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The winter grind is here for Louisville basketball

Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Louisville basketball team enters the toughest stretch of its 2015-16 to date owning a solid top five rating in virtually every computer ranking known to man, including the popular ones concocted by Jeff Sagarin and Ken Pomeroy. Even with that being the case, the Cards consistently find themselves near the back end of the rankings churned out by national college hoops writers, and are just No. 16 in the current Associated Press Top 25.

So what are the humans seeing that makes them more skeptical about UofL than the computers?

"I think most people believe Louisville's pretty good, but they don't know it," said ESPN college basketball writer Jeff Goodman. "They have an impressive record, but they haven't beaten a single team yet that appears to be a legitimate Final Four contender. Until that happens, it's tough to fully buy into Rick Pitino's team."

Over the next five weeks, UofL will have ample opportunity to prove its worth against teams "that appear to be legitimate Final Four contenders." That road begins Saturday when two-time defending ACC regular season champion Virginia comes to town, and will roll on just two days later when the (potentially still) top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels strut into the KFC Yum! Center.

It doesn't lighten up much after that. Between now and the end of the regular season, Louisville will play seven games against teams currently ranked in the top 25, and does not have a single stretch where they play consecutive tilts against unranked opponents.

Any season ticket holder who complained during the season's opening months about the quality of competition on the home slate is about to be sufficiently reimbursed.

"Buckle your seat belts because it's gonna be one helluva ride in the ACC," Pitino said last week. "It reminds me so much of the Big East in its prime in terms of, you know, you see it going one way, then all of a sudden you see now you have Virginia and Clemson near the top, you see Georgia Tech playing real well. Syracuse looks like they're out of it, now they get hot. Duke loses three, Virginia loses three and then suddenly the thing's upside down, and then it will turn back. It will be a roller coaster ride that will drive fans and coaches crazy, but it will be a lot of fun playing this type of competition, needless to say."

The conference grind that Louisville fans became all too familiar with during the program's days in the Big East is back, and it has the potential to be just as beautiful as it was back then.

Big Monday has returned and the chill outside in the Derby City feels familiar again. In an area where college basketball is so often likened to religion, this is what carries us through a pair of otherwise unendurable months that offer little else outside of cold and darkness and teddy bears holding candy hearts.

Think about a life in late January or early February where you couldn't spend Mondays or Wednesdays at work or school reading and thinking about that night's game with Syracuse, or looking ahead to attending Saturday's showdown with Duke. "Miserable" might be taking things too far, but it's certainly a life less enjoyable.

Rushing home from work on an especially dark 5:30 day to hug the kids, grab a quick bite, and then head to the arena or get focused on your favorite couch for the two hours of the day you've looked forward to since the weekend. Skipping 3:30 class because you know you'd just spend the time there on your computer reading some local hack's breakdown of Virginia. This is what post-Christmas winter life means to people like you and me.

For Louisville, the hope is that this time of year will produce both national respect and momentum heading into the only time of the year better than this one: March.

"This year, I'd say there are probably 15 maybe 20 teams that could win the national title," Goodman said. "Is Louisville one of those teams? I think so, but we should know for sure in a few weeks."

Embrace the quest for answers. Embrace the winter grind.