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Louisville basketball at a crossroads

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This Cardinals’ 2019-20 season appears to be headed down one of two paths.

On Saturday, Louisville responded to its largest dose of adversity yet by playing what was easily its worst overall game of the 2019-20 season. We don’t need to pore back over all the details. If you watched any stretch of the Cardinals’ 77-62 loss at Clemson, you’re well-versed in just how discouraging it was.

Forget the ACC title race, forget NCAA tournament seeding, forget all the other minutiae we typically obsess over at this point in the season; Chris Mack’s team suddenly has an existential crisis on its hands. How it handles that in the days to come will determine whether or not any of the other stuff even matters.

From my vantage point, it seems like there are only two very divergent paths for this thing to go down. We should know in short order which direction we’re headed.

Path one involves “this February swoon thing” becoming “The February Swoon Thing.”

After producing its second straight one-loss January under Mack, Louisville is now off to a 2-3 start in February for the second consecutive season. For the 2018-19 team, that 2-3 start became a 2-6 month, which then became a 2-3 March where U of L’s only wins came over a Notre Dame team that finished in last-place in the ACC.

If whatever the infestation is/was that resulted in Louisville players looking like they’d rather be doing anything but playing basketball on Saturday isn’t/hasn’t been remedied, this is where we’re headed.

Maybe the team will beat North Carolina on Saturday or Virginia Tech in a couple weekends, maybe it will win a game in the ACC tournament, but the hope of March 2020 being anything that resembles “special,” will be all but lost.

If that does happen, then the fear over Louisville being a team that perennially “peaks too soon” will reach its highest levels in the Derby City since ... well, Rick Pitino’s first few years.

This seems to have been forgotten by many, but long before the Pitino narrative at U of L was “don’t worry about that non-conference/early January loss, we’re always rounding into form at the right time,” the narrative was “Pitino’s Cardinals always tank during the most important part of the season.”

In year one, a promising start was derailed by a four-loss February that all but sealed Louisville’s fate as an NIT team. A year later, the Cards rolled to 17 straight wins and the No. 3 ranking in the AP poll before a run of four losses in five games in February brought everyone down to earth. In year three, U of L got as high as No. 2 in the AP poll and then promptly dropped five of its first six games in February and nearly missed the NCAA tournament altogether. Even the 2004-05 Final Four team took a head-scratching 17-point home loss to a bad Memphis team in February. When that group responded to said loss with 13 straight wins, it put to bed the February fears forever.

I have no inside info on what’s going on with the 2019-20 Cards. I’m every bit as confused as you are when it comes to figuring out how a team that seemed to be totally cohesive and firing on all cylinders one Saturday could appear to be the exact opposite just seven days later. The good news is recent history has given us a couple of examples where we’ve gone through late-season “all is lost” moments and come out clean on the other side.

This leads us to path two.

Everyone remembers that in 2012, Louisville lost by 31 to a bad Providence team, got beat at home by South Florida on senior night, and then scored 49 points in its regular season finale at Syracuse. You may not have all the details locked and loaded to reel off at a moment’s notice, but when the memories are unearthed in front of you, you remember them. You remember them not because they were the low points of an ultimately disappointing season, you remember them for the same reason you remember that the Cards lost three straight a year later on their way to the national championship: The losses don’t make much sense in hindsight.

If in 2012, Louisville had lost its Big East tournament opener to Seton Hall and then lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament as, say, a 7-seed, no one cares about the blowout of Providence or the Senior Night loss to USF. They disappear from the U of L fan’s collective sports conscious within five years. Because Louisville won four games in four nights to win the Big East tournament and then four games over the next two weeks to crash the Final Four, we’re all familiar with the season’s lowest moments because they make even less sense now than they did at the time.

The task at hand for the 2019-20 Louisville basketball team is now this: Make every Cardinal fan remember the back-to-back losses to Georgia Teach and Clemson forever. Allow them to exist as a “try not to freak out” go-to fact for decades to come.

I know they looked awful in both games this week, but I’ll never forget in February, 2020 when that team ...

Getting to this point is far from the easiest thing in the world, even with a team that had been as hot as this one was just 10 days ago. Lineup changes, attitude fixes, slight alterations in defensive or offensive philosophy; Any move that gets made right now has to be the right one. The good news is that we know the ingredients are all there.

As much as we’d all like to forget the Clemson and Georgia Tech games right now, here’s hoping we all wind up remembering them forever.