LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As this unpredictable college basketball season creeps ever closer toward March, it's important to remember that what we don't know still outweighs what we do know.
Take, for example, the first marquee game of February between No. 2 North Carolina and No. 19 Louisville on Monday night. Even Rick Pitino had little clue what to expect from his Cardinals after a humbling 63-47 home loss to Virginia on Saturday.
Pitino wrote on his personal website Sunday that he couldn't explain the lousy performance against Virginia, one in which his team managed a meager 14 first-half points. A couple of hours before Monday's game, Pitino called in to a local radio show and wondered whether his inexperienced club could gain enough battle armor in the next month to be ready for tournament time.
North Carolina's Roy Williams should have had many fewer questions about his team as it entered February. The Tar Heels were riding a 12-game winning streak, and they'd barely been challenged during an 8-0 start to Atlantic Coast Conference play.
So, of course, you know what happened: Louisville won 71-65 in the KFC Yum! Center.
In a mere 40 minutes, two narratives changed. Louisville (18-4, 7-2 ACC) built a shiny record in part from a soft early schedule, but had fallen short against ranked competition (Kentucky, Michigan State, Virginia). Now it has a signature win and proof that it can close a game out against a strong opponent.
"This is a great thing for us," reserve big man Anas Mahmoud said. "It gave us a lot of confidence and showed us what we can do, where we can develop as a team."
The mood around the Cardinals was far less certain as recently as 24 hours ago. On Sunday, guard Trey Lewis said Pitino "threw everything he had" at the players, trying to motivate them and get them focused. Unlike the buildup to the Virginia loss, during which Pitino said the team turned in two terrible practices, his team absorbed the North Carolina scouting report despite such a short prep time.
Pitino harped on transition defense against the Tar Heels, and Louisville allowed just six fast-break points, none in the second half. Williams mused after the game that it might have been the only time in his career one of his teams failed to score in transition during a half. The Cardinals also set a season high with 60 paint touches, exceeding their goal of 45, and surprisingly outhustled and outmuscled North Carolina near the rim.
"This really opens our eyes and lets us see what we're capable of doing every night if we focus on the scouting report, our strategy and play defense," Lewis said.
Monday's result also raised some concerns about the Tar Heels (19-3, 8-1 ACC), which may be uncomfortably familiar to their fans. Namely, can this team go far in March without reliable outside shooting, and can it defend well enough when it matters?
A 3-for-17 mark from behind the arc Monday night left UNC's season 3-point percentage at 30.2, which would be the lowest mark in school history. Starting guards Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II went a combined 4-for-23 from the field and 2-for-8 on 3s.
"We usually just dominate the paint, and that makes up for our outside shooting," Paige said. "But we struggled getting the ball there tonight, and when we got it there, we didn't convert it at a high enough clip."
Paige's slump is nearing a crisis stage, as he has missed 31 of his 36 3-point attempts over his past six games. Without him, do the Tar Heels have any answers to keep defenses honest?
"Am I supposed to send him out to Siberia?" Williams said when asked about Paige's cold snap. "I just have to stick with him and coach him. I don't have any potion I can rub on him."
Winning remains the best cure-all, naturally. Louisville bounced back with its best victory after its worst showing of the season, closing the gap in the ACC race and renewing faith in its postseason chances. Still, Pitino is reading little into either of the past two games, knowing his team's two best players -- graduate transfers Lewis and Damion Lee -- have never played in an NCAA tournament game.
"I don't know how good this team can be because it is so inexperienced and so young," he said. "I really don't know what to expect from this team."
Similarly, North Carolina sees no need to panic after stumbling for the first time since Dec. 12, even if Monday's game raised some red flags.
"This is a sign that we still have a long way to go, but I'd rather say that when we're still atop the league," Paige said. "Maybe we can use this as a time to recharge and refocus and realize that sitting on top of the league is not something to take for granted. In one or two games, it can be a whole different ballgame."
That last point is a good one to remember for all of us, as what we don't know still holds a significant advantage on what we do know.