<
>

Louisville's first chance to prove itself goes horribly wrong

It's not easy to get where Louisville was. It is not a common spot for a Rick Pitino team -- or any team -- to be in. It requires a rare, impossible-to-mimic collision of schedule and performance. It takes home wins over bad teams, road losses to good teams, and a back-loaded slow burn of a conference slate.

Yet, that's the odd and unlikely position the No. 16-ranked Cardinals were in this week, in advance of No. 11 Virginia's visit to the Yum! Center Saturday: Deep in the heart of conference play, having failed to provide any concrete response to the fundamental question about their 2015-16 season.

How good is Louisville, anyway?

If Saturday was any indication, Cardinals fans may not like the answer.

Virginia's 63-47 win was the most lopsided defeat Louisville fans have ever witnessed at the Yum! Center -- though, to be fair, most of those fans had abandoned the scene well before the final buzzer.

It was also Louisville's worst offensive performance of the season, with no close competition. The Cardinals scored those 47 points in 61 possessions, an average of 0.77 per trip. They attempted 38 shots from inside the arc and made just 12; they went just 4-of-11 beyond it. They committed 18 turnovers. Their chief offensive strength -- offensive rebounding -- was limited.

True story: Louisville scored five points in the first 12 minutes, 20 seconds. The Cardinals scored 14 points in the entire first half, which means in a sport with a 30-second shot clock, they averaged 0.7 points per minute. The game was never close, the result never in doubt. The final 10 minutes were practically a formality. Pitino, one of the game's most frenetic and frantic coaches, slumped into his seat, wearing the expression -- and the white suit -- of a prom date since ditched.

The afternoon, bad as it was, in and of itself, was far worse in its timing. By and large, the Cardinals had been one of the minor surprises of the 2015-16 season: After spending the offseason as an unknown quantity, Pitino had taken two graduate-transfer guards, two sophomores with marginal experience, and a random mix of little-used returnees, and molded it all into a top-25 fixture.

And there were signs the Cardinals were even better than that. Despite all the turnover, Louisville was playing some of the nation's stingiest per-possession defense. Despite losing Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell last spring, the new offense had been more efficient and more balanced than in 2014-15.

It was possible Louisville was not merely a good or mildly surprising team, but an elite one -- deserving of inclusion in this season's Republican primary-sized group of national title contenders.

The only problem? The Cards hadn't actually beaten anyone. Their only two remotely decent nonconference tests both came on the road, and both (at Michigan State, and at Kentucky) ended in tight losses. Pitino's team left the Yum! Center just one other time in nonconference play, for a neutral-court drubbing of woeful Saint Louis, and spent the rest of November and December piledriving overmatched cupcakes at home.

The start of ACC play didn't offer much help. A 6-1 start was nice -- and the road loss at Clemson wasn't so bad, given the Tigers' hot streak at home -- but wins over Wake Forest, NC State, Pittsburgh, Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech weren't exactly convincing.

The proof of the Cardinals' real ceiling -- how they would guard good teams, and where that impressive offense really was -- would have to come later. On Saturday, later arrived. Virginia's trip to Louisville was the most meaningful test of the Cardinals' season. Considering the location, and Virginia's struggles on the road in ACC play, it was an eminently winnable one.

It was also only the start. The Cardinals' schedule still has two dates against Duke, a trip to Notre Dame, a road game at Miami, and returns to Pittsburgh and (more dauntingly) Virginia. Before any of that, though, is a far more pressing issue: No. 2 North Carolina's arrival this Monday night.

Ironically, the same schedule that put Pitino's team in its strange late-January position may also be its salvation. The difficulty of those games presents proportionate opportunity. There are many more chances for Louisville to prove that it is not merely good but very good. The real work remains ahead. That fundamental question is still, in many ways, unanswered.

Still: Saturday was the first time we got to see the Cardinals take on one of the ACC's best teams in their own gym. After a strange confluence of factors delayed it for months, Virginia was Louisville's chance to finally make a first impression. Instead, it was a disaster.