The longterm outlook for the Louisville basketball program became a lot more promising on Saturday morning when one of the elite guards in the Class of 2012 announced he intends to play for the Cardinals.
Before Louisville fans could start daydreaming about the future, however, the Cardinals proved they're worth watching in the present as well.
Hours after Raleigh native Rodney Purvis chose Louisville over Duke, Xavier and a handful of other top programs, the Cardinals overwhelmed 20th-ranked UNLV 77-68 to improve to 8-0 on the season. It was a banner day for a Louisville program that barely snuck into the NCAA tournament last season, endured Rick Pitino's embarrassing trial this summer and appeared headed for a rebuilding year in 2010-11.
Expectations were certainly lower than usual for Louisville entering the season after losing three starters from a team that went 20-13 and got destroyed by Cal in the opening round of the NCAA tournament last March. In particular, the unexpected departure of Samardo Samuels left the Cardinals with nobody capable of matching his low-post production.
To combat that lack of size or back-to-the-basket scoring, Louisville has returned to Pitino's up-tempo roots. A season-opening victory over Butler to christen the KFC Yum! Center raised some eyebrows, but this win over previously undefeated UNLV will go a long way toward validating the Cardinals as an upper-division Big East team.
For Louisville, the key to rallying from a nine-point second-half deficit was the performance of guard Preston Knowles. Channeling ex-Detroit Pistons star Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson, Knowles scored all 20 of his points in the second half to launch a game-changing 21-6 run.
Knowles received plenty of help from reserve guards Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, who had 17 points apiece and combined for eight three-pointers. The Cardinals also forced 18 UNLV turnovers and limited Rebels star Chace Stanback to eight quiet points on 2-for-8 shooting.
It's too soon to anoint Louisville a Big East contender because the Cardinals haven't even won a game away from home yet, but they should nonetheless make their top 25 debut next week. The only tough non-conference game left on their schedule is a home game against Kentucky on Dec. 31, but plenty of opportunities at marquee road wins await once Big East play begins.
Even if Louisville can't sustain this success this season, there's a lot for Cardinals fans to look forward to in the future.
Five-star guard Wayne Blackshear headlines a 2011 recruiting class that also includes three other promising prospects. And the 2012 recruiting class could be even more special if Louisville can surround Purvis with a few other talented players.
Not bad for a program that seemed to be on the decline just a few short months ago.