Lots of dark horses and a lack of proven contenders as college basketball enters the stretch drive. With March madness around the corner, every win matters. The axiom that anybody can beat anybody on a given night has never as apt as this season.

No better example than the University of Louisville’s surprising 71-65 win over second-ranked North Carolina, coming just two days after Virginia had pummeled the Cardinals by 16 points on their home court. This was North Carolina, which had won 12 straight games and was ranked No. 1 in the CBS Sports pre-season ranking.

Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino

Upended by Louisville, which was ranked No. 50 in the same poll, largely as a courtesy, returning only one starter and two or three points per game from last year’s starting unit, “no denying this was the weakest Rick Pitino roster in five years.” Led by graduate transfers from Drexel and Cleveland State, there was no reason for anyone to take the Cardinals seriously.

Three of ESPN’s pre-season top 10 teams — Kentucky, Duke and Wichita State — are way down the list, Duke having fallen from the Associated Press’ top 25 for the first time in nine years. But no one is writing any of those teams off, especially with UK taking Kansas into overtime before losing by six points on the Jayhawks’ home court. Duke and Wichita State should never be taken lightly in late March.

An intriguing question is just how good the Big 12 Conference season is this season, with Oklahoma ranked No. 1 and with Kansas, Iowa, Iowa State, West Virginia and Baylor all ranked in the top 15. Sounds very familiar with the conference described as “the nation’s best all-around, pound-for-pound group,” in 2015. The Big 12 hype all too familiar, with only two teams making it to the Sweet 16 last season, zero to the Elite 8.

So much uncertainty. Yet so much opportunity for a Louisville program, which has won three national championships (1980, 1986 and 2013) when there were no dominant teams. While it may lack the defensive quickness of those teams, this year’s edition is definitely taller and more physical, with some improving big men.

Never underestimate a highly motivated Rick Pitino, thriving on adversity, one-day contracts, always something to prove. Confident in his team’s abilities.

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By Charlie Springer

Charlie Springer is a former Louisville editor and sportswriter, a public affairs consultant, a UofL grad and longtime fan.