If Louisville were to miss out on the NCAA Tournament come March, there would be more than one national column written about the "collapse" of a team that once stood 14-3 and ranked 15th in the country. We'd read them, we'd cry, and then we'd either bash Pitino, defend Pitino, or blindly debate the merits of Teddy Bridgewater vs. DaMarcus Smith (we still won't have seen either of them play, but whatevs).
Let's take a trip to objective town.
Louisville has played two teams currently ranked in the top 25. It lost to them by 14 and 15 points, respectively. It also lost at home to Drexel. Its best win to date is a one-point home victory over an unranked team in which it trailed by 18 points with five and-a-half minutes to play. Add in the fact that the Cardinals still have nine games to play against teams ranked in the latest AP Top 25, and all of the sudden U of L not hearing its name called on the second Sunday of March doesn't seem so far-fetched.
The Big East currently occupies eight of the top 13 spots in the RPI, and several current mock brackets (damnit) have 11 teams from the league in the field of 68. That's not going to happen, but the point is that the league is strong enough that a 9-9 record could very well do the trick as far as an at-large bid is concerned. Depending on the combination of wins, though, it might take winning one in New York - something Louisville has struggled to do in every year save one since joining the conference - to seal the deal.
But I don't think there's any doubt that 10-8, regardless of where those wins come from and how the team performs at Madison Square Garden, guarantees a bid to the big dance. With the team currently sitting at 3-1, that means the Cards need to go 7-7 the rest of the way to make the goal happen.
So where do those seven wins come from? Let's break it down in three groups of five (we'll include Marquette as a success story just to keep the numbers even).
vs. St. John's (1/19)
AT Providence (1/22)
vs. DePaul (2/5)
AT Rutgers (2/22)
vs. Providence (3/2)
You can divide this group into a couple of sub-groups. Louisville absolutely cannot lose to DePaul or drop either of their games with Providence. If it takes an L in one of those three games, we're in big trouble. The RAC is a tough place to play, but a good team shouldn't lose to this Rutgers squad. U of L doesn't match up well with a good St. John's team so calling tonight a must-win really isn't fair, but what game from the other two groups is easier?
The Cards take care of business here and they only have to take two of the remaining nine games (Marquette has been defeated) in order to hit seven wins.
vs. Marquette (1/15)
vs. No. 21 West Virginia (1/26)
AT No. 23 Georgetown (1/31)
AT No. 25 Cincinnati (2/16)
AT No. 21 West Virginia (3/5)
Even though Louisville has played well in Morgantown in recent years, it'd be overly ambitious to hope for anything more than a split with West Virginia. I'd be far more confident about the Georgetown game if it were being played here and earlier than two weeks from now. Cincinnati certainly looks like the most likely W in the group, but that doesn't mean it won't be a battle. The season-finale against the 'Eers could have easily swapped places with the home game against Connecticut in the next group.
A Win is a Steal
AT No. 8 Connecticut (1/29)
AT No. 16 Notre Dame (2/9)
vs. No. 3 Syracuse (2/12)
vs. No. 8 Connecticut (2/18)
vs. No. 4 Pittsburgh (2/27)
Despite the fact that three of these are home games, you simply cannot expect to win any of them. Notre Dame doesn't lose at home and they have less mercy on Louisville at The Joyce than they do most opponents, even when they're average and we're awesome. It's easy to talk about "owning" Syracuse and always matching up well with Pitt, but let's be real, they're both very, very good. Even moreso than with West Virginia, if you split with Connecticut you have to chalk it up as a win.
So there's the road ahead.
The point: assuming anything at the current moment is very foolish. The Cards are going to have to beat several quality teams between now and Selection Sunday in order for us to be nerve-free when the day comes. They're going to have to prove themselves far more than they have up to this point.
If the team falters tonight then Saturday's magic instantly becomes less significant and a win will have to be "made up" and taken away from one of the upper groups of five somewhere down the line.
It's a big game. When is it not?