LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Louisville, the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and Midwest Region, had no trouble in its opener Thursday, turning away No. 16 North Carolina A&T, 79-48.
"I think they have what it takes to potentially win the national championship," North Carolina A&T coach Cy Alexander said.
The Cardinals (30-5) were nearly unstoppable, suffocating the underdog Aggies with a full-court press from the opening tip until Louisville coach Rick Pitino pulled his starters with about six minutes to play and a substantial lead.
"We did a lot of great things tonight at the defensive end," Pitino said. "We set a deflection record for our basketball team. We broke it with the Villanova in the Big East tournament with 58. Tonight we had 32 from our backcourt, which I've never had since I've been coaching in 35 years, pro or college."
Louisville's 20 team steals set the record for steals in an NCAA Tournament game. It was also a season best for the Cardinals, who had 18 against College of Charleston on Nov. 4. Louisville guard Russ Smith finished with a career-high eight steals for the Cardinals.
"We all know what defense can do," Smith said. "It got us to the Final Four last year. So we just stay solid and just keeping playing our defense, hopefully good things can happen."
Louisville was also unstoppable from the field in the first half, shooting 18-of-27 (66.7 percent) from the floor and 3-of-7 from 3-point range. Not much changed in the second half, either. The Cardinals poured on their 16-point halftime lead with a flurry of points to start the second half.
A run of seven unanswered points came and went in 2 1/2 minutes of play to start the second half. After two Aggies baskets, Louisville added 14 straight to grow its lead to 68-37 with under 10 minutes to play.
Louisville's dominance was never questioned in the first half, as it jumped out to a 16-4 lead. The margin widened from there, swelling to 40-19 with 5:08 until halftime.
The Aggies (20-17), who won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament as the No. 7 seed, scored six straight points to close the gap to 45-31 with 1:14 until the break, but Chane Behanan scored on a lob pass from Siva with 37 seconds to go to set the gap at 47-31.
Smith led all scorers with 23 points.
"He was really, really good tonight mentally as well as physically. He truly has arrived into a great basketball player," Pitino said.
Wayne Blackshear was the only other Cardinal in double figures; he finished with 12 points.
Bruce Beckford led the Aggies with 12 points. North Carolina A&T was 41.5 percent from the floor (17-of-41), but its 27 turnovers and 31-20 rebounding disadvantage nullified its proficiency from the floor.
Louisville next plays No. 8 Colorado State on Saturday.
NOTES: Louisville coach Rick Pitino was the head coach of Kentucky from 1989-97. Thursday's game was his ninth in Rupp Arena, the Wildcats' home, as Louisville's coach. He's now 4-5 at Rupp as the Cardinals' coach, including a 1-2 record in NCAA Tournament games. ... No. 1 seeds are now 114-0 in games against No. 16 seeds. Earlier Thursday, No. 1 Gonzaga in the West regional was tied with No. 16 Southern in the game's final three minutes but won 64-58. ... North Carolina A&T is now 1-10 all-time in the NCAA tournament. It won its first tournament game Tuesday in the First Four against Liberty, 73-72. ... North Carolina A&T alumnus Jesse Jackson was in attendance Thursday. He was wearing a blue-and-yellow letterman's jacket to support the Aggies.