Before the NCAA Tournament begins, Rick Pitino likes to scan the list of teams, looking for a few sleepers he considers ‘‘dangerous.’’
‘‘It’s based on how many upperclassmen do they have that have stayed together and how much talent do they have,’’ the Louisville coach said Friday in Lexington, Ky. ‘‘You have a lot of upperclassmen, but they may not be that good.’’
Saint Louis made his cut. So did Oregon, which promptly reinforced Pitino’s genius by knocking off fifth-seeded Oklahoma State. He was right on with La Salle, which took down Kansas State. Davidson didn’t win, but Pitino could have told Buzz Williams days ago that the Wildcats were going to give his Marquette team fits.
Another team that would have been in his bracket is Colorado State, the overall No. 1 seed’s opponent Saturday.
‘‘Five seniors, No. 1 rebounding margin team in the country, I know Larry [Eustachy] is a terrific coach,’’ Pitino said, ticking off the qualities that make the Rams so fearsome. ‘‘They have all the ingredients to be a great basketball team, and they are.
‘‘I always look at talent and experience coming together,’’ Pitino added, ‘‘and Colorado State has both.’’
The Cardinals’ dismantling of North Carolina A&T on Thursday night was so thorough, so ferocious it’s hard to imagine anyone interrupting their march to Atlanta. Louisville set an NCAA Tournament record with 20 steals and Russ Smith tied the individual mark with eight grabs. The Cardinals forced a season-high 27 turnovers, and had 67 deflections.
But, no offense to A&T, the Aggies were a dream matchup. They play a similar, running, trapping style as the Cardinals, but without the same blue-chip personnel.
The eighth-seeded Rams, however, are a team unlike many Louisville has seen this year.
Colorado State (26-8) is averaging a little over 40 boards per game — no, that’s not a misprint — and Colton Iverson is such a beast that, 27 minutes into Thursday night’s game, he single-handedly had Missouri outrebounded (13-11).
‘‘We have to do a better job of on the glass,’’ Peyton Siva said. ‘‘We haven’t faced a team like this that rebounds with such tenacity.’’
What might impress Pitino the most, however, is the Rams’ maturity. They have six players back from the team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year. Four of their five starters are seniors, and the fifth, Jon Octeus, is a redshirt sophomore.
The Rams appreciate Louisville’s reputation, but they’re not in awe of the Cardinals.
‘‘We respect our opponent, but we feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country and we believe in ourselves,’’ Dorian Green said. ‘‘If we play well, we know that we can beat anybody in the country.’’
Fourth-seeded Michigan takes on fifth-seeded VCU on Saturday in Auburn Hills, Mich., in what could be the weekend’s most anticipated game. The Wolverines are the best team in the nation at avoiding turnovers, and nobody forces them quite like the Rams. Throw in John Beilein and Shaka Smart, two respected coaches with postseason experience — and Michigan star Trey Burke, whose job is to direct the Wolverines through VCU’s press — and this has all the makings of a classic.
‘‘They always have terrific spacing on the floor, but more so than that, it’s about their personnel,’’ VCU’s Smart said. ‘‘They’ve got great guards. Trey Burke is a lot of people’s pick for national player of the year. I haven’t seen a guard better than him.’’
Michigan (27-7) has to look all the way back to December to find an opponent on their schedule that reminds them of VCU (27-8).
‘‘Arkansas was a team that plays similar,’’ Burke said. ‘‘They pressed pretty much the whole game.’’
Michigan beat the Razorbacks, 80-67, turning the ball over 12 times. VCU is an NCAA Tournament team and Arkansas is not, but that game illustrates the challenge facing the Rams. If the Wolverines can get the ball across halfcourt, can VCU stop them?
‘‘It’s always a risk-reward situation. If you press, you’re extending your defense past halfcourt,’’ Smart said. ‘‘That’s why most people don’t press, because they want to get back and pack it in. But that’s not what we do.’’
One is a mid-major that has been carrying on the memory of its late coach. The other is a Pac-12 tournament champion that feels slighted by its No. 12 seed.
When No. 4 seed Saint Louis and Oregon meet Saturday in San Jose, Calif., for a spot in the round of 16, neither side will be lacking motivation.
The Billikens (28-6) already have eclipsed the 1988-89 team’s school record of 27 victories, staying on the path Rick Majerus set before he died in December. Now they’re going for consecutive wins in the same tournament for the first time after overwhelming New Mexico State, 64-44, in their opening game. The Ducks (27-8) sent a strong statement to the selection committee in upsetting No. 5 seed Oklahoma State, 68-55.
That’s where the similarities end. The size, speed, and style of each team couldn’t be more different. Even any familiarity the coaches have with each other from their meetings in the Missouri Valley Conference is gone.
Oregon’s Dana Altman, who coached at Creighton from 1994 to 2010, said Jim Crews’s style has evolved since Crews led Evansville from 1985 to 2002.
‘‘It’s not his typical team,’’ Altman said. ‘‘I think Coach Majerus had a great influence on him and the team, and so they’re doing a lot of things that Coach Majerus did. But Jim has done a great job of keeping them together and bringing them along and the tremendous progress they’ve shown throughout the year is a real tribute to him and his staff.’’
Guards will be ready
When Keith Appling plays well, Michigan State usually wins. The same is true for Joe Jackson and Memphis. On Saturday, one of the junior point guards and his team will advance to the round of 16 when the third-seeded Spartans (26-8) face the sixth-seeded Tigers (31-4) in Auburn Hills, Mich. The leading scorers for both teams are coming off good games. Appling had 15 points, making three 3-pointers, as Michigan State opened the tournament with a 65-54 win over Valparaiso. The 6-foot-1-inch, 190-pound Detroit native made a season-high four 3-pointers and scored 16 points in his previous game, extending his streak of success that followed a three-game slump that coincided with a season-high, three-game Spartans’ losing streak. After starting ahead of Appling on USA Basketball’s under-19 team two years ago, Jackson doesn’t seem worried about how he’ll fare. ‘‘I played against him before and none of the guys on the court are NBA All-Stars,’’ Jackson said. ‘‘He laces his shoes up just like me.’’ . . . The NCAA Tournament’s first full day earned its highest television rating in 19 years. The games Thursday on CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV averaged a 5.5 fast national rating and 12 share. The networks say that was up 4 percent from 2012.