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Louisville’s NCAA tournament chances in doubt after another Virginia loss

Virginia v Louisville

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 01: Ryan McMahon #30 of the Louisville Cardinals is stunned after a three point basket at the buzzer by De’Andre Hunter #12 of the Virginia Cavaliers beat the Cardinals 67-66 at KFC YUM! Center on March 1, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK -- And now the waiting game begins.

For the second time in a week, the Louisville Cardinals lost to Virginia, the ACC’s regular season champs, in a game that they had to win if the dream of getting to an NCAA tournament in the worst year in the program’s history was going to come to fruition.

And while this Thursday’s 75-58 loss wasn’t as painful as last Thursday’s 67-66 defeat -- a loss that came on a banked-in three at the buzzer of a game the Cardinals led 66-62 at home when they fouled a three-point shooter with 0.9 seconds left on the clock -- it is what may have put the final nail in their tournament coffin.

The Cardinals entered Thursday sitting at No. 39 in the RPI, and while three really aren’t many negatives on their résumé -- beyond, you know, the 14 losses -- the issue is that they quite literally have not beaten anyone good. They are 0-11 against the RPI top 50. Their three Quadrant 1 wins came on the road against Florida State, Miami and Notre Dame. If there was anything that the Selection Committee showed us when they unveiled the top four seeds last month, it’s that they do value quality wins. They need you to prove you can beat good teams.

Can you really be that good if you can’t find a way to get a win over someone better than Florida State?

“Without a doubt,” interim head coach David Padgett said. “Unfortunately that’s not my decision. If you look at our overall body work we haven’t done anything wrong. I think that’s getting lost in the shuffle. People used to put a lot of weight in bad losses.”

“Maybe we haven’t done as much right, but not doing anything wrong is doing something right.”

We’ll find out if he’s right in roughly 72 hours.

Until then, Louisville fans are going to be sweating out every game played involving a bubble team. As of today, projects the Cardinals as having an 88.5 percent chance of getting into the NCAA tournament. That, however, doesn’t factor in the games that have yet to be played. Notre Dame probably jumps over the Cardinals with a win over Duke today. Oklahoma State has a chance to land a tourney-clinching win against Kansas. The same with Marquette against Villanova. And Baylor against West Virginia. And Texas against Texas Tech.

Then compare their profile to that of, say, Oklahoma, who has just as many losses and six Quadrant 1 wins to boot.

I saw all that to say this: The next three days are not going to be fun.

But the last three weeks have not been much fun for this program or the people that support it. Their 2013 national title banner came down. Six months ago, their Hall of Fame head coach was fired because he couldn’t withstand a pay for play scheme that the FBI unearthed during an investigation into corruption in college basketball that came on the heels of the NCAA handing down penalties for a scandal involving strippers, hookers and recruits in the basketball dorms.

That happens two and a half years ago.

It has been a long road for the Cardinals to get here.

And the question now is where it will lead, because the future of this program is very much unclear.

Let’s start with the obvious: They have an interim head coach, one that may or may not return next season. They are going to go through a coaching search, but having just finished with an NCAA investigation and with the potential of facing another one because of the money that was allegedly funneled to recruit Brian Bowen by Adidas at the request of Pitino, there is no real clarity on when Louisville will return to being Louisville again.

Even if they are able to hire, say, Xavier head coach Chris Mack or Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall.

And that is assuming that the Cardinals get a coach of that caliber. There’s no guarantee that Mack or Marshall will say yes, at which point Louisville could find themselves faced with a choice between wildly overpaying for a guy that only kind of want, or rolling with Padgett in the short-term as a low-cost option to try and get them through the doldrums.

Their 2018 recruiting class has already been torched. How many guys currently on the roster are going to want to deal with the drama or risk potentially having to play through another postseason ban? This team has been through more than any team in recent memory, which is part of Padgett’s pitch to the Selection Committee.

“Their head coach that they came here to play for got relieved of his duties three days before practice starts,” Padgett said. “I coached the team by myself for three weeks. I’m not able to hire assistant coaches for the first month of the season. We have to deal with the distractions of a scandal that happened before most of them were even here. It just kind of goes on and on.”

“But hey, the way these guys, for being 18 to 22 years old, have handled it is absolutely remarkable. Whatever happens on Sunday, they deserve a ton of credit for that publicly, because so many times this year they could have just folded up and said, this is not why we came here. They could have felt sorry for themselves. And not one single time throughout the last four or five months did they do that. And I mean that with all sincerity. It’s been the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen.”

Louisville is one of college basketball’s biggest and best brands.

They’ll be back at some point.

But regardless of whether or not there is good news at the end of this three-day window, whether or not Louisville ends up in the 2018 NCAA tournament, the waiting game for this fanbase has only just begun.