LOUISVILLE — Given all the drama, discontent and pessimism over Louisville's long, hot summer, the Cardinals surely needed nothing better than a fresh start.
In their bright, shiny new KFC Yum Center, and before a national television audience on Tuesday night, that's exactly what Rick Pitino's club got.
The 'Ville officially raised the curtain on its fancy new digs with a convincing 88-73 thumping of current NCAA Tournament runner-up Butler Bulldogs.
Not that these were the same Bulldogs that played Duke down to the final bank shot at Indianapolis last March. We knew NBA lottery pick Gordon Hayward was no longer around. We just didn't know the rest of Brad Stevens' team had departed, as well.
OK, not really. It just seemed that way, what with the one-man show that was Lexingtonian Shelvin Mack, the former Bryan Station star who scored 17 of Butler's 23 first-half points, and finished the night with a game-high 25, despite missing a good bit of the second half with cramps.
Meanwhile, the home team turned in a first-night performance worthy of its new home.
"We're very lucky," Pitino said. "We're playing in the best arena in the country built for basketball, with all the bells and whistles. We're a college team playing in a pro arena."
And Louisville showed some bells and whistles of its own.
"They've got 11 or 12 guys who can play," said Butler Coach Brad Stevens.
Five Cardinals scored in double figures. Rakeem Buckles led the way with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Terrence Jennings scored 13. But 10 of the 12 Cardinals who played ended up scoring. There were 18 assists on the 27 baskets.
"It was a wonderful win," said Pitino.
All in all, Louisville played the way it wants to play this year — fast, in pressing mode, all together now. This is a team of no stars. No ego, except for the head coach, of course.
And Pitino has taken his lumps this summer, from his embarrassing testimony in the Karen Sypher extortion trial, to his little feud with Louisville television station WHAS that prompted the coach to scrap his weekly television show, at least for this season. And on Monday, in the pre-game news conference, Pitino was reportedly gruff and grumpy.
But make no mistake, despite what you may have heard, or want to believe, the man can coach. And he has a history of drawing the most out of teams just like this, ones without stars, ones not expected to make much noise.
Are the Cards' underrated?
"I don't know," Pitino said. "How could you rate them? We don't have any starters back, we have a bunch of freshmen. I can't rate them, so how could you rate them."
"They're all fearless," Stevens said, "and they play the right way."
Going by the stats, they played defense the right way, holding Butler to 23.3 percent shooting the first half. The Cards also won the glass, 44-39.
"I don't think it's rocket science for anybody, we just got outplayed," Stevens said. "Every which way, we just got outplayed."
As Pitino pointed out, in last year's NCAA Tournament, only Duke managed to score more than 60 points on the Bulldogs. Louisville scored 41 in the first half.
"I think this team has terrific potential," Pitino said. "They prepared their butts off."
Buckles could be a real key. The 6-foot-8 sophomore turned in a double-double, with the addition of three steals. Jennings blocked four shots. And Louisville won despite making just six of 23 three-pointers.
"They're really good," Stevens said. "Don't let anybody tell you any different."