenwich, Conn., is especially eager to be getting his first taste of postseason competition in the New York City area.

“I can’t wait to go back home to play in front of friends and family,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many texts I’ve received from people who are going to be there. So it’s going to be a lot of fun playing back in New York.”

While the Cards struggled offensively for much of the season, they have improved significantly in that department recently — scoring 80 or more points in six of their last 10 games and raising their shooting percentage to 47 percent — while continuing to showcase their trademark suffocating defense that is among the nation’s leaders.

“It took awhile for us to find our identity,” senior guard David Levitch says. “I just think we started off not playing great offense and we’ve really picked it up. Defense has come and gone, but when we put a full game together we can beat anybody.”

The ACC tourney has traditionally been played in Greensboro, N.C., but the league signed a two-year deal with the Barclays Center to bring the Tobacco Road event to Flatbush Avenue for exposure in the nation’s largest media market.

Since the ACC Tournament began in 1954, it has only been held outside North Carolina 12 times, and the northernmost site was Washington D.C.

The conference started expanding to the north in 2005 when it added Boston College from the Big East (along with Miami and Virginia Tech). Then in 2013 and ’14, the ACC raided the Big East again, taking Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville.

Pitino, a New York City native, welcomes the move to the Big Apple area, where the Big East held its tournament in Madison Square Garden.

“Obviously, being a New Yorker and going back to the Barclays Center I’m curious how it turns out,” he says. “We started out getting 50 to 100 fans for the Big East and ended up with 1,500. New York is the greatest city in the world. Best restaurants, best theater, best opera, best social life. It’s a special place.”

And the Cardinals hope to make it even more special this week.

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