It's hard to top the feeling of being a Louisvillian on Derby week, and both the holidays and the heart of summer are as enjoyable here as anywhere else I've ever been. For my money, though, there is no better time of the calendar year to be in Louisville than right now.
This week began with Louisville fans still riding the high of their team's biggest win of the season (Mangok Mathiang!), it will get revved up even more on Thursday as the Cards shoot for their fourth straight conference tournament championship, and it then ends with UofL finding out where it's heading and who it's playing on Selection Sunday.
For a city more obsessed with college basketball than any other on planet earth, these weeks represent the culmination of all the time spent analyzing recruits, begging for any offseason news, and following every dribble for four months during the winter. For many residents of the city, these few weeks will go a long way in determining how they remember the year of 2015. That might seem crazy to an outsider, but there's little about the Derby City's relationship with college basketball that makes much sense to the rest of the country.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal named Louisville as the unofficial "college basketball capital of the world." The title wasn't assigned as a reward for the Cardinals being the only team in Division-I to win at least 30 games in each of the last three seasons, it was given because Louisvillians watch more hoops than any other city in America ... by a lot.
College basketball games on ESPN this season are averaging a 5.9 rating in Louisville, which means that an average of 5.9 percent of the city's households are watching college hoops on "the worldwide leader in sports" anytime it is airing a game. For a sport with dwindling attendance numbers and television audiences across the country, and whose product has been referred to as "unwatchable" a number of times this season, Louisville remains both a rock and an outlier.
We love the game 12 months out of the year, every year, but we really love it in March, in large part because it lays claim to best postseason in American sports.
In no other postseason in this country are teams from 49 of the 50 states (get with the times, Alaska) represented. In no other postseason do all of those teams get the right to end their campaign by playing until they lose. In no other postseason is the sport's top prize theoretically obtainable for every team involved. In these regards, college basketball is the most American sport there is.
Sure, the regular season is slightly less exciting than it would be if only four or eight teams made the tournament, and sure there are plenty of squads that probably haven't earned the right to play for anything of any real consequence, but I think just about everyone agrees that the good far outweighs the bad here. Making sure every team that deserves a chance to prove itself -- even if that process results in some unworthy squads getting that same shot -- receives that moment is so much better than any alternative that doesn't allow for the same opportunity.
This time of year is so special in the city because it represents the endless possibilities of the weeks ahead. Sure, Louisville fans love college basketball, but they love Cardinal basketball even more. March is always magical, but if UofL is eliminated from the NCAA Tournament before its final weekend, that energy which is currently overwhelming the city instantly disappears and doesn't return for another 12 months.
Just two weeks after UofL basketball was forced to deal with adversity that many believed would ruin its season, the Cards are coming off their most impressive win of the season, and appear to be playing with a joy that has been absent far too often in the preceding months. There's no telling how far these newfound good vibes can carry the team, but hey, dreaming about the possibilities is the beauty of March.
This column appears in the latest issue of The Voice-Tribune