The bulk of the sports world was stunned when a small No. 4 popped up next to Louisville's name on Sunday evening, and with good reason. The defending national champions own an identical record to the one that earned them the No. 1 overall seed a season ago, and they'll enter the big dance as the No. 3 team in the USA Today coaches' poll, a ranking 10 spots higher than the overall seed of 13 they were dealt by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
The news elicited the same range of emotions from your faithful narrator as I'm sure it did most of you. They were not positive. But the more time I've had to let things marinate, the more I've realized that this is how the final chapter of this group's story has to be written.
Louisville has played and carried itself like a highly-ranked defending national champion all season...because it's been a highly-ranked defending national champion all season. There's been a sort of bravado to this team that last year's group -- even though they were one of the favorites to win the national title all season -- never had, and that's understandable.
Rick Pitino's team has not entered a game as an underdog in 381 days. Louisville has worn special sleeved jerseys from adidas for three straight postseason tournaments, and the world still hasn't seen the red version of the uniforms because the Cardinals have been the better seed in every game they've played.
Now this group has been smacked in the face. I don't think there's any other way to put it.
Since the tournament expanded in 1985, exactly two teams have entered the tournament with a top five ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 and a seed worse than three: the 2005 Louisville Cardinals, and this one.
It's been impossible for Pitino to utilize the disrespect card since U of L cut down the nets in Atlanta last April, but it's certainly in play now. And to be honest, it kind of feels right. This is the mentality this group should take with it to the end of its story, because it's the one that all its major players came to Louisville with.
Think about Russ Smith, the two-star recruit who received zero attention from any other major program. When Russ committed to Louisville, there was exactly one highlight video of him on YouTube...it included him missing a dunk and playing with what appears to be a cast on his left wrist.
That's the same guy whose jersey we're now talking about retiring.
Smith got to Louisville and was basically a ghost for an entire season. His lack of playing time and the little he showed when he did get on the court led to widespread speculation that he would be taking him game to, ironically enough, Manhattan. A handful of injuries then led to Russ getting a chance at the beginning of his sophomore year, and he put a headlock on the opportunity that he hasn't relinquished. The most unlikely Cardinal legend of all-time, whose game still gets criticized up-and-down by NBA folks, now gets one last chance to play the role of the disrespected dark horse.
Think about Montrezl Harrell, who was originally committed to Virginia Tech and was the No. 91 player in the class of 2012 when he switched that commitment to Louisville following the firing of Seth Greenberg. ESPN, which had Trez at No. 90 in their final class of 2012 rankings, once referred to Harrell as a "tweener," who might not have the skill set necessary to thrive at either forward position. When he arrived at Louisville, Harrell was seen as little more than a guy who could do a serviceable job on the court when Chane Behanan needed a breather. His almost unmatchable intensity is what helped get him on the floor, but it's been his hunger and drive to become a more complete player that has made him a legitimate NBA prospect.
Not that everyone agrees.
Think about Luke Hancock, the no-star recruit who signed with George Mason and whose transfer to Louisville barely made a blip on the national radar. The same guy who Pitino anointed as the "best player on the team" during his redshirt season, and the same one who missed 25 of his first 29 three-point attempts as a Cardinal. The guy who "wasn't good enough to play at Louisville," who became the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and who now is being referred to by rival fans as a "two game wonder."
Disrespect is nothing new to the core of this Louisville team, and maybe that's the most encouraging thing about the events of this past Sunday.
Charlie Conway and his Team USA teammates are coming out of the locker room to play the third period in their old Ducks uniforms. Rocky Balboa is heading back into the meat freezer to train. The hunted is finally morphing back into the hunter.
Regardless of how it ends, it feel like this is the way it's supposed to be.