Cards get going with five-practice weekend

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Down the road in Lexington, the basketball season opened Friday night in the biggest and boldest fashion ever. They moved Midnight Madness out of cozy Memorial Coliseum and into Rupp Arena, jamming 23,174 fans into the place.

Rick Pitino went the other direction. He went low-key and high-intensity on opening night.

His Louisville Cardinals went through a regular, no-frills practice in front of about 700 fans. Even coming off a Final Four appearance, there would be no self-congratulatory highlight video. No dunk contest, no themes, no gimmicks.

Just hard work, with Pitino's microphone-enhanced voice booming into the players' ears. And then they came back for two more practices Saturday, and will have two more Sunday.

"After that, we'll have about three players left," Pitino joked before drills started. "And the rest will transfer."

He was not joking when he said what the weekend would entail: "This will be very intense. Not for the faint of heart."

When you look at who's lost from last year, who's limping this year and who's on the conference schedule, the all-business approach is understandable: There's plenty of work to do.

Three starters from that 32-win Louisville team -- Francisco Garcia, Ellis Myles and Larry O'Bannon -- now are playing professionally. This year's starting big men -- David Padgett and Juan Palacios -- are limping around on bad wheels. Padgett is expected to be out three more weeks with a foot injury, and Palacios will miss another month after an extreme ankle sprain.

Then freshman Chad Millard went to the hospital Friday night with either back spasms or possible appendicitis, and walk-on Chris Current sprained an ankle.

So the able-bodied group that took the practice floor this weekend consisted of senior Taquan Dean, junior Brandon Jenkins, veteran walk-ons Perrin Johnson and Brad Gianiny and a bunch of guys who had no idea what they were getting into.

"This could be the longest season of my life," Pitino said Saturday.

Again, he's joking. His optimism is evident.

The walking casts and the bewildered freshmen are only here and now. Pitino has his sights set further down the road.

He looks at an eventual starting lineup of Dean, Jenkins, Palacios, Padgett and freshman point guard Andre McGee and says, "I think we're a legitimate big-time team with those guys."

Then he looks at a bench that features intriguing bodies everywhere: muscular and athletic freshman wingmen Terrence Williams and Bryan Harvey; thick redshirt freshman post Brian Johnson; 7-footers Jonathan Huffman and Terrance Farley; shooter Millard; and live-bodied Perrin Johnson.

Combine that with Pitino's Hall of Fame coaching and you know why Louisville still is in most preseason top 10s.

Thing is, we really won't know whether Louisville deserves that ranking until well into January. The schedule is massively back-loaded to help the baby birds get off to a solid start -- so much so that, when the Cardinals unveiled their 2005-06 basketball schedule, the disappointment from some fans was palpable.

Pitino had told them their program was back -- for good. The rebuilding was done. There might be some minor fluctuation in fortunes, but Louisville was locked into the Top 25 for the foreseeable future.

"It's taken us four hard years to reload," Pitino said.

So, the fans wanted to know: what's up with a nonconference schedule that includes Tennessee-Martin, Prairie View, Arkansas State, Richmond, Akron, Chicago State, Middle Tennessee, Detroit, Fairleigh Dickinson and UC Davis?

"Our schedule is perfect for our basketball team," Pitino said. "It's not a who's who of college basketball opening up, but we did that intentionally. You schedule so your team grows and gets confidence."

That's because conference play might be a meat grinder like no other in college hoops history. From a Big East opener at home against Villanova to a regular-season closer at Connecticut, it will be an immense challenge for a young Louisville team.

"With the exception of maybe Villanova and Connecticut, everyone in our conference is going to be on the bubble all year," Pitino said. "Everyone's going to have four, five, six losses in conference play.

"The days of dominance in conference play are over [for Louisville]. Beating Tulane by 40 or Southern Miss by 30, or playing in a league with six strong teams and six weak teams, I don't think that's something for the fans to look forward to."

Looking forward is the operative mode for Louisville fans right now. Young and limping, the Cardinals' best days are several weeks in front of them -- but the future could be just as bright as the recent past.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.