We are now exactly halfway through the Louisville men’s basketball regular season, and the topic of whether or not the Cardinals will be passed over for inclusion in the NCAA tournament (outside of the self-imposed postseason ban in 2016) for the first time in 12 years is very much on the table.
For U of L to go dancing, it seems imperative that the team have a winning record in conference play. Although to be fair, 10 conference wins isn’t a magic number that guarantees, without fail, an at-large bid. In fact, just two seasons ago Syracuse was left out of the field of 68 despite going 10-8 in the ACC. With Louisville’s non-conference resume being what it is (bad), there’s certainly a possibility that history could repeat itself if the Cards don’t pick up the right combination of wins, or if bid-stealers reign supreme throughout Championship Week.
Still, a Louisville team with a 10-8 conference mark would seem more likely than not to go dancing. It also feels like the lowest possible bar this team could clear and still make the field, so we’ll stick with it.
So how does Louisville get to 10 league wins?
Let’s break this thing down from a fundamental standpoint.
There are five games the Cardinals seem likely to win, five games they seem likely to lose, and six games that are too close to call. Those six games will likely wind up making the difference here.
Here’s how it shakes out.
Games Louisville Should Win
Obviously you can never assume anything in this conference (or with this team), but these are the games where Louisville figures to be a fairly decisive favorite. Lose any of these and you’re going to have to steal one to make up for it.
vs. Boston College (Jan. 21)
This a much better BC team than the one we’re used to seeing. They stunned Duke, beat Wake Forest, and nearly upset both Virginia and Clemson. They also have just one road win to speak of at the moment, and it came over Hartford. This a game a tournament team has to win.
vs. Wake Forest (Jan. 27)
Bryant Crawford is great, but the Deacs have taken a pretty sizable step back this year. Can’t drop this one.
vs. Syracuse (Feb. 5)
U of L seems to always have Syracuse’s number, especially at home. The Orange are better than a lot of people thought they were going to be this season, but I still don’t think they’re a tournament team. This could wind up being a big bubble game for both squads.
vs. Georgia Tech (Feb. 8)
Tech has been one of the biggest disappointments in the ACC so far, but they seem to be hitting their stride at the moment. Josh Okogie, who was suspended to begin the year, is playing about as well as anyone in the conference. Here’s hoping this still feels like a “should win” a month from now.
At Pittsburgh (Feb. 11)
Pitt is awful. We know this. I don’t care if the game was being played at Heinz Field. You have to win this.
Games Louisville Should Lose
A win in any of these five games would be a huge resume booster and a solid steal for the Cards.
At Florida State (Jan. 10)
We start with Louisville’s next game. It seemed like a blessing at the time that the Cards got to play Florida State twice this season. The Seminoles lost their three stars and three leading scorers — Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac and Xavier Rathan-Mayes -- to the NBA Draft, and didn’t bring a whole lot back to be fearful of.
Somehow, this Florida State team feels scarier than last year’s. They play really physical defense, share the ball better on the offensive end than in season’s past, and have yet to be beaten on their home floor (the OK State loss was part of the “Orange Bowl Classic” in Sunrise).
At Miami (Jan. 24)
Like Louisville, I think the impact of the FBI probe has taken a toll on Miami’s granted. Granted the degree of impact hasn’t been as significant as it’s been at U of L.
The Hurricanes have too much talent to finish outside the top five in the conference. They might not be the Final Four threat we thought they’d be, but this very much feels like a “they’ve hit their stride” team that reels off an impressive winning streak in the middle of league play. The middle of league play, of course, is when this game takes place.
At Virginia (Jan. 31)
This would have been in this column even if the Cavaliers had been going through the “down year” that everyone was predicting back in October. Now that they’re one of the five best teams in the country again ... yeah, I’m not holding out much hope for January ending on a high note.
At Duke (Feb. 21)
Duke’s the most talented team in the country, and late February should be jussssst about when the Blue Devils are gearing up to be the NCAA tournament favorites. Coach K’s team is abysmal on defense right now, but even if that trend carries over into late February, Louisville’s lack of a consistent halfcourt offense makes “really good offense/really bad defense” team far from an ideal matchup. This is the one game left on the schedule that feels like it could very ugly for the good guys.
vs. Virginia (March 1)
The only home game on this list. I don’t think I need to explain why.
Some lean a little bit towards Louisville, some towards the opponent, and some feel like a perfect coin flip. These are the six games that I think are going to wind up sealing U of L’s NCAA tournament fate. The Cards would need to find four wins from this group.
vs. Virginia Tech (Jan. 13)
This seems like the game on this list that most belongs in the “should win” section, but again, really good offensive teams should terrify Louisville fans right now. Tech will score and Buzz Williams is one of the best Xs and Os guys in the conference. He gave Rick Pitino all he could handle with inferior talent, and I would assume he’ll do the same to David Padgett.
At Notre Dame (Jan. 16)
A lock for the “should lose” section before Bonzie Colson’s unfortunate foot injury. Even without their All-American, the Irish are 3-0 in the ACC and they haven’t lost at home to Louisville since some time around the start of the War of 1812. On paper, this feels like a game the Cardinals should be able to get. Any U of L fan who has watched any Louisville-Notre Dame at the Joyce Center knows better.
vs. Florida State (Feb. 3)
Here’s hoping that the ‘Noles have come back down to earth by the end of January and that the Yum Center crowd can will the Cardinals to a much-needed win to kick off a month where they’ve historically been very successful.
vs. North Carolina (Feb. 17)
The Heels are good, but not like they’ve been the past two seasons. The biggest sigh of relief for U of L heading into this game is that UNC is no longer dominating the offensive glass.
At Virginia Tech (Feb. 24)
A very real possibility that this will be one of the biggest bubble games of lat February.
At NC State (March 3)
I still think Louisville is a better team than NC State, but they’ve already beaten Arizona and we saw what they just did to Duke in Raleigh over the weekend. Toss in the fact that it’s Senior Day and that Kevin Keatts has a pretty good idea of what the Cards like to run, and you’ve got the recipe for a toss-up.
I know things seem bad right now, but it’s worth repeating that Louisville has played four currently ranked teams and had legitimate shots to beat three of them. Winning 10 games in the conference wouldn’t even be worth talking about if the Cards had been manhandled by every team with a pulse on its schedule so far. This is still doable.
The journey begins Wednesday.