The Louisville baseball team will pursue a national championship for (hopefully) the next couple of weeks while representing the American Athletic Conference, but the Cardinals' days of competition within the league have come to a close.
It's difficult to accurately put into words, but if pressed, I would say that U of L's one season as a member of the AAC has been good, bad and super awkward all at the same time. There is no doubt in my mind that 10 years from now we will look back at this season and see it as at least one of the weirdest we ever experienced as fans, a season with some of the best Cardinal teams playing some of the worst schedules imaginable.
Here's a rundown of exactly why it's so hard to put a finger on what our prevailing emotion should be as we wave farewell to our one-year residence.
THE GOOD: Louisville needed a home, and the AAC provided a serviceable one.
Look, the AAC was under no obligation to house Louisville for 12 months, or to not attempt something like banning the Cards from all league championships. Basically, this could have been a much, much worse situation for U of L athletics.
Tom Jurich deserves a lot of credit for being upfront with the conference from the start, a fact which made parting negotiations with league much easier, and which wound up saving U of L millions of dollars.
Louisville needed a place to compete in 2013-14, a place which would allow it to keep the momentum from the "Year of the Cardinal" rolling. All things considered, the AAC was far from a worst case scenario.
THE BAD: The one that got away.
That's how I'm always going to view the 2013-14 Louisville basketball season. I've heard Kentucky fans use "TOTGA" in reference to 2003 and U of L fans in reference to 2009, but for me, this past season will forever be my Elena Mendola.
The worst part about all of this, maybe, is that the sense of unfulfillment is so much larger than it would have been had Louisville spent the past season in a league like the old Big East. Instead, we watched as the Cards pounded inferior competition in a previously unheard of (at least for U of L) manner, but also squandered a handful of opportunities against the top half of the league. It all left you with this giant sense of "I know we're really, really good, but I can't prove it" that still lingers as I type this.
Knowing full well that there isn't a way, and that there will never be a way, to substantiate the claim, allow me to say this: I believe the Louisville Cardinals were the best team in college basketball for the 2013-14 season.
Kentucky fans have gotten all Kentucky fan when I've said this before, and on the surface that's understandable given their success against U of L. Here's the way I try to explain it to them...
If last season's Louisville and Kentucky teams (being their end of the season selves) played 100 times, I believe that Kentucky would probably win somewhere around 70 of those games. BUT, if every team in college basketball played every other team in college basketball 100 times, I believe that no team would have more total victories than U of L. That's the best way I can put it.
The Cards got a crap seed and a crap draw -- two facts which the AAC might deserve an inkling of blame for -- but if they just play average basketball in the final four minutes against UK, there's little doubt in my mind that we're sitting here basking in the glow of back-to-back national titles.
Sure, being barely more than a year removed from cutting down the nets in Atlanta has made all of this easier to stomach, but the period of time between 1986 and 2013 spoke volumes about just how difficult it is to win six straight games in late March and early April. Every squandered opportunity is going to sting, and I think the sting of 2013-14 is only going to intensify over time.
THE GOOD: Whomping on fools for 10 months.
I feel pretty secure in saying that the Louisville men's basketball program is never going to capture another conference tournament title in which it wins three games by a total of 100 points. Thirty-nine and 41-point regular season wins probably aren't going to draw "meh" responses when the games are being played against ACC foes either.
The lopsided scores weren't limited to the court. In all, Louisville claimed 12 AAC championships (also two Big East titles), a total which doesn't include a contribution from a football team that went 12-1, or from a women's basketball team that spent the majority of the season ranked somewhere in the top five.
THE BAD: Having to be so emotionally invested in your conference brethren's games.
Our tailgate for the Houston game on Nov. 16 was delayed approximately 30 minutes while we waited in our car and listened to the end of Central Florida/Temple on satellite radio. When the Golden Knights pulled out a dramatic victory, it felt like U of L had already lost before they even took the field.
Nobody should ever be that emotionally invested in a Central Florida/Temple football game, and thankfully Louisville fans will never be in that position again.
We can be honest about it now: the 2013 season was BCS or bust for the Cards. If U of L didn't win the AAC, everyone knew their destiny was a pre-New Year's bowl game which no one outside the city would remember a month later. As a result, we were stuck living and dying with UCF's opponents for five weeks, until brutal reality finally took full hold of the situation.
