Louisville hoping to recapture some 2013 magic during this season's stretch run

Andy Lyons

From tattoos to beards in less than a year, no one could have predicted the existence of this Rick Pitino a decade ago.

For a perennial powerhouse program that just so happens to be the defending national champion, Louisville has been flying awfully low during a time when talk of tournament seeding and title contenders becomes a daily discussion.

Playing in a league that seems to be some type of mutant hybrid of the top half of the Big East and the bottom half of the Big Sky deserves most of the blame for this phenomenon. The top five teams in the American Athletic Conference all rank in the top 33 of Ken Pomeroy's current rankings, while no team in the bottom five is ranked better than 159th. Louisville hasn't played a fellow top fiver since losing to Cincinnati on Jan. 30.

Power Rankings: Florida steals top spot

If the Cardinals have been bored by their February to date, it hasn't shown. Heading into its Tuesday night game against South Florida, Louisville has won all four of its contests in the month by an average of 26.0 ppg -- a number largely enhanced by Sunday night's 48-point shellacking of Rutgers.

Still, beating up on the bottom half of the AAC isn't the goal for a team that began the season ranked No. 3 in the country. U of L is just 3-4 against teams ranked in the RPI top 50, a mark they'll be able to improve dramatically during a brutal season-ending stretch that begins Saturday at league-leading Cincinnati.

Almost exactly one year ago, Rick Pitino cushioned the blow of a brutal five overtime loss at Notre Dame by promising to get a tattoo if his team didn't lose again. They didn't, and he did.

It worked so well that Pitino has decided to go a similar route to galvanize his team before its stretch run this season, making everyone associated with Louisville basketball agree to not shave until the Cards taste defeat again.

Pitino says he's never grown a beard before, and the early returns on his debut performance aren't especially promising.

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For a man who's been oft-criticized for being too image conscious, it's a pretty selfless move to let this thing go on.

The playoff beard isn't exactly a new concept (Pitino even said he got the idea from the Red Sox), but it doesn't need to be. The "beard streak" itself is secondary to the fact that the entire Cardinal team understands that there's a shared goal not to lose from this point forward. Of course that's the goal for every team in any sport, but when there's a "deal" or "contract" that's stated publicly like this, it changes things a bit.

Despite owning a superior overall record, this Louisville team isn't as good as the one that went on to win the national title was at this point 12 months ago. The Cardinals don't rebound as well, they don't protect the rim as well without Gorgui Dieng, they have guards who are still trying to figure out their roles, and they're missing the presence of dismissed junior forward Chane Behanan.

Still, the potential is there.

Russ Smith has nearly doubled his assist total from last season while remaining one of the premier scoring threats in the country. Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell has five double-doubles in league play, and is still projected by many to be a first round pick in this June's NBA Draft. After another slow start, reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock is again hitting his stride at the right time, and just posted a new career-high in the win over Rutgers.

There are areas in which Louisville still needs to show marked improvement if they want to make their third straight Final Four, but the pieces are there for that type of run. They just aren't in place yet.

Pitino knows all of that, but he also knows that this group needs to buy into one another in the same way that the one which ended last season on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a "Brothers, Champions" headline did. What better way to make that happen than by forcing them all to look ridiculous together?

How long the Cardinal beards grow is dependent on a season-ending stretch that's actually more difficult than the one Louisville faced in its final season as a member of the Big East. After Tuesday's game against South Florida and Saturday's trip to the Queen City, Louisville still has road tests at SMU and Memphis on the docket before ending the regular season at home against Connecticut. Should the Cards be fortunate enough to play three games in the AAC tournament, it's likely that they'll have to face two of the league's other top four teams yet again.

There are as many question marks surrounding Louisville as any team currently ranked in the top 15, and Pitino is hoping his bearded birds will show the country they have the answers over the course of the next several weeks.

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