Masterful Pitino has Cardinals rolling, and upside's even greater

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This is only the second time in Pitino's decorated career that he's guided a team to an 11-0 start. (Getty Images)  
This is only the second time in Pitino's decorated career that he's guided a team to an 11-0 start. (Getty Images)  

I admit to having no grip on how good Louisville really is. I know they're sometimes a lot of fun to watch, and at other times it's as if Rick Pitino has challenged his team to go two minutes with scarves tied around their eyes. The offense has been inconsistent, but that defense has been stellar. Vintage Pitino, vintage Louisville.

U of L is the fourth-best per-possession defense in the country, allowing 84.1 points per 100 possessions, which trails only Wisconsin, Florida State and Ohio State. The Cards finished fourth in defensive efficiency last year. In 2008-09, they were second-best. No. 5 before that. This program almost always play consistent defense.

The Cardinals are ranked No. 4 in both national polls, but they don't quite look and feel like a top-five team to many. Not yet anyway. The longer the winning continues, the more they mold themselves and show themselves to be elite. It's going to be very fun to see what Louisville becomes in the next two weeks, when I think we'll get a very good idea of what the team actually is/can be/lacks.

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But I still don't know the ceiling. On many mock draft boards, only starting point guard Peyton Siva is listed as a possible pro, and even then he's a late second-rounder. Teams full of NBA prospects don't make for automatic powerhouses (look at Georgia Tech in recent years), but they almost always have potential that exceeds that of most other teams. Louisville lacks that, so we're still a little hazy on whether this is a team that should be at the table with Syracuse, UNC, Kentucky, Duke, Ohio State -- teams with expectations and personnel that amount to Final Four conversations and connotations.

For Louisville's fraternal twin in this regard, look to Missouri, which is also undefeated and has an identical record to 'Ville at the moment (11-0).

What's clear: Pitino's in the midst of one of the best coaching jobs of his career, which is truly saying something, since that compliment gets pushed Pitino's way every few years. But with everything Louisville's gone through this season, it needs to be emphasized that Pitino getting his team off to an 11-0 start -- something he did Tuesday night with a close, gritty, trademark Pitino win, 69-62 against College of Charleston -- is at or near the top of his accomplishments.

If you want tangible evidence, it's only the second time he has coached a team to 11 straight victories to begin a season. His '92-'93 Kentucky kids went 13-0 before dropping one. That legendary '96 UK team, which I believe to be top three in the history of college basketball, was flawless in the SEC and finished 36-2 but lost game No. 4 that year, coincidentally, to John Calipari at UMass.

Pitino and the Cardinals have played a formidable schedule (including Ohio, Butler, Long Beach State, Vanderbilt, Lamar and Charleston, six teams on the slate that can very realistically win their conference or make the NCAA tournament), and we've yet to see a hiccup despite an array of injuries that would at least hamper most other teams.

As the Louisville-related injury/eligibility news went from a trickle to a stream this summer and fall, I wanted to get a visual on every issue that has caused a Cardinal to miss a game this season, or something that dates back to last season but crossed over to 2011-12. Check the timeline of 2011 to see the bruised bodies and eligibility issues that have stalled Louisville from becoming whole.

A little pain never hurt anyone, right?

It's because this team hasn't yet gotten a chance to fully form that I'm high on it. The addition of Wayne Blackshear, whenever he comes back -- now the team is hoping it could be early February -- may not be a game-changer, but he's a McDonald's All-American, and you can't tell me he doesn't bring another positive piece to making Louisville into a Final Four team.

And as Luke Winn pointed out in his most recent Power Rankings at SI.com, Louisville has done all this winning despite injury after injury, nick and ding after break and sprain, and the offense isn't even that great. Two of Louisville's three most reliable players, the guys who are involved in more possessions than any others when they're on the floor, Chane Behanan and Russ Smith, have offensive ratings below 100.

Below 100 means below average. Siva was also in that company until he bumped his KenPom.com ORating to 102 after the past two games. Still, Siva has scored 14 points and shot 4-of-13 from the field with seven turnovers. It's the 15 assists against Memphis on Saturday and Charleston Tuesday that bumped him above the hundred line.

Is it smoke and mirrors? No. Not when a team's gone almost two months playing this kind of defense, and especially with Louisville's track record. The question: Can the team go from good to great? The New Year's Eve game against Kentucky stands as the unfair test. Anything but a win against hated Calpari and the 'Cats and the Cardinals won't be considered worthy of where they currently sit in the rankings.

Before those games are Western Kentucky (Friday) and the first Big East matchup of the season, home against Georgetown on Dec. 28. But it's remarkable we're even having the discussion. I doubt any other coach could overcome so many players missing so many games and get to Christmas without a scratch. The next two games don't amount to but a fraction of significance to what's waiting on Dec. 31.

All this Louisville team has to do to impress the nation once and for all is beat Kentucky and all those pros in Lexington. Unfair, but true. Pain don't hurt Louisville. But losing badly to Kentucky will.

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