LOUISVILLE, Ky. – With just one starter returning, no proven point guard and limited size up front, the general consensus about this year's Louisville team was simple: Wait 'til next year.
That's when Rick Pitino's club would have experience, depth and a touted recruiting class to make a run at a national championship. Pitino wasn't conceding anything. That isn't his style. But reality is reality.
"If you were with me the first six weeks of practice [I] thought we overscheduled," Pitino says. "[The coaching staff] got together and said, 'Were not very good.'"
How good do they feel after a dominating win over Cincinnati on Wednesday?
After their 93-66 victory, the Cardinals are 14-1 and haven't lost since opening night. By manhandling the previously unbeaten Bearcats and tying Bob Huggins' largest margin of defeat of his Cincinnati tenure, Louisville proved it worthy of its No. 5 ranking.
"We got our ass kicked," UC associate coach Dan Peters said after the game. "They just pounded us. We got handled."
"I'm embarrassed," concluded Huggins.
In Louisville there's a giddy excitement about what this club – not next season's team – is capable of.
"Earlier, this was a rebuilding year," said U of L forward Luke Whitehead, who finished with 18 points against Cincinnati. "Now people are realizing we are going to make things happen this year. I'm a senior, so the rebuilding stuff ... I'm not going out like that. I'm not going out without a fight."
This was no ordinary win. UC didn't beat its first 13 opponents by an average of 25.2 points per game by accident. As much as Huggins was down on his team's lack of effort, the Bearcats are still a strong, deep and skilled team. The UC roster is like Noah's Ark – two of everything – allowing Huggins to rotate steady point guards, top-notch shooters and hulking big men.
Which makes Wednesday's show of force by the Cardinals all the more impressive. Against a vaunted defense, U of L shot 45.9 percent from the floor and could have hit triple digits if Pitino had wanted. Despite giving up considerable size up front, the Cards won the battle of the boards 42-38. And against an at-times tenacious Cincinnati press, a team that once wondered about its point guard committed just 13 turnovers.
Pitino has coached four Final Four teams, including the 1996 NCAA champions at Kentucky, so he knows good teams. This is not anywhere near his most talented team – that '96 club had eight future NBA players – but they couldn't have played much better than this squad, which has at most two next-level prospects (Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean).
"If you break them down [individually] they are not overly impressive," Pitino says. "But you put them together and they are great. That's what they do.
"I can't explain it. I think they have great pride and great character. [They] are wonderful kids. When it comes together it is impressive. But I can't explain it."
Huggins thinks he knows. It starts with Pitino.
"I'd like to send a couple of [my] guys down here for a day or two," Huggins said. "It might be quite an education."
Pitino has a way of getting a team hot and riding it to remarkable results. He instills confidence and then milks it for all its worth. His first Final Four club was an unheralded Providence team that caught fire in the tournament. Last year the Cards won 17 straight games at one point but then couldn't handle a hot-shooting Butler team in the NCAA tournament.
No one around here is willing to start booking hotel rooms for San Antonio yet. But the fact that a deep NCAA run is being discussed at all – and not just how Garcia will look getting passes from super recruit Sebastian Telfair next season – is a surprise.
The team has come a long way from its loss to Iowa, when Pitino was nearly convinced his front line wouldn't hold up, Dean wouldn't turn into a true point guard and U of L would spend the season getting crushed on the boards.
"We just bought into the system," Whitehead says. "We listened to coach Pitino and it is working. The thing is, we know we can get a lot better. And that is how this team should be."
Better? Wait until next week.