"Bridge year." Two words uttered by Coach Pitino sending waves of unease through the city of Louisville and Cardinal Fans everywhere. The year was 2010; Louisville Basketball was entering its first season inside the KFC Yum! Center and the Cardinals were attempting to rebound after two consecutive disappointing postseason performances. We didn't know it then, but that bridge was built to lead this program on its most successful run since the early 1980's.
2010/2011 was a blast of a season that ended in crushing fashion in Denver. The results were far from desirable, but the "Bridge Year Birds" laid the foundation for the championships that were to follow. 2014/2015 shares many similarities to that group from what seems so long ago, the talent is undeniably better now, but a few leftover relics from a cherished era are escorting a new generation of Cardinals down a path to greatness. It is March in Louisville, the goal is Indianapolis, but no matter the result Louisville is primed for another run of history.
Sophomore Peyton Siva, freshman Russ Smith, freshman Gorgui Dieng, and sophomore Stephan Van Treese were four youngsters on that team trying to learn Pitino's systems while suffering under his demands. There were calls that season to bench Siva for Elisha Justice, people dismissed Gorgui as a smart kid, but four year project, and Russ Smith and Van Treese were the prime transfer candidates. If the loudest and most judgmental among us would have had their way, Russ Smith would have seen his Cardinal career end in 2011.
The torch carrier for the bridge year was Preston Knowles. Preston was a hard headed and relentless work horse who had overcome many hurdles to become an unchallenged leader and fan favorite. Preston began his career as a defensive specialist and hot head, learning while experiencing back to back elite eight seasons. His junior year was invaluable as Louisville struggled mightily balancing seniority and egos. 2010/2011 was finally Preston's time and he made everyone proud as he carried the Cardinals to the finals of the Big East Championship.
Knowles' gift to Louisville is easier to grasp as we sit four years removed from his brutal injury against Morehead. Preston was a Louisville Man and he showcased perfectly for Siva, Smith, Dieng, and Van Treese what it meant to be a Louisville Cardinal. Preston Knowles and the bridge year propelled this program to three straight conference championships, a final four and its first national title since 1986.
Fast forward to now and you will understand and realize the cycle is refreshing once more. Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear have tasted glory in their careers, but more importantly they exemplify everything Pitino and Cardinal Fans want from their basketball program. They are good students, good people, tireless workers, competitors, and Louisville Men.
Through their leadership, Harrell and Blackshear are clearing the path for the next great Louisville era. A few pieces may be missing, but if this season accomplishes nothing else, the experience and value of Mahmoud, Onuaku, Aaron, Gill, Stockman, Johnson, Rozier, and Snider learning alongside Harrell and Blackshear will ensure this next generation understands what it means to be a Louisville Cardinal.
Throughout the history of Cardinal Basketball, our program has always been one of development. Junior Bridgeman was a senior in 1975 on a team that should have captured Louisville's first title. The program's most prized recruit, Darrell Griffith, went out on top in 1980 as he delivered on his promise to the city. Milt Wagner played in multiple final fours before finally accomplishing greatness as a senior I 1986.
Through the years, Louisville consistently lays the foundation to peak at the right time, in the right year. Winning a national championship in college basketball is one of the hardest and most respected accomplishments in all of sports. At Louisville, our expectation is to compete for championships year in and year out, and when the time is right, make a run and make history.
2012-2014 was an almost unrivaled period in the history of Louisville Basketball. Without patience, the bridge year, and the leadership of Preston Knowles, that stretch of dominance and championships could have vanquished in the blink of an eye. 2014/2015 hasn't been a honeymoon, and it certainly isn't a roller coaster I want to ride again, but give development a chance. Louisville is ready for its next great era and three years from now we will all look back at 2015 as that old familiar bridge.
All Hail UofL !!