It's one of college basketball's dirty little secrets; what happens in November and December actually does matter, and it matters a lot.
The sport that runs a campaign of superiority anchored largely by the notion that a few early losses won't make or break a season hasn't been completely honest.
In three months take note of how many bubble teams have at least one "bad loss" on their NCAA tournament resume that occurred in the first six weeks of the season. Especially take note of this in regards to middle of the pack teams from major conferences, your Florida States, Arkansas, etc. That loss at home to Stetson may have been a great learning experience for your squad, it may have brought them together, but it may also keep them out of the big dance.
Our point is this, Louisville's game tonight against Arizona is most certainly not a deal breaker, but depending on the outcome, it could play a major role in the team's fate should they find themselves in limbo come the early weeks of March.
A win over the highly talented Wildcats most certainly would counteract an ugly neutral court loss to a Dayton team picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic 10, but a bad loss could serve as a delayed knock-out punch.
Louisville comes to New York having lost 11 straight games away from home and in the Garden, and nine straight to ranked opponents. Guard Brandon Jenkins and center David Padgett are still getting back into the flow of things after missing most of fall practice with injuries, and the game is the first for super freshman Derrick Caracter. With all this in mind, a loss by 20 points or so is a definite possibility.
So let's assume it happens, Louisville gets blown out. It's early, we're still trying to get everybody healthy, we have a lot of young guys, it's not really a big deal. Everybody learns from the game, the Cardinals beat Kentucky in 11 days, and then go on to play valiantly and finish somewhere between 6th and 8th in the Big East with conference record of 9-7 or so.
Good stuff, surely we're dancing.
With what George Mason and the teams out of the Missouri Valley did last year in the tournament, every mid-major with a solid conference record and a pair of quality victories is going to get serious consideration. This means that the out-of-conference performances of major conference teams with league records hovering around .500 is more important in this season than any other.
With the Big East expectedly down a bit, the 8-8, 9-7, 10-6 teams had better either have some quality wins away from home, or put on a show in the conference tourney if they even want a second look.
So back to the Louisville scenario. The Cards are say 23-10, with a few nice wins over some solid Big East teams at home, but nothing to really distinguish themselves. The focus in that creepy selection room immediately shifts to the non-conference schedule. You've got a loss to Dayton in Cincinnati, a bad loss to Arizona in New York, a win at home over a Kentucky team that right now looks to be at best a 7 seed, and a bunch of home wins over teams whose mascots no one in the room can name.
The debate doesn't last long.
Not that a 25 point win over Bellarmine this Sunday wouldn't be awesome (we love you Scotty), but a game tonight that's at least competitive may just be a necessity for this team's non-NIT postseason prospects.