Louisville Basketball: A Whole New Ball Game for the Cardinals

Gregory SalyerCorrespondent IFebruary 20, 2008

Earlier in the season, it looked like the Louisville Cardinals were doomed to repeat the same underachieving effort that they displayed two years ago in their inaugural season in the Big East. 

Derrick Caracter was still struggling with the same off-court problems that he had trouble with since he enrolled at the university.  David Padgett and Juan Palacios were suffering from injuries.

On New Year's Day the team had a record of 9-4.  Having lost to a less than impressive Cincinnati squad in Freedom Hall, there was already discussion going around about the Cardinals being a bubble team and were only one game into Big East Conference play.

All of that seems like it was an entire season ago.

Since then, Louisville has become one of the hottest teams in the country.  After the Cincinnati loss, the Cardinal bounced back to beat rival UK for the first time since 2003.  Derrick Caracter has stepped up to become a leader on the team and seems to give his all every game.  Palacios played solid and David Padgett has proven himself to be one of the best big men in the country.

The Cardinals have beat the ranked Marquette team twice, at home and on the road, by an average of 18 points.  They were finally starting to play with confidence when Georgetown came to town for what may have been Louisville's biggest game since joining the Big East in 2005.

College GameDay was in town.  The game was designated as a White Out game, where all fans were encouraged to wear white.  And wouldn't you know, Rick Pitino, the man who would give his team poor marks in some aspect of the game even if they won the national title, was caught up in the hype.  He walked onto the court for the first half  of the game wearing an all white suit.

After playing a flat first half, the team rallied to beat the Hoyas by a somewhat comfortable eight point margin.

There hasn't really been a difference for the Cardinals except the fact that they just needed to get healthy and play a more consistent game.  Since they have played with the potential they've always had, everything has fallen into place.  They look more like the team that the Big East coaches picked, along with Georgetown, to win the Big East title.

Since the Georgetown game, the Cardinals have racked up wins against Depaul on the road, a tough and underrated Providence team, as well as a Syracuse squad that has definite potential to make the NCAA tournament. 

It hasn't been easy for the Cards, nor has it always looked pretty, but they are playing with confidence.  They believe that they can win and they are maturing as a team.  They have been playing complete games with strong second half efforts.

Bench players, such as Preston Knowles, have stepped up and made major contributions on offense, as well as defense.  Padgett, who at one time in his career was criticized for not using his size to his advantage, has begun to power his way to the basket.  Earl Clark has been on fire and Andre McGee has transformed his experience into leadership on the court. 

The Cardinals have had an up and down season, but they seem to be on the right track now.  The same track that many publications, and so-called experts, picked them to be on as a major contender for the final four come March.

It's still not going to be easy.  They have to play road games at Pittsburgh and Georgetown, as well as games against two solid teams in Notre Dame and Villanova.  They might even drop a game or two, but they are playing with the confidence that make great tournament teams and lead to strong tournament runs. 

They are finally playing like they belong with the big dogs of college basketball.