You don't have to be the producer of an MTV reality show to successfully convince folks that a pair or set of Big East games are especially significant or laden with drama. The state of the league being as it is (awesome), there's always a potential "right the ship," or "resume building," or "program-changing" victory right around the corner.
Though you can argue that Louisville has already had stretches of games which can't be surpassed in terms of season significance, I think the two games in three days jaunt the Cardinals begin tonight in Cincinnati will provide the barometer for where exactly our expectations should be heading into the greatest time of the year.
The Bearcats are desperate. For the third time since joining the Big East, UC has taken a promising non-conference run and sullied it by struggling mightily in league play. In both of the prior instances, Cincinnati ended up not doing enough to make the NCAA Tournament.
Cincy has lost three of four. Recently suspended star center Yancy Gates was booed by the home crowd when he saw limited action on Saturday against St. John's. The talk around town is that head coach Mick Cronin needs to get his team into the field of 68 or he may be needing a new job.
This is the proverbial break the surface and taste fresh air or lose consciousness moment for the drowning Bearcats. The desperation in the air will be unavoidable from the moment the Cardinals set foot inside Fifth Third Arena this evening. There's a reason Vegas currently has U of L as a one-point dog.
Louisville's opponent for the ever-rare Friday evening regular season tilt is a Connecticut squad the Cardinals beat by a point in double overtime three weeks ago in Storrs. The Huskies, who have arguably the most impressive non-conference resume in the country, find themselves in the odd position of being ranked 12th in the nation but just 7th in their own league.
UConn was ranked fifth and listed as a legitimate national title contender across the board before Louisville came to town and shocked them in what has to be the Big East game of the year to date. Including that game, Jim Calhoun's team has lost three of five - including an embarrassing drubbing at the hands of St. John's - and has continued its steady slide down the polls. They face red-hot Georgetown tonight in a situation where a loss could trigger a bevy of "what happened?" columns from national writers.
Revenge will be a theme for Connecticut on Friday night, but not the main theme. Regardless of what happens tonight against Georgetown, the Huskies will be battling to maintain both national and league relevance more than anything else. Leading the charge will be Kemba Walker, the former front-runner for national player of the year who struggled mightily on Jan. 29 and has continued to slip from the country's focus ever since.
This has been a long way of saying that Louisville is up against it tonight and Friday night, but this is the type of challenge they're going to be facing from the moment they play their first game inside Madison Square Garden on. Everyone's desperate in the postseason, there are no more "this one hurt, but there's still a lot of season to play" teaching moments.
Tuesday night on "College Hoops Live," ESPN analyst Stephen Bardo named Louisville as a sleeper pick to win the national title. While the significance of such a statement is admittedly low (love you, Stephen), the fact that he wasn't fired on the spot or immediately panned for making it says something. U of L has somehow put itself in position to be a name in March.
As of right now I'm still sticking with my preseason belief that for this group, merely making the tournament constitutes a successful season. To be disappointed by anything more isn't really fair. This team shouldn't be punished for overachieving.
That said, I really do think that what happens tonight and Friday night will be the best indication to date of what this team is truly capable of in the win-or-go-home formats of March. If they can somehow find a way to pull off a pair of victories, then I may have to readjust my mindset.
It wouldn't be the first time this team has surprised me.