LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It wasn't all that long ago that the Louisville men's basketball program was undefeated in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Sure, it might not have been the prettiest perfect record, but it was perfect nonetheless. The Cardinals were taken to the wire by NC State, Georgia Tech and Pitt - three teams in the bottom half of the ACC - but they also had an impressive home win over Wake Forest, who very well could be a top three team in the league.
It was a good step towards atoning Louisville's sins in non-conference play. The home losses to Furman and DePaul, falling at Western Kentucky, and failing to take advantage of their best good opportunity - at Michigan State - to pad their NCAA Tournament resume.
But since that undefeated start in conference play, the wheels have all but completely fallen off for the Cardinals.
Louisville (11-9, 5-5 ACC) has now lost five of their last six games, including twice to teams they had already previously beaten in NC State and Pitt - and both rematches wound up as double-digit losses.
In fact, four of their last five games have been lost by double digit margins, the first time this type of stretch has happened for the Cardinals since early 1940. Not to mention that Louisville's game at Florida State, which kicked off their midseason slide, was lost by nine.
Louisville's already abysmal NCAA Tournament resume now almost reads like an NCAA Tournament obituary. 113th in the NET. 4-4 in Quads 1 and 2. An appalling 3-5 in Quad 3. Their hopes of making the Big Dance have been on thin ice for a few weeks now, but now it seems like they might be on the bubble for the NIT.
Even worse, Louisville is quickly running out of time to turn the ship around. They had a couple opportunities against Notre Dame and at Virginia to start mounting a strong latter half of the season, but the Cardinals suffered a brutal collapse against the Fighting Irish, and followed that up with digging a very early, very large hole against the Cavaliers.
Now, the rubber really starts to hit the road. Louisville has a couple extra days off to counteract the quick turnaround against Virginia, but then hosts both No. 9 Duke and North Carolina at the KFC Yum! Center. That is preceded by road trips to both Syracuse and Notre Dame, and then a home matchup against Miami - who is one of the surprise teams in the league.
These five matchups, in an ACC that is having an extremely down season, pose as Quad 1 and 2 matchups for Louisville - something they desperately need if they have any hopes of making the tournament. But on the other side of that coin, Louisville hasn't exactly shown lately that they're even capable of taking down said teams.
"It's a team that needs to improve quickly. The schedule is back loaded," head coach Chris Mack said. "That obviously is daunting, but at the same time, we've got a bunch of days here before we play on Saturday. We got to keep our spirits up, and we have to be able to get better over the next four days in order to compete against one of the better teams in the ACC ."
To Mack's credit, Louisville did show some fight against Virginia on Saturday. They dug themselves into a 19-point first half hole, but were able to trim the deficit to as little as four after halftime. But once they did put themselves within striking distance of the Hoos, they just simply could not get over the hump, something Louisville has shown numerous times this season.
Plus, there's the concern that maybe the players have completely tuned the staff out, as fifth-year big man Malik Williams alluded to after the loss to Notre Dame. Mack insists that his players are still engaged, but does add that "the result is the result."
"Obviously Malik thinks our team should be better, as do I," Mack said. "But we were the same team that was up seven at Notre Dame, the same team tonight - that despite a bad deficit that you can't give on the road - we're the same team that rallied and responded, and didn't quit."
Louisville's NCAA Tournament chances are already in the ICU and on life support. With just ten games remaining in the regular season, and a pair of blue bloods on the horizon, their hopes of making the Big Dance could either fight to live another day (or delay the inevitable depending on your viewpoint), or be officially declared dead.
(Photo of Dre Davis, Armaan Franklin: Geoff Burke - USA TODAY Sports)
You can follow Louisville Report for future coverage by liking us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram:
You can also follow Deputy Editor Matthew McGavic at @Matt_McGavic on Twitter