Arizona point guard Nic Wise is confident the Wildcats are prepared for Louisville's vaunted press.
During Nic Wise's all-but-lost freshman season, when the guard played in only 22 of 31 games, there was one early bright spot.
That was when then-coach Lute Olson turned to Wise for help in breaking the Louisville Cardinals' press at Madison Square Garden.
Wise had two turnovers and missed his only two field goal attempts, but hit a pair of free throws, collected two steals and played 12 minutes. His quickness and skill helped the Wildcats win 72-65.
"I played pretty well in that game, but that was a long time ago," Wise said. "They're a whole different team now than they were then."
So is Wise different.
Today, the Cardinals are big favorites to beat the Wildcats in an NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal game, powered by a suffocating pressure defense that is the nation's most feared.
Louisville holds opponents to 39.4 percent shooting, forces 16.3 turnovers a game and wears teams out in ways that aren't always measured in the box score.
But Wise, now a junior, is averaging 15.7 points and 4.6 assists per game, with a 1.6-1 assist-turnover ratio. He's been even better in the NCAA tournament so far, leading the Wildcats in scoring with 50 points and dishing out 10 assists over two games.
"They have a lightning-quick point guard who is playing fabulous basketball," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of Wise. "He's great with his hands. Great in the open court. Shoots it terrific. He causes a lot of havoc on defense."
Wise also has a quiet confidence about him that showed when asked whether he was especially excited about being the focal point of Louisville's pressure tonight.
"Nah," Wise said. "We've been pressed before and we handled it pretty well. We feel pretty good we can handle it."
Here's how UA coaches say they can do it:
1. Spread out. UA associate head coach Mike Dunlap says Wise has played and practiced against the press enough to know, even blindly, where his teammates will be. The key is that they stay apart enough to move the ball up court in control.
"Pitino will tell you that and you can read it in his books: You don't want to cluster," Dunlap says. "You want to have broad spacing so you have the best opportunity to get the ball in and it goes from there."
2. Think wisely. Several UA players said Thursday they have worked long and hard this week against the press, and for good reason: They won't have long to make decisions the moment they get in trouble.
"I think the key to attacking it is having a good idea where you want to go with the ball and then having a patience about you," UA interim head coach Russ Pennell said. "They try to speed you up and get you to make quick decisions."
3. Pace yourself. Dunlap said it isn't so much that the Wildcats need to slow the ball down as much as they need to play at their own pace.
In recent losses to the Cardinals, Dunlap said, Providence and Villanova were hurt when they eagerly jumped into an up-tempo game with the Cardinals.
"They let you have certain dunks and layups and it intoxicates you, gets you off to the races," Dunlap said. "You've got to play the game in gears. There's a formula you want to stick to."
4. Stay patient. Pennell said Louisville can take opponents out of games by quickly turning a couple of turnovers into opponent panic and an ensuing 20-4 or 17-2 run.
"In all the games we've watched, there's that one moment in the game where they've really been able to explode," Pennell said. "You try to keep that from happening. It's easier said than done."
Therefore, Dunlap says, a proper, calm response is imperative.
"We don't want to overreact," Dunlap said. "We're going to make some mistakes, no matter what we say. (You can't say) if you do this and this and this you won't make a mistake. Prepare for the mistake."
5. Stay energized. Louisville has the depth to toss out layer after layer of defenders to wear opponents out. Arizona, however, has been remarkably resilient this season, with its Big Three all averaging more than 35 minutes a game.
In the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats also have the benefit of longer television timeouts to catch their breath.
"We've got three guys who play heavy, heavy minutes," Pennell said. "They're in incredible condition. … Also, when we sense they're a little bit tired, we get them out right before the media timeout to buy them extra time."
Here again, Wise, with a knee that underwent surgery last season, is the key. Sometimes, Pennell said, Wise will be held out of drills to rest his knee and lungs, only to sneak back in.
"That guy can take more physical pain," Pennell said. "He may need a knee replacement when he's 35 years old, just because it's bone-on-bone. … He just doesn't want people to know he's hurt."