Cards finding footing after sluggish start

PHILADELPHIA -- Told he hadn't exactly had good shooting nights in each of his five visits to Philadelphia, Terrence Williams laughed.

"Shoot, that's nothing new for me," he said. "It's not just here. I shoot badly in a lot of places."

And yet there was Williams, cradling the basketball like a football player plunging through a defensive line with the end zone in sight, slipping a sweet finger roll toward the basket. Since it was Williams, the ball had to touch the front, back and side of the rim -- "every inch and the backboard," Williams said -- before gravity eventually could take over and drop it through the cylinder.

Of the five Louisville players on the court at the time, Williams would figure to be the last to take the game-winning shot in the Cardinals' 61-60 victory over Villanova.

Before that basket, he was 2-of-9 from the floor and had missed all five of his 3-pointers. He had four points in the Cards' previous game at South Florida, went 2-of-15 against UNLV at home, missed all of his 3s against Minnesota in Phoenix and shot 3-of-10 against Ole Miss in Cincinnati.

The guy isn't lying; the map is littered with his misses.

But buoyed by a coach he says doesn't care if his team takes 40 shots and misses them all, Williams is blessed with the confidence never to count himself out. When the game was on the line, his team trailing 60-59 with seven seconds to play, the brazen talker took the brazen shot without pause.

"I'm too old not to take that shot," Williams said. "I'm a senior on this team, the captain of this team and the highest jumper on this team. If I missed, I'd rather it be on my hands. I can take it."

Williams is no different than the rest of his team: forgotten for a while and then -- suddenly, out of nowhere -- back on the radar. It is almost a basketball tradition to anoint Louisville a team to be reckoned with in October and then quietly slink back under a rock by December. (At least that's what I did, after picking the Cards to win the national championship this preseason.)

For three years running, the Cardinals have used November and December to tumble down the rankings. Two years ago, Louisville opened the season 10-4, losing at Dayton and to UMass; a year ago it was a less-than-stellar 9-4 start, with another loss to Dayton plus one to Cincinnati. This time around, it's been a sleepwalking 8-3 through Jan. 1, complete with stunning losses to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV.

And then the new year comes, and the Cardinals apparently make a group resolution to scare the living daylights out of everyone who figured they were awful. That 2006-07 team finished 24-10 and was one Edgar Sosa buzzer-beating 3 from upsetting Texas A&M in the second round. The 2007-08 version rolled to 27-9, losing to North Carolina in the Elite Eight.

This team? It's too early to predict, but after sliding from No. 3 to No. 21 in the polls, Louisville has reeled off three consecutive wins.

"We were watching tape of them against South Florida, and it was, 'Uh-oh, they're clicking again,'" Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "That's what makes [Rick Pitino] such a great coach. He's not coaching to win games in November and December. He's making his points, teaching what he needs to teach and taking the losses early so his team can be the best team it can be in March."

Along the way, it seems Pitino is always one boneheaded play away from losing his mind. He didn't start Sosa and Earl Clark against UAB this season and swirled through a revolving door of suspensions with Derrick Caracter last season.

Yet somehow, he and the Cardinals always come out on the other side. Clark made his first five field goals in the second half against Villanova, at one point scoring nine consecutive points, and finished with 16 points and 11 boards. Two games ago, the much-maligned Sosa had the chutzpah (not to mention the intestinal fortitude) to wave off a pick-and-roll and launch a game-winning 3 against Kentucky.

"We do so many things that we're never very good early," Pitino said. "We have three different presses. I think I try to use every set Hubie Brown ever taught me. There's too much early on, and we're not quite as good. It's really hard. And then we get a little more and a little more and we can stop thinking and start playing."

The Cards still have work to do. Their offense can be offensive, done in by seriously questionable shot selection. They hit an ungodly 3-of-25 from the arc against Villanova.

But a team that looked like it was on the cusp of disaster, its confidence shot and its coach unable to push the right button, instead walks into what most would consider a hellish week -- against No. 13 Notre Dame on Monday and No. 1 Pittsburgh on Saturday -- shamelessly telling its Big East competitors to bring it.

"That's a cakewalk," Clark joked. "Hey, it's the Big East. Bring your game or get embarrassed."

There wasn't a team meeting this year or any grand moment when it all came together. It was more of a slow coming-together of a team that needed to find its way on the court and find its attitude off it.

"At the beginning of the season, there were guys not as into it as they needed to be," Clark said. "It's a long season, and we've been through it before, but then we heard what people were saying about us -- the announcers -- about how we weren't living up to our potential. We've just come together. We know what Coach says is right, that when you practice hard, good things come, but that you have to sacrifice."

No one has grasped that better than Williams. Against Villanova, he missed in every way possible. So instead of scoring, he did everything else. He went up for 14 rebounds, dished out six assists and sank all but one of his free throws, each one huge as Villanova clanked for 18-of-29.

And after watching his finger roll finally drop through the hoop, he wasn't done. After Clark lost the rebound of a missed Antonio Pena free throw out of bounds, Villanova had the ball with four seconds left. Reggie Redding inbounded to Dante Cunningham, and the powerful senior, who led the Wildcats with 21 points, had a good look at an inside shot. He missed to the right, but Redding grabbed the offensive board and got another good chance at the game-winner. He, too, missed, and as the ball floated in midair, one guy jumped above everyone else to get it.

It was Williams, grabbing rebound No. 14, solidifying win No. 11.

Just when you least expect him, there he is.

And just when you count them out, here come the Cards.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.