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Wildcats In The Coal Mine

This is our seventh season playing in the Big Machine known as Big East basketball. At the beginning there was novelty in each opponent, seeing UConn and Nova and Georgetown and even Providence come to Louisville was interesting, new, exciting. But by now each game against a Big East opponent actually has a history, a feel, a theme that jumps out. West Virginia and Notre Dame are close game after close game. Syracuse, obviously, our absolute dominance over them. We always play Cinci close because of Cronin and they beat us more than they should. We always lose to Georgetown. UConn games are always great and we always seem to pull out crazy wins against them. We can't beat Providence or Seton Hall on the road, even though we usually are the better team. Pitt games are ugly and close, but we can win on their home floor when others can't.

And then there's Nova. What can we say about Nova? Well, since our offense is usually inside-out based, and their defense is usually a deny the entry pass defense, and they play with 4 guards who could shoot 3s from all over the court and rebound, and they shoot free throws well, which obviously is bad for us since we foul so much, in general they are always a bad matchup for us. Which is interesting how our record against them has defined our season as a whole.

Let's be honest, more than we should, we measure our season by how we do against Kentucky. But those are the wrong Wildcats to measure against; in Big East play, Nova has actually been the harbinger. Our best teams - in those Better Days of 2008 and 2009 - we were 3-0 against Nova. And it wasn't just the wins, it was the circumstances. In 2009, despite shooting 12% from 3 (not hyperbole, literally 3-25 from 3) and being down 1 point with less than a minute to play, we beat them on the road thanks to a T-Will driving layup that touched every part of the rim and the Wildcats missing a couple easy shots to win it. In the Big East semifinals that year, we stormed back from down 8 at half to win by 14. But don't have any Sympathy for Villanova - their next loss was in the Final Four. Even more significantly, the loudest ever and last official "Boom Motherf---er" uttered by the author occurred on Earl's dunk late in the game.

Anyway, in every other year, the story of the Villanova game has been the story of the season: In 2006, our first season in the Big East, we just weren't good enough yet, and they welcomed us to the Big East with a beatdown at Freedom Hall and a clutch win in Philly. I was at Freedom Hall that night of course - the atmosphere was electric, we had a chance early, but they were clearly better and we all knew it. We weren't quite ready for Broadway. We went to the NIT.

In 2007, our young team went on the road and gave it a game, but came up short against a mediocre Villanova team. Samsies in the NCAA against a mediocre Texas A&M team - close, but we were young.

After the 3-0 run during the 2 Elite 8 years, we are back on a losing streak against them: in 2010, the teams played one of the worst officiated and most awful games ever played or witnesses by mankind, no exaggeration. They combined for more than 90 free throws and Scottie Reynolds couldn't miss in the second half of that game. Much like that season, the game was an ugly, frustrating roller coaster that everyone would just as soon forget and not have to ever witness anything like ever again, thank you very much.

And last year - the infamous MB20 game - captured our season. Low expectations, surprising run, soooooo close, but then it all fell apart at the end.

So what happens in 2012? Both based on this history and the fragile state of things surrounding the program, this is a huge game. Nova, like Pitt, has struggled in what was supposed to be a good year for them. They score decently but they don't play defense well. They rebound well. They are improving, beating Seton Hall, but they still needed overtime to beat St. Johns. They got crushed by South Florida. It all adds up to a big question mark as to which Villanova team will take the floor tomorrow night. And more importantly, which Interrobang Cardinal team will show up for the Cards - the ?! (what the hell is wrong with you guys?!) or the !? (wooooo can you believe we won that game!?). Our best effort should beat their best effort.

Maalik Wayns returns for his 9th season and leads them in scoring, minutes, assists and steals, but his 3PT % has been an uncharacteristically low 29%. Dominic Cheek shoots way more 3s than anyone else for them, but makes at only a slightly higher rate than Wayns. James Bell is the one who worries me - if he gets hot and gets a lot of open looks, we may be in for a rough night. If their bench can Give A Little Bit, then we could also be in trouble.

So a loss would not only portend bad things, it may become self-fulfilling and put us back on the slide taking us a Long Way Down. I think we pull it out, but I'll be nervous about it all day. So that's good, at least.

Go Cards.