There was a point time where midweek games at Houston were the norm, and we were all okay with that. The crowds, if I'm remembering correctly, were even more passive than the one at the Hofheinz Pavilion last night, and the teams were all about the same as the Cougar squad that U of L defeated for a second time this season.
We celebrated the victories like most others -- although my most distinct memory of a game at Houston is still one from some point in the mid-'90s where we trailed at halftime and my dad was so mad that he got up and went for a drive without saying a word...we weren't sure if he was ever coming back -- and looked forward to the next time the Cardinals took the court.
There's a temptation right now to say that the Louisville basketball program and its fans were spoiled by the eight seasons the Cardinals spent in the Big East, but I don't think that's right. U of L is, without question, one of college basketball's top 10 all-time programs, so finally making it into one of the sport's premier programs was a long overdue reward. If anything, we're owed the seasons we're about to see in the ACC.
Still, Wednesday night was on odd reminder of what was and what (hopefully) never will be again. Houston has a proud basketball history and the potential to be competitive again in the coming years, but playing in a half-full, dimly lit arena against an 11-11 team they've already beaten by 39 isn't exactly what U of L is used to or what it desires in the final month before March.
All of that made Wednesday night a little difficult for everyone associated with Louisville basketball, but it was an evening indicative of the odd February quest the Cards currently find themselves smack in the middle of. Instead of the "win seven straight after Notre Dame" or "have a winning record in each three-game segment" goals of past years, this February is all about focus and discovery for the Cards.
A five-game stretch against against the bottom half of a top-heavy league isn't a particularly sexy call to arms, but the Cards have to be mature enough to understand how crucial a time this is. Being 0-4 against top 25 teams is a stigma U of L won't be able to shake until Feb. 22, but it's also a fact that leaves Rick Pitino's team with no margin for error right now. These games are all lose-lose situations for the Cards -- you win and everyone brings up the fact that you haven't beaten anyone, you lose and it's a gigantic blow to your NCAA Tournament profile -- but they're also tests of maturity and focus that will benefit Louisville when every game is a big one starting with the rematch at Cincinnati.
This is also a period where Pitino and his players need to figure out which combination is going to give them the best chance to make a run to Dallas. That not being a settled issue in February isn't a trait distinct to this squad, it's actually become kind of a Valentine's tradition around here.
Louisville's starting lineups and in-game rotations are always fluid things until about the final weekend of the regular season, at which point Pitino decides he has a full grasp on his team and lets his most formidable lineups go do their thing. Because of this, being able to play teams like Houston and Central Florida this late in the season is something of a gift...it's just a gift we're all going to be happy to exchange the second the AAC goes back home after the holidays.
Now comes the second eight-day layoff in the past three and-a-half weeks, perhaps the most torturous thing you can do to citizens of Louisville at this point in the calendar year. Just another important test of focus and maturity in the middle of a stretch that includes little else.
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