You can actually take the "shouldn't be that emotionally invested" phenomenon back to the beginning of the season (UCF/South Carolina)...or even back to the last few years in the Big East.
I remember watching Cincinnati/Toledo at a restaurant after Louisville had beaten South Florida a couple of years ago, and when the Bearcats lost and ruined U of L's only chance at a high-profile matchup of undefeateds, the night was pretty much ruined. Again, this is a situation we will never have to find ourselves in again.
From now on, if the Cards take care of business on the field, everything else will take care of itself. There are always going to be quality opponents on the slate, a luxury and a challenge we've never really known before.
THE GOOD: Bidding farewell to Cincinnati in style.
I feel like we really needed this one season of official goodbyes to our most-played rival in the two major sports. Aside from the first loss in basketball, I'm not sure it could have gone much better.
First, there was the overtime thriller in football, a game which will forever be remembered for Teddy Bridgewater's two incredible 4th quarter plays (also for the GIF of him doing the "Down the Drive" cheer with the UC fans before the game). The game eliminated Cincinnati from having any shot at the BCS, which wasn't enough to override the fact that Louisville's dream had already died...but it helped.
The basketball game in February was, simply put, the most fulfilling road game experience of my life. On the ride up the day before I got to listen to myself and this site get blasted on the radio for the half-joking post we did on Sean Kilpatrick's 95-second free-throws. This resulted in a flood of tweets and emails, about 85 percent of which included the beyond tired phrase "butt-hurt." Then, of course, there was actually having to put up with the obnoxiousness of the UC fans before and during the game...but not after. After was glorious.
I looked as many UC fans squarely in the eyes as I could on the walk out of the arena, and didn't even mind that the drive back to Louisville took about three hours because of construction. It was just about as sweet a farewell as any of us could have drawn up.
THE BAD: The most talented team in the history of Louisville football will never be seen in a proper light.
Everyone was painfully aware of the good and the bad that came along with Louisville's football schedule in 2013. The good was that the Cards were probably going to be favored by a decent margin every time they took the field, the bad was that there was absolutely no room for error.
Error occurred on Oct. 18, and as a result, a Louisville team with three first round draft picks which went 12-1 (with the only defeat coming at the hands of a one-loss Fiesta Bowl champion) and demolished Miami in its bowl game couldn't finish any higher than No. 15 in either major poll.
People will be talking about their desire to see the 2013 team play the 2014 team's schedule for a long time.
THE GOOD: All the "American" jokes and puns.
Sure, they got old pretty quickly, but when else are we going to be in that position again? It was a one in a fan lifetime opportunity.
THE BAD: Trying to get people fired up for home games against awful teams.
I'll admit it, when I was offering up reasons for you guys to get excited (or at least go) to some of these games against the bottom half of the league, I was doing it to try and convince myself as much as anything else. Not only were a lot of these teams awful, but they played the most boring brand of football/basketball imaginable. You can only get so much mileage out of "our players are really good and they work really hard so come to the games and act like we're playing Florida State/Duke."
Once again, the days of faking it are thankfully over.
THE GOOD: Chicken coming to the Bucket.
THE BAD: The Memphis football game
This will always be the lasting image in my mind when it comes to all the negative attached to life in the AAC. It was freezing, they were awful, we were all pissed because we weren't going to the BCS, and the Cards refused to put the game away until the final whistle, meaning no one could leave early. You hate to think of Teddy Bridgewater's last game at PJCS as a low point, but there's no question that it kind of was.
THE GOOD: We got to experience this season with the knowledge that it was all temporary.
I can't imagine going through the last few months like Cincinnati and knowing that it's only going to get worse. For Louisville, the AAC was like a miserable summer internship: A necessity in furthering your professional career, but something so grueling and boring that you probably wouldn't be able to deal with it if there wasn't an absolute end date in place.
Ultimately, reflecting on the AAC is a task of dual thanks. There's the thanks for having a home to say goodbye to guys like Russ Smith and Teddy Bridgewater, and then there's the thanks that said home was just a temporary one. There's no reason to harbor any extreme feelings of ill-will towards the AAC, but there's also no reason to not be thrilled that our days as a member end in less than a month.