INDIANAPOLIS -- Louisville could have been forgiven for a loss.
No team in the country has been hit with this many early-season injuries. Point guard Peyton Siva's severely sprained ankle -- which the point guard suffered in practice Monday -- was merely the latest in a long list of key hits to a team many expect to compete for a spot in the Final Four. On Saturday, facing Butler and its rowdy Hinkle Fieldhouse crowd, Siva sat at the end of Louisville's bench -- next to fellow injured teammates Wayne Blackshear, Rakeem Buckles and Mike Marra.
Siva is Louisville's most important player. Blackshear is the Cardinals' most highly touted freshman. Buckles provides much-needed size and strength. Marra is a sharpshooting, floor-spacing offensive threat.
None of them played a minute Saturday. Louisville won -- and won comfortably, 69-53 -- anyway.
"This is our character," guard Russ Smith said. "This is our team's morale."
That morale was largely forged in 2011, when the Cardinals, despite a lack of obvious star power or elite talent, used an ensemble cast to outplay last summer's unusually dour preseason expectations and finish 25-10 and 12-6 in a Big East conference that sent 11 teams to the NCAA tournament. In 2011-12, the Cardinals are bigger, deeper, more talented and more experienced. The expectations are high.
The question before Saturday was whether or not Louisville -- a team still incorporating all of its pieces -- could overcome both the standard early-season learning moments and a rash of crucial injuries and still beat a quality opponent in a heated road environment. Consider that test passed.
"We're doing it not only without Peyton, but we're doing it with walk-ons," Pitino said. "We're doing it with guys that just came back -- [forward Stephen] Van Treese just came back two days ago. It's great."
Pitino used a combination of guards to fill in for Siva, including Smith and walk-on Elisha Justice. The Cardinals weren't always impressive Saturday -- they trailed until the final possession of the first half, when they took a 29-28 lead. For large stretches they struggled to stop Butler shooting guard Chase Stigall's outside shooting, and they went minutes without getting the ball to Gorgui Dieng in the post.
They also allowed Butler to control the pace of the game; the two teams traded a mere 50 possessions, a pace seemingly beneficial to the less athletic Bulldogs.
But Louisville revealed plenty of weapons in the second half. Chris Smith scored 13 of his 15 points in the second, while Kyle Kuric hit the biggest shots of the day, including a three with 6:14 remaining that extended Louisville's lead to 11.
“I told Kyle, ‘Kyle, if you’re going to be great, they’re going to play your jump shot. Now everybody’s coming after you, ball fake, take it to the rim, use the pick-and-roll,’" Pitino said. "Both him and Chris Smith gave us a big performance in the second half offensively.”
Kuric and Smith were the big scorers, but the Cardinals attacked in waves and from all angles: Jared Swopshire and Dieng added eight points each, while Russ Smith added nine.
On the other end, Pitino's halftime adjustments stymied Butler's offense. Only Bulldogs forward Khyle Marshall was consistently able to find buckets against the interior length of Dieng. In the meantime, the Cardinals subtly shifted on defense -- shading toward Stigall and pressuring him early on every touch. Stigall was 3-of-6 from beyond the arc in the first half. He finished the game 3-of-8.
"As soon as you start trying to trade makes and trade misses with a team like Louisville, you're done," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "It's just not good enough."
Which is why Louisville's performance Saturday was indeed so impressive: The Cards were incredibly efficient (they scored an off-the-charts 1.37 points per possession), they held Butler to just over a point per trip, they rallied and pulled away after a difficult first half and they easily won their third game of the season, a road trip to the Bulldogs' historic confines.
In a year that has already featured so many shocking early-season upsets -- we can now add Cincinnati (Blue Hose!) to the ranks of UCLA, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh, among others -- avoiding a similar fate would be noteworthy on its own. But Louisville was able to do all that without its most important player -- and with three important teammates sitting next to him at the end of the bench.
"The last two years I've been here, we've always had injuries," Smith said. "We've always had to come up with ways to magically win.
"Even though he's over sitting on the bench hurt, Peyton was probably the most engaged player on the team today," Smith said. "That just shows you -- there's always a way to contribute. We're all just trying to contribute. We all think we can. You saw that today."
The question, then, is as follows: Just how good can a full-strength Cardinals team truly be? How deep will this squad go? What heights might await?
Stevens was willing to offer an assessment.
"They're already very good, but with Siva in the lineup they're not just a March team," Stevens said. "They're an April team."