Two words that came up in the coaches news conferences at the NCAA Tournament West Regional Championship practice sessions Wednesday at the US Airways Center: "Run" and "racehorse." Which can only lead March Madness enthusiasts -- and aren't we all? -- to believe that the Louisville-Michigan State Sweet 16 matchup Thursday afternoon (tipoff time 4:47 p.m. PT) is going to be a track meet.
One can only hope. It makes for better entertainment value and perhaps a closer game. But here's the thing: Fourth-seed Louisville is the smaller team and a frenetic pace is the best thing they have going for them. The top-seeded (and overall taller) Spartans pride themselves on being able to play different styles of basketball.
"I don't think we have a choice," Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said. "Michigan State is as good a running team as there is in college basketball. And we got our guys to this point by pressing and running, and we're not going to change because the other team may be a little better on the backboard and try to take possessions away.
"So we're going to run with them... we do not want to play slow against Michigan State."
Point guard Peyton Siva will be the trigger man in the Louisville fastbreak. The junior from Seattle is a solid distributor who can also score.
The Spartans' Tom Izzo hopes 6-7 forward Draymond Green can continues to provide an all-around game that has seen him record a triple-double and double-double in Michigan State's first two tournament games. The Spartans can score quickly, but had to play a sluggish tempo against St. Louis in a 65-61 win last week to get to Phoenix.
Izzo called the St. Louis game a "smash mouth" game. He expects a "racehorse" game against the Louisville, adding that Pitino's teams "create chaos."
"I don't want to walk the ball up. That's not the way we really play our best ball," Izzo said. "But I don't want to get into a track meet that makes us play at a level for 40 minutes that we can't handle, either. Finding the happy medium has been more difficult because we just can't match the athleticism in a practice and especially at this time of year you don't want to wear your team down."
At Pitino's suggestion, Siva watched dozens of video clips of Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash in action, and Siva looked for how Nash always keeps his dribble alive.
"It really helped me out by not forcing things and getting in trouble or making jump error passes," Siva said. "And it really helped me out probing the court, giving other guys open looks and seeing the whole court a little bit better."
Green will be the focal point on offense for the Spartans. He has a history of big games in the Big Dance, with a triple-double against UCLA on March 17 of last year and 16 points in his NCAA tournament debut in 2009. Green pulled down 10 rebounds in an Elite Eight game against Louisville in that tournament as the Spartans won and advanced to the Final Four.
The coaching matchup is a push with a pair of college coaching legends matching wits. Izzo has taken six Spartans teams to Final Fours since he became head coach in 1995, and has a national championship from the 1999-2000 season. Pitino has led three different teams to Final Fours and has a national title with Kentucky in 1995-1996. His Cardinals have missed the NCAA tournament just once since Pitino took over as coach in 2001.
If Pitino's crew can force Michigan into an up-and-down game while forcing turnovers with the press and hitting enough shots, the Cardinals can win. But the Spartans are better and can adjust to another style with more ease, and Green will create matchup problems with his versatility. Hard to pick against Michigan State in this game.
Louisville has to find some kind of contribution off the bench, be it in the form of quality depth to keep the starters fresh for all that full-court defense and offense or scoring. Michigan State will look to spread the floor on offense, hit the boards with a purpose and find open looks through shot fakes and defensive overplays by the Cardinals.