LOUISVILLE — Louisville Coach Rick Pitino thought eventually he'd figure his team out.
Not this time. The Cardinals ended one of Pitino's most frustrating seasons with the program in a 77-62 loss to California during the first round of the NCAA Tournament last Friday, a game that looked an awful lot like the season itself.
Louisville fell into a big hole early, scrambled to get back into the game only to run out of gas in the final five minutes and end the year 20-13, hardly the follow-up expected a year after the Cardinals won the Big East regular season and conference tournament titles and came within one game of the Final Four.
"It's been a roller-coaster type season," said senior guard Edgar Sosa. "We all know that. The fans know that. We won big games but lost bad games."
Pitino expected it to take time for his team to find its identity after losing stars Terrence Williams and Earl Clark to the NBA.
It never happened.
Louisville stumbled out of the blocks, losing to Charlotte and Western Carolina at home in December. Pitino chalked up the poor performance to injuries that weakened the backcourt.
At one point the Cardinals were 5-3, and there were rumblings that Pitino's off-the-court problems last summer — he admitted to having a sexual encounter in 2003 with a woman later charged with trying to extort him for millions — was a bigger distraction than he was letting on.
Pitino brushed it off, saying simply, "I just want to talk about basketball."
His team's inconsistent play, however, sometimes left him speechless.
The Cardinals fought valiantly on the road against Kentucky before falling 71-62, then quickly moved to 3-0 in the Big East. They jumped out big on Villanova on Jan. 11 before letting Scottie Reynolds lead the Wildcats to a comeback win.
And so it went. For every big win there seemed to be an equally puzzling loss.
Louisville beat Connecticut by 13 and then a week later lost to St. John's on the road by 19, only to follow it up three days later with an upset victory at Syracuse.
One of Louisville's hallmarks during Pitino's nine-year tenure has been it's defense. This year's edition, however, struggled to get stops. Opponents shot 43 percent from the field against the Cardinals, the worst since Pitino's first season in 2001-02.
Louisville will lose Sosa, backcourt mate Jerry Smith and forward Reggie Delk to graduation, though sophomore center Samardo Samuels is expected to stick around rather than turn professional.
Freshman guard Peyton Siva was dynamic at times while spelling Sosa, and forwards Mike Marra and Kyle Kuric both had moments while Pitino is bullish on the incoming freshman class.
Throw in the opening of a new downtown arena next fall, and the Cardinals appear to be in decent shape.