Great Expectations for Louisville Basketball in 2011, but is it Final Four or Bust?

The team that will take the floor for the University of Louisville when the season finally begins (in Hinkle Field House this November), will be the team we were told to wait for ever since the the dust began to settle from the trial, and Coach Pitino spoke to a group of fans and media at the tip-off luncheon from hell.

A little less than ten months ago on a sunny October afternoon, word began to leak out around the City via the blog-o-sphere, online newspapers, and local radio stations, that Louisville basketball fans shouldn't get their hopes too awful high for the upcoming season. The predictions of doom and gloom hadn't come by way of the media outlets I just mentioned. They came straight from the horses mouth; they came straight from the man himself, from the CEO of the most profitable College Basketball program in the nation, one Rick Pitino.

Read the rest of this post after the jump.

Several incoming players who were going to contribute were not going to be eligible. Most of the players who were going to be eligible had all slipped on the same basketball, at the same time, and all had concussed skulls to some varying degree. Also, the lone returning starter from the year before had torn a muscle in his groin while running on a track. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, apparently there's no way treat this particular injury or know when it's going to heal. Pile all of that fantabulous news onto a long off-season of salacious trial coverage, the one Senior who was supposed to play a significant role getting into trouble with the law (then struggling to get out of Pitino's dog house), UK racing towards another number one recruiting class (including the recruit who was supposed to be the crown jewel of our 2011 recruiting class), plus every UK fan you knew chirping about it in your ear, and what you had on that fine October day was the equivalent of just about every Louisville fan in the world stepping out onto the ledge.

Almost instantly internet message boards were filled with Pitino detractors and defenders, just not as many defenders. For weeks (morning-noon-and night) local radio shows were filled with Louisville fans complaining and UK fans laughing. The lone measure of solace, the one shining beacon of hope, was the word of the man himself that all would be right in 2011. In fact, he was so sure that the 2011 season would, in true Disney fashion, make our dreams come true, that he gave the 2010 team a little moniker. He didn't specifically call them a "Bridge Team" but, that's exactly what he implied they were. After all, they were going to be the program's team during the "Bridge Year."

They won the opener against Butler, had a hiccup against Drexel, beat UNLV, and things seemed to be moving in a very positive direction. Then Rakeem Buckles and Gorgui Deing both went down in the 36 hours leading up to New Years Eve; and Josh Harrellson walked into the YUM! Center. Darkness...... A pair of wins against Big East bottom feeders, and a road beat down against Villinova later, the Cards were at home for a tilt against Marquette. For 34 minutes they couldn't do anything right and they had dug themselves into an 18 point hole. Fans left the YUM! Center in droves, shaking their heads while telling themselves that Rick Pitino had indeed lost it, and that they were in for a very long/ disappointing year in the Big East.

Then, something magical happened. That Lone Senior who had been under the dog house for most of that troublesome off-season took a look around and said "NO!" He grabbed the rest of his teammates and dragged them into the fight head first for perhaps the most improbable come back victory any of us have ever seen; and then, something else happened. The rest of the players on that "Bridge Team" did what any group of men with some measure of pride would do. They proceeded to tear out their guts, and leave them on every court in the Big East; they did it for themselves, for their leader, and for their program. It was beautiful in every sporting sense of the word. They endeared themselves to so many of us in ways that so few teams before them had ever done, it was beautiful in every sense of the word.

The Coach that so many fans had called for to be drawn and quartered, built a large measure of collateral among many of his detractors. He even earned praises like "best coaching job thus far at Louisville" from sworn haters cut from the blue cloth. His team of "Bridge Players" began to win games that no one thought they could or should win.

We didn't step off that ledge, we were shoved. Fast forward five months; suddenly the dead period seems to be teeming with life as practice has started for the three games coming in August, and Rick Pitino seems to be cutting his blogger's teeth to tell us all about practice. The reports are peppered with Rick-Speak about how this player is "unstoppable" and that player needs to "learn the game." The fans I know are more excited for the season to start than they have been in at least three years; and why not? This is supposed to be the year that we reach our destination, is it not? This is supposed to be the year that we were told to be patient for, is it not? 

Rick Pitino has never been at a loss for words; because of that, I feel like it's sometimes difficult to tell if he's being genuine, or spinning like a Notre Dame Cheerleader's head after she catches a look from The King. Knowing this to be true, I feel like last years team was undersold by him for the purposes of tempering expectations while hoping for the best. This was a smart move on his part; but, it was a move he made to cover himself in light of the fact that a lot of damaging things had just happened to the program he was responsible for. It was a move he made because he wasn't exactly sure how good they could be in 2010. So, he tempered expectations to an all time low, and promised the moon in 2011. Rick was hedging his bets at the luncheon that day, but the returning players from 2010 surpassed his expectations last year at the speed of light.

I realize that things like concussions and mysterious groins are beyond anyone's control. I realize that the Tournament is all about match-ups, even thought I think that shouldn't really matter until the second weekend if you're seeded high enough and playing well. Those things aside, we were promised a team that would be second to none in terms of talent, experience, depth, and,... for all intensive purposes, this appears to be the team we will have come November. I realize that with the loss of Preston(!),... at some point, someone on this team will have to stand up in front of his brethren and proclaim "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more." I realize that this is College Basketball, and that in the Tournament anything can happen.

I am a Cardinal Fan born in nineteen-hundred& eighty. I can remember exactly one of the five Final Fours that have occurred during the span of my life. In the last ten years I have seen those Cardinals advance past the first weekend of the Tournament three times, the same number of times they have gone out in the first round. I am not alone. There is a large faction of Louisville fans who are weary of the spin, falling short of greatness, then getting more spin, and I am among them. Still, I am hesitant to say that this year is Final Four or bust for me even though I really do feel that way. My head tells me it is, but my heart tells me something different. Last year taught me, more than any I can remember, that I am a fan who can appreciate/ embrace a team simply for playing the game the way it is supposed to be played; with total selflessness and all out effort start to finish.

As a fan, this year I could accept losing to a team of equal talent, experience, or depth in the Tournament; as long as we show up and bring it. What I will have a hard time accepting this year, is losing to a team from the Sun Belt in the first weekend, or looking like we never made it off the bus when it's all on the line, much like in 2009. That is not the team we were promised this year and that is not the kind of result we as Louisville basketball fans should find acceptable. Especially when our head coach finally has the team he says he's been dreaming of for ten years.

At some point you have to put the excuses (and coach speak) to the side and get the job done. I don't want to hear that we're a young team this year. I don't want to hear that we're inexperienced, or not deep enough at some position. I don't want to hear that some 12 seed was a bad match-up for us. I don't want to hear any of that in 2011. At some point, as the fans of an elite program you have to expect greatness, or you 're not really an elite program.  If not now,.... when we were told to expect it,.... then when?