UConn has long been the bridge too far for Louisville. We'll find out Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) whether this might finally be the year the Cardinals cross it.
The No. 1 Huskies host fourth-ranked Louisville at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, in a game that has been eagerly anticipated all season.
Admittedly, the matchup would have even more buzz if the Cardinals (25-1) were still unbeaten. As it is, Monday likely marks the last realistic chance the Huskies (24-0) could lose a game before the NCAA tournament. Such has been their mastery of their American Athletic Conference foes; on Saturday, UConn beat Wichita State 124-43.
For Louisville, though, this is major test in the middle of a very competitive ACC race with Notre Dame. And it's a chance to show that UConn isn't miles and miles ahead of the Cardinals.
Twice these programs have met for the NCAA title -- in 2009 and 2013 -- and the Huskies won both in blowouts, by 22 and 33 points. In fact, UConn has won all but one of their 17 meetings with Louisville, the outlier coming in 1993 -- two years before the Huskies claimed the first of their 11 national championships.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz was still a college student back then. In 2007, he took over the Louisville program in his home state of Kentucky and has made it a perennial contender. Facing UConn, though, has been a frustration.
Their last meeting was in March 2014, during Louisville's one-year stay in the American before joining the ACC. UConn won their league tournament final that year 72-52.
In the three years since Louisville last faced UConn, only two teams have defeated the Huskies: Stanford at the start of the 2014-15 season, and Mississippi State in last season's national semifinals.
For Louisville to join the list, it will take not just the potent offense the Cardinals have shown off several times this season -- including in their signature victory over Notre Dame, 100-67, on Jan. 11 -- but they also will need perhaps their best defensive game of the season. They're a good defensive team, so they're capable of that.
Louisville is allowing opponents an average of 56.5 points per game, second in the ACC. Walz, no doubt, took special notice of UConn's 55-37 victory Wednesday at Central Florida. The Knights slowed the pace of the game by milking the shot clock, and also took advantage of the absence of UConn point guard Crystal Dangerfield, who was out with shin splints but started and played 19 minutes in Saturday's rout.
UConn still won by 18 points Wednesday, but its 55 points were a season low. UConn is No. 1 in the country in offensive rating (138.0) and true shooting percentage (61.4), according to HerHoopStats.com. Most of the time, the Huskies' offense is unstoppable no matter the defense; they scored 67 points in the first half Saturday.
But Central Florida's defensive success -- even if it wasn't enough to win -- has to give a team like Louisville a boost. Because if the Cardinals can defend at a high level, they can be reasonably certain their offense -- led by guard Asia Durr (19.8 PPG) and forward Myisha Hines-Allen (14.0 PPG) -- will show up.
It didn't, though, in one high-profile game: a 50-49 loss at home to Florida State on Jan. 21. And UConn is also tops in the country in defense rating (63.9), according to HerHoopStats.com. This is what we're used to seeing, chapter and verse, from UConn year after year: a highly efficient offense in which all five players are scoring threats, and a defense that reliably locks down foes without getting into foul trouble.
Some inconsistency in execution is one thing that has concerned UConn coach Geno Auriemma. There have been seasons -- 2015-16 is a very good example -- in which the Huskies were exceptional from the start, and the challenge was just maintaining that.
Last season, everyone expected the Huskies to have some growing pains, yet they still made it unscathed all the way until that epic overtime loss to Mississippi State in the Final Four. This season, with Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams, Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson in their third year playing together, and junior transfer Azurá Stevens joining them, there didn't seem to be any doubt about UConn's No. 1 status.
Yet single-digit victories over Notre Dame in December and Texas in January showed that good teams, if they played well, could hang with the Huskies. And lackluster performances such as the Huskies' 78-60 win at Tulsa on Jan. 18 were an indication that UConn could have an off-game against a lesser foe.
Walz, of course, is used to always seeing the best of UConn, and that's what he'll prepare his team for. The possibility that we'll also see the best of Louisville, though, is what makes this game so tantalizing.