February A Key Time For Cards

Since the dawn of the “Louisville First” era (2010-11 season through the present), the flip of the calendar from January to February has ushered in the “moving time” period for Rick Pitino’s Cardinals. UofL has defeated five ranked opponents in the month over the last three seasons and laid the groundwork for three straight trips to the Big East conference championship game, a pair of Final Four appearances and a national title.

As the Cardinals prepare to roll into the heart of February, they do so with an unfamiliar stride.

Louisville is a sparkling 18-4, but has yet to defeat a ranked opponent. It’s the deepest the Cards have gone into a season without achieving the feat since it took until Feb. 14 of 2010. That mark will likely be passed this season, as UofL doesn’t figure to get another shot at a ranked opponent until Feb. 22 when they play at current No. 7 Cincinnati.

Having said that, Louisville also faces the foreign situation of not being able to mount a serious charge over the course of the first few weeks of February. They’ve already disposed of AAC bottom-feeder Central Florida and will now spend the rest of their time between now and the 22nd dealing with the equally unattractive quartet of Temple, Houston, South Florida and Rutgers. It won’t be until a brutal final five-game stretch of the regular season that this team truly gets an opportunity to flex for the rest of the country.

All of this makes last Thursday’s soul-crushing home loss to Cincinnati that much more difficult to stomach. But while what took place on the court was more than a bit disconcerting, I do think the evening served as a bit of a turning point for a Louisville fan base that includes a chunk of people still figuring out how to adjust to life in a post-championship world.

It’s a large group that includes Yours Truly.

For as long as I can remember, my Louisville basketball fanaticism has been fueled by two equal parts: the desire to capture the euphoria that comes along with winning and the desire to avoid the desolation and despair that comes with losing. The latter phenomenon was always based around the fear that I’d never get to see the team I’ve dedicated so much time to claim the sport’s top prize. Each loss opened the doors for at least some of the panicky thoughts that winning kept out: “This team doesn’t have it.” “Now we’re going to get a bad draw.” “This isn’t the year.”

For the first time in my life, that fear is nowhere to be found.

When Louisville loses these days, I miss the absence of the victory euphoria as much as I always have, but I’m no longer overwhelmed by despair of defeat or the trepidation that used to come with it. It’s been an odd adjustment.

While playing in a conference other than the Big East for the first time in nearly a decade certainly deserves its fair share of the credit, I think that same adjustment is at least partially to blame for the relative ennui that has been on display from the Cardinal fan base at times this season.

Before last Thursday, Louisville had hosted a ranked opponent just one other time this in 2013-14, and it was the worst environment I can remember for such an occasion. The crowd did eventually come to life…after the game was over and the victorious Memphis players and coaches were celebrating a bit more than the KFC Yum! Center patrons would have preferred.

When you’ve waited as long for a championship as Louisville fans did, lingering elation is to be expected. But while we all get to keep what happened last season with us forever, it’s time to realize that if Louisville gets knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in six or seven weeks, the “defending national champion” portion of the euphoria that we all have enjoyed so much since last April is going to be gone. I’d really like for that not to happen, and I’d really like to experience what a year of “two-time defending national champion” euphoria feels like.

The environment for the Cincinnati game was a large step in the right direction, but it’s time for the fan base to really turn it up, and it’s time to fully embrace what’s happening with this group of Cardinals. The days of the championship hangover excuse are gone. Get some Gatorade, get some food in your stomach, and get over it.

February is moving time. For all of us.