Louisville has the pedigree of basketball royalty.
Forty-two NCAA tournament appearances. Ten Final Fours. Three national championships. A recent ascension into the storied Atlantic Coast Conference. A glib, flashy coach of NBA and college fame that is a persona unto himself in Rick Pitino, who has coached 58 NCAA tournament games in his career.
Northern Iowa? This is its seventh NCAA tournament. UNI has no national basketball titles, no Final Four appearances. It has fewer than half the years of mere existence at the Division I level (34) than Louisville has NCAA tournament wins (72). The Cedar Falls school of 12,000 students has spent its past 24 years in the Missouri Valley Conference.
You might be able to guess the persona of the Panthers’ coach — if you knew who he was. Ben Jacobson has coached five NCAA tournament games in his career.
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“We compare ourselves to the best. That's the only way that we feel like we can go about getting better and growing and continuing to build in the right direction,” Northern Iowa leader Seth Tuttle, one of the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award as the nation’s top player, said Saturday.
But Northern Iowa does have two things Louisville does not.
Momentum entering the Sunday night’s third-round game in the East region at KeyArena, after rolling past Wyoming Friday.
Plus Kurt Warner.
“I told these guys (Thursday) night, I’m a little envious of them. I played growing up, and I wanted to play college basketball,” the former NFL most valuable player and Super Bowl-winning quarterback said Friday of the Panthers after their first NCAA tournament win in five years.
“I dreamed of this opportunity. I always wanted to play in this thing myself.”
Northern Iowa’s most famous athlete was beaming proudly while standing inside the Panthers’ locker room, the one of the former SuperSonics. Warner had travelled with two of his three boys from their home in Phoenix and stood through the entire 71-54 win over Wyoming.
His messages to the players: Dare to be great. Greatness starts in the mind.
During the game Warner stood two rows behind the Panthers’ bench, roaring the whole time in his purple, Panthers T-shirt and blue jeans. He’ll be doing the same thing Sunday night when the rolling, fifth seed Northern Iowa (31-3) plays remodeled, fourth-seeded Louisville (25-8).
“I told them this about making the most of this opportunity,” Warner said of his Panthers.
Warner personifies that.
When no Division I football program offered him a scholarship coming out of Regis High School in Cedar Rapids in 1989, he was forced to accept a partial one to the I-AA football school in his home state.
He sat on the bench his first three seasons with UNI. But he seized his lone chance to start as a senior. He lost his first two games then played through a separated shoulder. Relatively healthy for just half a season he still threw for 2,747 yards and 17 touchdowns, becoming the Gateway Conference (now Missouri Valley) player of the year for 1993.
The rest is not just state-of-Iowa but NFL legend. He played for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena League and in NFL Europe and was also stocking groceries before the St. Louis Rams offered him a tryout.
He then seized another opportunity: St. Louis starter Trent Green getting hurt in the preseason. Warner was the trigger man for what became the Rams offense nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Turf.” As a rookie in 1999 he became one of the league’s most unlikely Super Bowl MVPs. He was the NFL MVP twice, and later led the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl, too.
But, hey, can he stop Louisville’s push?
That’s the key for his Panthers now. The team that will advance to the Sweet Sixteen round of regional semifinals Friday in Syracuse, New York, will be the one that dictates the pac on Sunday.
Louisville has won 24 of its past 32 NCAA tournament games dating to its Final Four appearance in 2005. Pitino is 51-17 in his career in the NCAA tournament. But to be sure, this is not the Cardinals teams of yore.
Pitino has had to mix, match and experiment since he kicked starting point guard Chris Jones off the team this past month. Louisville gave crunch-time minutes to boyish-faced guard David Levitch, a walk-on sophomore from tiny Goshen, Kentucky. Levitch looks smaller and younger than the team’s student managers.
Louisville’s winning points in its 57-55 escape past 13th-seeded UC Irvine were free throws with eight seconds remaining by freshman point guard Quentin Snider. He was making just his seventh start.
Northern Iowa wants to slow the pace and force the Cardinals into a low-scoring, possession-by-possession contest of shooting and precise execution.
The Panthers are fourth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 54.3 points per game. It has held 19 foes to under 40-percent shooting.
That’s bad news for Louisville.
The Cardinals shoot worse than a blindfolded gunslinger stumbling out of a saloon at 3 a.m. On Thursday, Pitino shared a startling statistic that his team shoots below eight percent — that’s right, eight percent — on what its coaching staff classifies as “contested” shots. Their best chance to win is with its varied, full-court, trapping defense forcing turnovers, fast-break chances and easy shots at the rim.
“We have been through a lot this year — up and downs,” Louisville’s leading scorer Terry Rozier said. “I think it shaped us for this moment.
“We're probably not a great team right now. But as these games dig in and get tight, we all lean on each other — like we did (Friday).”