LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Entering their rematch at Pitt, the Louisville men's basketball program was already standing on shaky ground.
The Cardinals already had bad home losses to both Furman and DePaul, as well as a road loss to Western Kentucky that didn't look good either. They had a solid win against Mississippi State, but it was really the only victory on their NCAA Tournament resume in which they could hang their hat on.
And this is just non-conference play.
Louisville did have an undefeated start to their Atlantic Coast Conference slate, but it was far from convincing. Over their first four games in league play, the Cardinals' average margin of victory was only 3.75 points. Wake Forest is having a good season under second-year head coach Steve Forbes, but NC State, Georgia Tech and Pitt all rank outside the KenPom Top 100.
The Cardinals' first true test in the ACC came down in Tallahassee, against a Florida State team that, while having a "down" year, still was a worthy opponent. Not only did they come up short against the Seminoles for the fifth straight time, that was then followed up by getting blasted in a rematch with NC State at the KFC Yum! Center.
Then on Saturday at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, the ground on which Louisville's season sat upon completely and totally collapsed.
Facing Pitt for the second time in ten days - a Panthers squad which came into the game ranked as the No. 177 team in Division I according to KenPom - Louisville could not complete the regular season sweep and fell 65-53.
The loss made history for all the wrong reasons. In the 20-year existence of KenPom, it was Louisville's worst loss since falling to No. 183 East Carolina back on Jan. 16, 2002. It also marked the first time since Feb. of 1963 that the Cardinals had lost to three straight unranked opponents by nine or more points.
"It's tough. To be on such a high horse and to get knocked off, it's hard to bounce back from, but we got to figure it out," forward/center Malik Williams said. "I think we're lost right now just as a group, and that's number one thing we got to figure out to get back together."
"Lost" seems to be an accurate description as to how Louisville played, not just against Pitt, but for the vast majority of the season up to this point. Once again, the Cardinals struggled mightily to shoot the ball against the Panthers, connected on just 33.0 percent of their field goal attempts and 25.0 of their threes.
Not only that, but it was just the latest instance of another subpar performance by the defense. Pitt shot 43.6 percent from the field, and was able to get 34 points down in the paint. Once ranked at 12th in the nation in defensive efficiency after their win at Georgia Tech on Jan. 2, that mark has tumbled all the way down to 54th.
Adding even more salt to the wound, Louisville is now ranked 100th according to KenPom. Not only is this their worst ranking ever in the site's history, but it is the first time they have ever hit triple digits.
"We are lost," head coach Chris Mack said, echoing Williams' sentiments. "We're not playing hard enough, we're not playing connected enough. Again, not pointing fingers, we're just not getting the job done. That falls right on my shoulders, and I got to figure out something different. Saying the same things over and over certainly isn't sinking in at this point, and that's my fault if I can't recognize that."
Both Williams and Mack believe that the bulk of Louisville's problems start with the defensive end of the court. Williams believes the team's "grit, toughness, the want" has slipped in recent weeks, and Mack thinks the defense has seen a "failure to dig in" whenever the offense isn't clicking - which seems to be a lot.
Regardless of the precise reason for Louisville's shortcomings on either end of the floor, the real concern starts with, according to Mack, the fact that his motivational messages are not getting through to the team. It's something that has the fourth-year head coach of the Cardinals "very concerned."
"Everybody on the team - players, staff, head coach - we gotta take a look in the mirror," Mack said. "We got to figure out like, "do we want to turn it around? Or is this acceptable?" I know the answer for myself, but we will continue to work and continue to coach, and try to get this thing turned around the way that we want it to go."
If Louisville is going to turn things around, at least in the interim, it won't be an easy task. Their next game has them at home against Boston College, but that precedes a six-game stretch where the Cardinals play Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Syracuse and Notre Dame twice.
Louisville's hopes of making the NCAA Tournament, whether that be as an at-large or by winning the ACC Tournament, are already on life support. They now boast a record of just 10-7 on the year, and had a NET ranking of 107th entering the matchup at Pitt - and that number is sure to plummet once the metric is updated.
Whatever motivational message works, Louisville better find it out fast.
(Photo of Chris Mack, Louisville Players: Charles LeClaire - USA TODAY Sports)
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