DURHAM, N.C. (WDRB) – No three words create more heartburn in college basketball than these:

First Four Out.

Those are the three words several specialists at projecting the NCAA Tournament are saying about the University of Louisville basketball team.

They were starting to say them before the Cardinals were overwhelmed by Duke, 82-56, Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Louisville players have heard the chatter, along with the conversation the Cards will not be favored to win any of their three remaining regular season games, starting with Virginia Tech at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“Our backs are against the wall,” guard Ryan McMahon said. “We need a few big wins to solidify us getting in the tournament. We don’t want to leave it to chance. We’ve got to fight.”

Junior forward Deng Adel said the Cardinals need two wins. Others say more. One is the minimum, unless the Cards make a king-sized run at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in two weeks.

“We’re in a tough spot,” said Deng Adel, the team’s junior forward. “The next three games are crucial, and we definitely need to win at least two of them. We know that every win we can get, we need to get it.”

The best game to win is the next game -- to stop the questions about the losing streak, missing the tournament and what’s gone wrong with the Cardinals’ defense.

A compilation of bracket projections at BracketMatrix.com posted Wednesday night listed the Cardinals as the top team to miss the 68-team field – and that was before the 26-point burp against Duke.

Bracketville.com is the blog with the best record at predicting the field over the last three seasons. It has Louisville three spots from earning an at-large bid, behind UCLA and Louisiana State. (That was also calculated pre-Duke.)

What does Joe Lunardi say at ESPN?

On Thursday, Lunardi had the Cardinals matched against St. Bonaventure in a play-in game in Dayton.

“You’re always concerned about it from the beginning of the season,” said Anas Mahmoud, the team’s senior center.“You’re always thinking about wins that can qualify you to play in the NCAA. It’s something that’s always in the back of our heads.”

This team was not surrounded by this conversation less than four weeks ago. The Cardinals moved to 6-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference by defeating Wake Forest. The two losses could have been victories. Overtime at Clemson. Overtime at Miami. Only Virginia was playing better in the ACC.

Now the Cards have been overtaken by Duke and North Carolina. No shame in that. Those two were expected to be sitting at the top of the league.

Clemson, Virginia Tech and North Carolina State have also moved past Louisville in the ACC standings. At 8-7, the Cards are tied with Florida State and Miami.

The Cards' Ratings Percentage Index has dropped 12 spots (from 40 to 52) in the last week.

The Cards have lost two in a row and five of seven. Opposing teams have made nearly 49 percent of their field goal attempts in those five defeats. They have averaged more than eight three-point field goals.

The Cards were out-rebounded in four of the five losses. North Carolina outworked them on the glass by a dozen. Duke by 14.

“I think it’s just having a sense of urgency on every possession,” McMahon said. “Acting like every possession is for a game-winner. Acting like every possession is the most important possession that you’re playing.

“When you give a team confidence like that, that’s offensively talented the way they are. When you give them confidence at the beginning of the game, when you try to ramp up the defense later in the game, it’s too late. They’re going to hit tough shots. They’re confident. They’ve seen the ball go in a rim a few times.”

“It’s coming off our offensive performance,” Mahmoud said. “We’re letting our offense affect our defense too much. I think that’s the reason we think about it too much.

“We worry about offense instead of focusing on defense. I think back when we had our really good run and beat Florida State we were playing really good offense and that picked up our defensive spirit.  We just have to focus on defense and not worry about what we’re doing offensively.”

Quality wins? Louisville has a pair. At Florida State. At Notre Dame.

But the ACC schedule specializes in opportunity. The Cards have a chance to earn three more over the next nine days – at Virginia Tech, Virginia at home and at North Carolina State. Those would all qualify as Quadrant 1 victories.

“We’ve just got to focus on what the goal at hand is,” Padgett said. “We have to win a couple of these next few games to try to really give us a solid chance to make the tournament.

“If that’s not motivation enough, then I don’t know what is. It’s going to be very difficult. There’s no question.

“With that being said, we don’t have a choice. We can’t say, ‘It’s too tough, we’re not going to try.’

“We’ve got to dig in and give it everything we have. We have a very tough finishing stretch. That doesn’t mean anybody is going to feel sorry for us. And feeling sorry for ourselves is certainly not going to get us to where we want to go. We’ve got to fight our way out of this corner we’re in.”

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