Louisville learns harsh realities of new ACC membership

Tar Heels Win Thriller Against Cardinals

College Contributor Network

Last Saturday, Louisville headed to Chapel Hill for its first real ACC road challenge. When the Cardinals entered the Dean Smith Center and saw the screaming sea of Tarheels in light blue it was clear more than ever before, they were in the big leagues now. The days of regular season cupcake games where you can drill a team to get your confidence back are over. Louisville is in the Atlantic Coast Conference now, and the welcoming party was in full force at North Carolina on Saturday.

This game was an introduction to the challenge that will be conference play in the ACC. Louisville at times looked like the No. 5 team in the nation, even leading by as much as 13 points in the second half. But the Tarheels proved a worthy opponent and came thundering back, handing Louisville its first loss in the new conference.

As the final buzzer sounded and the replays of Marcus Paige's final shot began, the sting was distinctly new, and head coach Rick Pitino called it one of the worst losses in his time at Louisville after the game.

"That's about as bad a loss as I've had in my 14 years here," Pitino said. "We're playing good basketball, I'm very excited. But we're also hurting very much right now. It stings as much as any game I've coached."

But it's what Pitino went on to say that captures the true state of affairs in the Louisville basketball team right now.

"Our players are hurt by it, but it's the ACC.There's going to be a lot of games like this. There are a lot of great teams in the ACC and we'll move on from there."

The Cardinals' new tough conference schedule means no off time to wallow in loses or rally the troops. The turnaround must be quick, and the lessons from this mistake must be learned faster than ever. Just in the next week, Louisville will host Virginia Tech on Tuesday, and then Saturday afternoon will host the No.2 team in the nation, the Duke Blue Devils.

This Louisville team, though a storied program with national championship banners in the rafters, is in many ways still under construction. Gone are the days of being the tall hog at the trough in Conference USA and the Big East. A new challenge facing both the team and its loyal fan base is realizing that with this new conference comes the top competition in the nation. This season and its successes will look much different than in past seasons.

Though the end results were not what Pitino and his troops had in mind, the team played some of its best basketball of the season, and the building blocks seem to be falling into place for this team.

Going into the season, everyone knew Montrezl Harrell would be the cornerstone of this team. He's the team's most consistent player, but certainly not its only tool. Chris Jones and Terry Rozier have stepped up of late to will the team to win with their lights-out shooting and excellent guard play. With Harrell only scoring nine points in the game against the Tarheels, Jones and Rozier combined for 44 of Louisville's 71 points.

There are many young Cardinals who are getting quality minutes in ACC play that will prove to be essential down the stretch. Anas Mahmoud, Quentin Snider, Chinanu Onuaku, are all freshmen who saw time in the North Carolina game, and have seen even more time in Louisville's previous games this season. Getting those freshman game-ready will be key to contending with the deep rosters of other teams in the ACC. Onuaku had the most minutes of the freshmen in Chapel Hill, playing 27 minutes with eight points and eight rebounds. His presence helps relieve Harrell and Mangok Mathiang and add another weapon for U of L in the paint.

All of the players are learning about the mental toughness this conference will demand with each game that passes, and the resilience that true success will now require.

"You can't be frustrated, not in this conference anyway," Jones said. "We're right back at it on Tuesday, so you can't hang your head on one game. Hey, it's a learning experience."

This season pits Louisville against some opponents that it has never faced before, and challenges it has never had to deal with. But at the end of the day, it is still a season ripe with opportunity for a talented Louisville team to flourish. The Cardinals are on the big stage now, and with that challenge comes the opportunity to rise and succeed at the top of the national landscape. After the loss at North Carolina, Rozier expressed his confidence that the team can do just that.

"If you want to call it a 'Welcome to the ACC' game, you can call it that," Rozier said. "But I feel like we're just as good as anybody in the country."

Annie Moore is a junior at the University of Louisville majoring in Communications with a Sport Administration minor. She believes Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. Follow her on Twitter: @AnyMoreSports
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