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Updated: Friday, March 21, 2003 11:24 AM EST
NCAA BASKETBALL PREVIEW
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No. 13 Austin Peay vs No. 4 Louisville
AUSTIN PEAY GOVERNORS
Austin Peay Governors
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LOUISVILLE CARDINALS
Louisville Cardinals
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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Ticker) -- If you like omens, you must love Louisville.

Rick Pitino leads the fourth-seeded Cardinals into Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center for Friday's clash with 13th seed Austin Peay, a first-round encounter in the NCAA Tournament's East Region.

On paper, it seems like a cakewalk for Louisville. If history is any indication, it will be.

The Cardinals (24-6) automatically qualified by winning the Conference USA tournament. But they would have gotten in anyway, completing a terrific two-year turnaround under coach Rick Pitino.

Pitino historically has been a good tournament coach, ranking eighth all-time with a winning percentage of .788 (26-7). His teams are 22-3 when playing a lower seed and 7-1 in first-round games.

Louisville also is 2-0 all-time against Austin Peay (23-7), last meeting in 1989. That was two years after Pitino's Providence squad edged the Governors in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, ironically played in Birmingham.

Then it gets spooky.

While history seems to be on the Cardinals' side to advance to the second round, a Final Four trip and national championship could be in the future.

Last season, the Cardinals reached the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. The last time they competed in the NIT, they followed by winning the 1986 national title.

A year later, Pitino led Providence to the Final Four in New Orleans. Pitino then guided Kentucky to the 1993 Final Four, also held in New Orleans. This year's Final Four will be played in - you guessed it - New Orleans.

Louisville also has ties to the Crescent City, making the Final Four the only other time it was staged there, losing a semifinal game to Georgetown in 1982. Where did the Cardinals begin their voyage that season? In Birmingham..

Pitino is 6-1 in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. His 1987 Providence team began its run to the Final Four here and his 1992 Kentucky squad won the Southeastern Conference tournament in the same building.

If that wasn't enough, the Cardinals have reached the Final Four each time they have won at least 16 straight games in a season, doing so in 1980, 1983 and 1986. They won 17 in a row from December 7-February 8.

The Cardinals are just 7-5 since their hot streak, but they won three straight games in the conference tournament, defeating Alabama-Birmingham, 83-78, for the championship on their home floor.

Louisville is a little beat up on the frontline but will have starting center Marvin Stone, who missed three of the previous six games while issues surrounding his amateur status were being addressed.

With leading rebounder Ellis Myles out with a knee injury, Luke Whitehead has picked up the slack. Guard Reece Gaines leads the team with 17.7 points per game and freshmen Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia total more than 20.

But the trademark of a Pitino-coached team is pressure defense. In the last six games, the Cardinals have forced an average of nearly 20 turnovers.

Louisville's trap might be too much for Austin Peay, which won the lightly regarded Ohio Valley Conference tournament, beating the likes of Eastern Kentucky, Murray State and Tennessee Tech.

A surprise in the conference this season, the Governors have won 15 of their last 16 games. Their balanced offensive attack is led by junior forward Adrian Henning's 15.4 points per game.

An undersized, defensive-minded team, Austin Peay is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996, when it suffered a first-round loss to Georgia Tech. Its last NCAA win came in 1987, an opening-round victory over Illinois.


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