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 12-0 and ranked 4th in the country. We'd read them, we'd cry, we'd bash Pitino, we'd defend Pitino and ultimately, we'd see a small chunk of ourselves rot away from the second week of March through the end of April.
Ok, let's take a step back and then a quick trip to objective town, a land that has seen a drastic decrease in population over the past decade.
Louisville has played three teams currently ranked in the top 25. It is 0-3 in those games. The Cardinals' best win to date is an overtime victory over a then-struggling Vanderbilt team playing without the guy whose return has sparked the Commodores to a seven-game winning streak. Add in the fact that the easiest third of Louisville's Big East schedule is the one in its rear-view mirror, and all of the sudden U of L not hearing its name called on the second Sunday of March seems almost more likely than not.
The Big East isn't as strong as it was a year ago, but it's still a league where a team like U of L that has no bad non-conference losses on its resume can probably go 9-9 and still be fairly certain it has a spot in the field of 68. Still, with the right or wrong combination of wins and losses, there's definitely a chance that a .500 conference record coupled with a nasty one-and-done performance inside Madison Square Garden could leave the Cards on the outside looking in.
That said, I don't think there's any doubt that 10-8, regardless of where those wins come from and how the team performs in New York, guarantees a bid to the big dance. With Louisville currently sitting at 2-4, that means the Cards would need to go (*runs lab tests*) 8-4 the rest of the way to make the goal happen.
It may not be likely, but in a league where it appears any matchup not featuring Syracuse is almost a complete toss-up, it's certainly possible.
So where do those wins come from? Let's break it down into four groups.
vs. Rutgers (2/4)
At DePaul (2/18)
vs. Pittsburgh (2/26)
vs. South Florida (2/29)
I'm aware that Rutgers is a better basketball team than Villanova at this moment, but the current gap between the two isn't enough to override the fact that Louisville has been far more successful against the Scarlet Knights than the Wildcats since it joined the Big East. A matchup between the two right now would be one of those aforementioned 50/50 tilts, and with that being the case, I think the smart money is still on Jay Wright and Maalik Wayns.
You could also argue that facing a Pitt team which has lost six straight and is still healing will be easier than facing that same team at the end of the season when they'll likely be healthy and could be playing much better basketball. Still, I think the fact that Saturday's game is at the Petersen Events Center, that College GameDay will be there and that the Panthers will be playing with 100% desperation makes it the more difficult challenge of the two.
Basically, these are the games the Cards have to have. For every one they don't get, they're going to have to steal one from the final group.
vs. Villanova (1/25)
At Pittsburgh (1/21)
As implied above, these are games where U of L will probably be favored (although I won't be surprised if they're a slight underdog on Saturday) and where they need to take care of business now that their backs are (figuratively...and literally, I guess depending on where they are when you're reading this) against the wall.
At Seton Hall (1/28)
At West Virginia (2/11)
Seton Hall is one of just two Big East teams Louisville hasn't beaten on the road since it joined the league (Notre Dame is the other), but the Pirates are starting to unravel a little bit. Conversely, West Virginia is looking awfully strong, but the Cards have had some success in Morgantown (screwed out of wins the last two years, locked up the BE title there in '09).
A Win is a Steal
vs. Connecticut (2/6)
vs. Syracuse (2/13)
At Cincinnati (2/23)
At Syracuse (3/3)
I understand that U of L has beaten Syracuse seven straight times, but expecting to beat a team that is 20-0 and hasn't really been challenged yet, would be...dumb. Connecticut is the next most talented team in the league while Cincinnati appears to be the second best right now. Obviously, the dream scenario is that Louisville won't have to win any of these because they'll emerge victorious in the previous eight games listed, but the more likely scenario is that the Cards will have to steal at least one or two of these.
So there's the road ahead.
I think laying it all out and looking at it may have actually made things worse.
With the Big East being the way it is right now (f'ing insane), I reckon it'd be foolish to assume anything. Louisville will almost certainly have a few great nights where it plays above its head and takes out one of the better teams in the league, and they're probably going to slip up and frustrate the hell out of us at least a couple more times.
There's no question that with one third of Big East play in the books, this team has put itself in a monster hole. Pitino says there's no team he'd rather work out of a hole with than this one, but the digging needs to start tomorrow or the Cards are going to be nearing a point where positive attitudes and tireless work ethics aren't going to be enough.
You can say Saturday is a big game, but we've reached a point where that's implied. They're all big games from here on out.