For the third straight year, Rick Pitino has fallen short of continuing one of my favorite March traditions: the head coach referring to whichever team Louisville draws in the NCAA Tournament as "the toughest first round opponent I've ever faced." He came close, calling UC Irvine a "very tough first round opponent," but as was the case last season with Manhattan, the famous phrase was never fully uttered.
The "toughest first round opponent' tradition has always delighted me both because it's just hilarious at its core, and because for reasons I still understand, it seems to infuriate Kentucky fans. I've always just assumed that this was something Pitino did as sort of an inside joke, but the more I hear him talk about the first game of the tournament, the more I really do think that he just gets caught up in the moment and the nerves of it all each year.
"The first game in the tournament always bothers me," Pitino said during his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday. "You just never know what's going to happen, so that first game always really scares me."
Even though the Anteaters have been deemed "tough" rather than "toughest" this year, let's take a trip down memory lane and look at all the most difficult first round opponents Rick Pitino has faced at Louisville.
The team: No. 13 seed Louisiana Lafayette
The Quote: "They don't have just one guy that you have to concern yourself with. Their point guard is terrific (Florida transfer Orien Green), and he's 6-5. Their center (Chris Cameron) is a big-time threat at 6-11, 270, and they've got scoring at the wings (Dwayne Mitchell, and Brian Hamilton). So this is the toughest first-round match-up I've ever had as a coach. But I'd probably rather have it that way because we play better against better talent anyway."
The Result: Louisville 68, Louisiana-Lafayette 62
The Team: No. 11 seed Stanford
The Quote: "You're talking about a team that beat UCLA, beat Oregon by 20, beat Cal by 30. This is the toughest first round opponent I've ever had as a head coach."
The Result: Louisville 78, Stanford 58
The Team: No. 14 seed Boise State
The Quote: "They're a veteran ballclub, the toughest first-round matchup I've had since I've been coaching."
The Result: Louisville 79, Boise State 61
The Team: No. 8 seed California
The Quote: "They're a top 20 team, they're a dominant team. We realize we're facing one of the more underrated teams in the country. It's the toughest first-round opponent one of my teams has ever faced."
The Result: California 77, Louisville 62
The Team: No. 13 seed Davidson
The Quote: "This is the toughest first round game I've had as a basketball coach. Davidson is very, very good. Everyone on their team can shoot it from the outside, and that makes them very difficult to prepare for."
The Result: Louisville 69, Davidson 62
I could not love it any more.