LOUISVILLE, Ky. | The Cardinals don't want to get overly excited about opening the NCAA tournament at home in Louisville.
So coach Jeff Walz has his players staying in their dorms and going to class as he tries to keep their routine as close to normal as possible. Louisville (24-8) ranked third nationally averaging 9,577 this season in the KFC Yum! Center. Walz is expecting between 8,000 and 10,000 fans, maybe more if fans just want more hoops after the men's team returns from Lexington.
So it'll be the usual team meal followed by curfew.
"I definitely don't want to change things up to try to throw a kink in the plan," Walz said Saturday.
Louisville hosted the NCAA tournament in 2010, but didn't qualify for the tournament after making a run to the championship game a year before. The Cardinals lost to national champion Connecticut in 2009. Now the Cardinals are in their third season in their modern arena — and though they've lost two of their last three games — are looking to turn things around.
And Louisville has had success in its building, going 14-2 this season.
"It's the NCAA tournament," Louisville junior guard Shoni Schimmel said. "So for us to have that home advantage it's great for us because we can go out there and have our home crowd behind us. With being 14-2, it shows we like the home crowd a lot more than any other crowd."
The fifth-seeded Cardinals play No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee on today in the Oklahoma City regional. The other first-round game features No. 21 Purdue and 13th-seeded Liberty.
Playing a tournament game on an opponent's home floor is nothing new for Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders lost to Vanderbilt in Memorial Gym a year ago, and they just missed upsetting Michigan State in East Lansing 60-59 in 2009. They have avid support themselves, and junior Ebony Rowe is a Lexington native who will have family and friends in the stands.
"We went to Tennessee, and there was a lot of orange at Tennessee," Middle Tennessee senior guard Kortni Jones said. "We're going to just take it as it comes. Our fans will be there, and we know we'll have a corner of blue, and that's really all we feel like we need."
The Blue Raiders have won seven straight coming out of the Sun Belt as tournament champs and want the program's first NCAA win since 2007 when they also were a 12 seed. Coach Rick Insell said winning in the tournament has been a rallying cry since the loss a year ago.
"To be the program we want to be, we have to win some games, not just a game. Games," Insell said. "They've been talking about that all year."
The Cardinals have a size advantage in the post thanks to 6-foot-2 Sara Hammond and 6-4 Sheronne Vails, and 6-1 senior Monique Reid has had a week since the Big East tournament semifinal loss to rest her aching left knee. Schimmel leads Louisville with 13.8 points a game and has been shooting better since Walz moved Bria Smith to point guard for the last 17 games.
Rowe leads Middle Tennessee averaging 19.9 points and 11.1 rebounds a game, and Hammond, an AAU teammate for a year, knows the 6-foot-1 forward well.
"We've just been preparing for her and her teammates," Hammond said. "It's going to be an exciting game, especially in the post since we play against each other."
No. 4 seed Purdue (24-18) is coming off a Big Ten tournament where the Boilermakers won each game by at least 12 points in grabbing their second straight championship. The 1999 national champion has won 15 straight first-round games, and Liberty, which leads the nation in rebounding margin at 17.5 per game, has become a NCAA regular in its 15th appearance.
"I feel like playing in the Big Ten, we've been prepared all year," Purdue senior forward Drey Mingo said. "We know they're going to come in and be really physical with us. We've been preparing for that."
This will be the first time the Lady Flames (27-6) have played a Big Ten team since 2005 when Katie Feenstra helped lead them to the regional semifinals. This team has won 14 straight. The Lady Flames have plenty of size too with coach Carey Green bringing 6-5 Katelyn Adams and 6-4 Ashley Rininger off the bench.
Both teams are expecting a grinding game.
"We know this I show they like to play, and we're ready to push back," said Tolu Omotola, Liberty's 6-3 senior post player.
Purdue like to play offense, and the Boilermakers do it well. They ranked 26th nationally shooting 43.4 percent. Along with rebounding, Liberty also likes to play stingy defense pressing at times along with plenty of zone.
"We've just to be in that attack mode," Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said. "I think that's the biggest thing. We can't just settle for outside shots."