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One win would erase doubts about Louisville

This is the way this season has unfolded for Rick Pitino and his University of Louisville basketball team:

In mid-January, after Louisville had lost four non-league games and then started 3-2 in the daunting Big East, Pitino studied the landscape and announced his team needed 10 Big East victories to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

How did his players respond? By losing their next game at Seton Hall. Pitino promptly recalculated – better make than 11 league wins.

New math? No, just the latest, greatest evidence that little has been consistent about this Louisville season. This team keeps creating more questions than it answers. But the 10- or 11-victory debate must be resolved Saturday.

A Louisville team that might/might not be safely in the NCAA field is booked against top-ranked Syracuse. Members of Denny Crum's 1980 and 1986 NCAA champions will attend because this will be the Cardinals' final game in Freedom Hall. Next season the program moves into a sparkling riverfront arena.

But saying goodbye to the program's historic home of more than five decades has become the backdrop to the main event. This game will be the Cardinals' opportunity to upgrade their tournament profile to 20 victories (they're 19-11) and 11 Big East wins (from 10-7, tucked in sixth place).

"We've been saying we have to win six out of nine or two out of four or whatever," senior Edgar Sosa said. "Well, now we just have to win one. We know what we have to do."

"We need to play like we have to win them all," said center Samardo Samuels.

"If we get 11 Big East wins, it's like a guaranteed NCAA Tournament berth," said Jerry Smith, another senior guard. "That's the thing we're really focused in on right now."

Ahhh, focus. Talk about something that has been elusive for chunks of this season, a season that began with the bizarre backdrop of Pitino's personal life because of an alleged multi-million dollar extortion attempt tied to the coach's admitted sexual encounter with a woman in a Louisville restaurant.

A season after Louisville entered the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1 with the overall top seed, the Cards have been in, then out, then in, then out and then probably currently in the NCAA Tournament.

Lose to St. John's by 19. Win at Syracuse by six three days later. Win at Connecticut by two. Lose at Marquette by 21 two days later.

Jump ahead of Villanova by 17. Lose by eight. Surge to an 11-point lead on Georgetown. Lose by 10.

No winning streak longer than five. RPI? Remarkably solid at 35.

Feel free to scream. Pitino wanted to after officiating blunders cost his team at Pittsburgh, Seton Hall and West Virginia. Turns out his howling was justified at West Virginia. Two guys who worked that game have been scratched from their usual turns working the Big East Tournament because of a mistake made in Morgantown.

Even when things go right, they don't go as planned. Sosa scored the winning basket against UConn with 8.2 seconds left. Pitino had told him to attack the rim when the clock reached 7.

No wonder Pitino is more likely to quote Forrest Gump than his mentor, Hubie Brown. He's never certain what he's going to get.

During the summer, when the New York City tabloids were circling his house, Pitino recruited his best friend, Ralph Willard, to leave the head coaching job at Holy Cross to become a Louisville assistant.

Willard is the rare guy who can push the reset button on Pitino's way of thinking. After one particularly uneven U of L performance, Willard did that, quoting from Tom Hanks' trademark line in "Forrest Gump."

"Ralph kept telling me, 'Rick you're coaching a box of chocolates. Just take the best chocolate that night,' Pitino said. "That's what we are right now, a box of chocolates."

Translation: The coach has been mixing and matching his lineup since November, searching for replacements for his two missing NBA lottery picks, forwards Earl Clark and Terrence Williams.

Don't believe it? Pitino's response to the clutch win at Connecticut was to change his starting forwards at Marquette.

Ooops.

"We've got work to do," Pitino said after the loss. He meant defeating Syracuse or winning a Big East Tournament game next week.

But the Cards have had work to do all season – mainly tightening their defense and improving the three-point shooting. His team ranks an unlikely 156th nationally in field-goal defense. They're even worse – 191st – in three-point shooting percentage. No Bombinos, these Pitinos.

"This is the weakest defensive team I've had since I've been here," Pitino said. "So we've got to make shots. We've got to execute. We have to keep our turnovers down. We have to confuse our opponents with multiple defenses because we don't force the turnovers that we've forced in the past. We're a different basketball team this year. We don't have the defense and athleticism."

They also may/may not have the necessary wins to return to the NCAA Tournament -- yet. Stay tuned.

Rick Bozich is a sports columnist for The Courier-Journal. Check out his blog .