After going through something of a short, personal-and-professional hell Thursday night, Rick Pitino had a different challenge Saturday.
And as he is prone to do in March, he overcame that one, too.
It started on Thursday, when Pitino's team had to get by pesky and able No. 13 Manhattan, one of the better Round of 64 games. The selection committee forced Pitino to coach against protege Steve Masiello (who's in the mix for a promotion, by the way). Pitino didn't want to have to go against one of his own, someone in the family, so to speak. The selection committee really, probably, gave those two men more heartburn than they deserve.
So Pitino escaped and then had a completely different kind of matchup against No. 5 Saint Louis on Saturday.
His Cardinals won 66-51 in a game that felt like the final score should have been 48-40. A slog. Saint Louis will do that to you. The Billikens won the Atlantic 10 by giving floor burns and squeezing the life out of most opponents. It then fouled the will out of NC State on Thursday night, forcing one of the greatest collapses in tourney history.
This could have been the ugliest game of the month, let alone the big bracket.
But now the Cardinals -- winners of seven straight and 14 of 15 to stand at 31-5 -- will enter the second weekend of the NCAAs with a bigger spotlight attached to them. This team was good most of the year, but it beat up on a lot of bad teams in getting to a gaudy record. It has overcome the loss of Chane Behanan, the big man who was kicked off the team for bad off-court behavior. It doesn't shoot foul shots well, but it overcomes that with a typical Pitino press that's fit to force fits from most foes.
Still defending champs, they're playing like they deserve to be among the favorites to win it all. And that's just how Louisville entered this. Only Florida and Michigan State were clearly considered more likely to win the whole thing. But in the Midwest? It's still Louisville before everyone else.
For the second time in his career, Pitino had made three straight Sweet 16s (1995-97 at Kentucky). Cardinals fans will feel good about their game next week, no matter if it's Wichita State or Kentucky (and either game is appointment TV). Why so good? With a few days to prepare, Pitino is a master in regional semifinals. He's 11-0 all-time in the Sweet 16. It's a fact that will be repeated hundreds of times over the next five or six days.
Is this team championship-level? If you define that by winning no matter the style, then yes. The Cards are still standing and at the same time still moving toward a third straight Final Four. The next game will be the toughest yet. And if there's one after that, it might match or exceed it. But at least we get a team that not only follows up a title year with a strong showing, but is in the mix with everyone else to win the whole thing.
That's not a given in most years in college hoops. Kentucky (2013) and UConn (2012) most recently proved that. Duke before that reached a Sweet 16 but was bounced, and UNC failed to make the 2010 tourney after winning it all in 2009. We've had a fair crop of teams over the past 20 years who have won a title only to fail to reach the Sweet 16 the next season. Louisville is anything but a paper champion, and it's good to see that again.