LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville coach Rick Pitino's expectations for his inexperienced and injury-riddled team a few months ago were decidedly modest.
Actually, they didn't exist.
"In the beginning of the year, we were hoping to just get out with our lives," Pitino said. "We are very thankful for where we are."
That would be the upper-half of the crowded Big East standings.
The 23rd-ranked Cardinals (15-4, 4-2 Big East) have been one of the conference's early surprises, yet all that could change over the next week.
Louisville kicks off a daunting six-day stretch on Wednesday against reeling West Virginia (13-5, 4-2) before road games at No. 5 Connecticut and No. 21 Georgetown.
Pitino borrowed a trick from mentor Hubie Brown by dividing the grueling 18-game league slate into more tolerable three-game segments. The goal was to go 2-1 in each set, a feat the Cardinals have managed to pull off even after a disappointing upset loss to Providence on Saturday.
It wasn't the defeat against the program he led to the Final Four in 1987 that stings Pitino as much as the missed opportunity.
"If we would have taken care of business, we'd be tied for first place (in the loss column) right now," Pitino said. "When you look at it, no matter how short-lived it may be, it would have been nice to say you were in first at one period in time."
That the Cardinals are even within shouting distance is somewhat remarkable. Power forwards Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles are out with injuries. Center Gorgui Dieng has a bum ankle. Terrence Jennings is dealing with a hip pointer. Swingman Mike Marra can't find his shot and 6-foot-4 "power forward" Kyle Kuric remains an engima, lighting it up one game then disappearing the next.
Louisville has been so erratic Pitino doesn't dare start glancing at the schedule trying to figure out how the Cardinals are going to get to 10 conference wins, a feat that would all but assure a trip to the NCAA tournament.
"You don't know where the wins are going to come from," he said. "You can't pencil in and think you can beat this team or that team."
Even if the depleted Mountaineers appear to be teetering.
Coach Bob Huggins suspended leading scorer Casey Mitchell indefinitely on Monday for violating team rules one day after reserve forward Dan Jennings walked off the bench in the middle of a win over South Florida, a move Huggins called "inexcusable."
West Virginia will have just eight scholarship players in uniform when they walk onto the floor of the KFC Yum! Center, where Louisville is unbeaten in league play.
Yet Pitino remains wary. He's been around long enough to see teams rally when met with significant adversity. As an assistant coach with the New York Knicks in the early 1980s, he watched the Knicks win 11 of 13 games after leading scorer Bernard King went down with a knee injury.
"We played like a wounded tiger and you know the way Bob coaches, they'll play like a wounded tiger," Pitino said. "They'd rather have (Mitchell) certainly, but they'll pick him up."
The Cardinals will have to pick themselves up after self-destructing in the second half against Providence, when they committed 12 turnovers and allowed the Friars to end a 17-game conference losing streak.
There is no sense of panic, however. Pitino knows these things tend to even out. He didn't get ahead of himself after Louisville erased an 18-point deficit in the final 5:44 of a win against Marquette on Jan. 22 and didn't start throwing things when he lost to the Friars for the first time in his career.
The road ahead is too difficult to get caught looking backward. The next week is likely the most difficult three-game set of the season. The one after that — which includes a road game at Notre Dame and a home game against Syracuse — isn't exactly a cakewalk either.
"This is a tough three-game stretch, but the following three will also (be tough)," he said. "When you go at Notre Dame, it's a tough game as well. We should just stay on the bus and not get off."