When Louisville got the call to the ACC, it was a move - like all other conference realignment - motivated by football. But after years of playing in the Big East and seeing it crumble, the ACC still felt more like a challenge on the basketball court. Yes, it unquestionably raised the profile of the football team and the athletic program as a whole, but in Louisville, it's about the basketball. It always has been, it always will be.
So while this year's football schedule was one of the most exciting ones in recent memory, it still doesn't quite compare to the wild ride that will likely be the next few months of Louisville basketball. In those next three months, the Cards will meet at least six teams that are currently ranked before they reach the ACC Tournament, a place where they will all but certainly meet more.
Sunday night, Louisville finally got its first look at exactly what an ACC game looks like on the hardwood. If looking at the conference schedule seemed like a challenge before the season, it certainly doesn't feel any less so now that the first road trip is out of the way. Wake Forest isn't anywhere near the hardest test that the ACC has to offer, but they proved the general level of the conference, especially on the road.
Sure, it's probably fair to say that if Louisville visited Winston-Salem in a month and a half, things would probably lean heavier in the Cards' favor, but Sunday's matchup was valuable anyway. Rick Pitino is still experimenting with a little bit of everything (11 players saw the floor against Wake), and he usually has a way of figuring out the best way to utilize his roster. He'll have a different challenge in that regard this season with a larger group of newcomers that he will need to produce down the road, but the talent is there. And we trust the Hall of Famer's abilities to take it from there, yeah?
In the meantime, we can say a couple of things to be almost certain. Terry Rozier is an NBA-level guard, and there are at least two or three moments every game that should make anyone who's watching think something like, "Wow, Terry Rozier is exceptionally good at playing basketball." Additionally, Montrezl Harrell served the ACC with a notice of how much he can affect a game in last night's first half. The preseason All-American's ACC debut (25 pts, 13 rebs) was impressive regardless of the opponent.
The man who has likely taken the most criticism this season has been Chris Jones, and last night he displayed all of the reasons Pitino was so excited about landing him a year ago. Maybe it was a good thing that last night's game stayed close, because it allowed the rest of the basketball-watching public to gain interest, tune in and see Jones have one of his best games in a Louisville uniform.
Obviously, some of the criticism Jones got earlier this season was deserved, but he deserves the praise he was getting all over Twitter on Sunday night just the same. Sunday's performance from Jones was nothing short of dynamite, and hopefully he'll use it as momentum on the road to consistency.
One of the most encouraging results of Rick Pitino's tinkering against Wake was Shaqquan Aaron's 23 minutes off of the bench. Aaron was expected to contribute this season as soon as he was eligible to return to the floor, and he did that on Sunday. There were some really ugly shots in the process, but it's hard to criticize the freshman's confidence, and he scored 11 despite the waywardness from beyond the arc (1-for-5). Outside of his clear offensive ability, Aaron's length is undeniable, which should help him as he grows defensively and in the rebounding department (he gathered five boards against the Deacs).
Speaking of rebounding, it may be the single biggest concern for Pitino and Louisville at this point in the season. It's not an unfamiliar problem, though it figures to be something that has to improve given some of the size that sees the floor for Louisville. Wake Forest edged the Cards in the category despite losing the game, but something will have to develop down low soon on the glass for Louisville to realize their full potential in conference this season. The performances by bigs other than Montrezl Harrell on Sunday just weren't good enough.
One final random thought from Wake: It wasn't entirely surprising, but the limited involvement of Wayne Blackshear in 20 minutes on the floor (1-for-3, 4 pts, 1 reb) was still irking. Pitino said that they need to get dynamite in his butt. That would seem to be a good idea. A productive, dynamite butt Wayne could go a long way for this team. Anyway...
While there were some mildly alarming developments in Louisville's first ACC action, the positives still far outweigh the concerns for this team on the whole. Pitino mentioned recently how much this team can still grow, and watching them do that in the best basketball conference in America will be fascinating to watch.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that the foundation that the Cards are growing from at this point is already regarded as a top five team. If the positives from the Wake game (Jones, Aaron, Rozier, Harrell, etc.) continue and this roster becomes more together, Louisville will be happy with their inaugural ACC campaign and what follows in the postseason.
Louisville was abuzz watching the football team compete against some heavyweights on the gridiron this season thanks to its new ACC membership, and that shouldn't be discounted in any way. It was a move that had to happen for Louisville to continue to grow in the most lucrative sport in college athletics.
The potential for growth on the gridiron is exciting, but there's no question that the biggest gift the ACC gave its newest fan base is the basketball schedule. That's where the Cards truly belong. They're not alone either, as Louisville's fans fit right in with the basketball-rabid fans in Durham, Chapel Hill and elsewhere. This time of year isn't just what Louisville waits for, it's what the majority of the conference waits for.
At last, ACC basketball is here. Finally, Louisville is part of it. And it's just getting started.