The beautiful journey begins again for Louisville this Friday night when UofL takes on the mighty Anteaters (Anteaters!) of UC Irvine in Seattle on Friday. Despite an up-and-down season whose most recent pit-stop was an undeniably "down" one-and-done effort in the ACC Tournament, Cardinal fans seem a bit rejuvenated this week after what most believe to be a favorable draw in the big dance. Remembering that it's March and Rick Pitino is your favorite team's head coach is always good for lifting spirits, too.
Of course getting a good draw and being able to take advantage of it aren't mutually exclusive phenomenons. This Louisville team hasn't done much over the last four months when it comes to giving us an idea of whether or not they're going to be up to the task on the sport's biggest stage, but here are five things I hope they are able to accomplish in the coming weeks.
1. Louisville makes the second weekend of the tournament
There's no feeling quite like seeing the dust settle after the first Thursday-Sunday of the big dance and having the peace of mind that your favorite team still has some basketball left to play. An opening weekend loss, on the other hand, makes those first few days back at work unbearable and watching the rest of the tournament becomes at least slightly depressing. For a team that lost so much a season ago and which has had to deal with so many issues over the course of the last five months, making it to (at least) the Sweet 16 would be a pat yourself on the back-worthy accomplishment.
Not that we all won't be dreaming bigger if we're in that place a week from now.
2. Wayne Blackshear scores his 1,000th career point
For all the criticism he's had to endure over the last four years, Blackshear is entering his final NCAA Tournament playing the best basketball of his Cardinal career. He was one of the few Louisville players who gave a complete performance in the ACC Tournament loss to North Carolina, scoring 18 points and hitting a trio of three-pointers. The effort left him just 21 points shy of becoming UofL's 67th all-time 1,000-point scorer, an accomplishment Card fans would love to see him achieve this weekend.
3. Montrezl Harrell throws down a dunk on UC Irvine's Mamadou Ndiaye
The Anteater (Anteaters!) center stand 7'6, making him the tallest player in American college or professional basketball. Harrell has done virtually everything there is to do when it comes to the slam dunk and his college career, but putting one in over Ndiaye would certainly be a nice new bullet point to add to the résumé.
4. Terry Rozier does enough to make turning pro an easy decision
Hear me out on this one. After hitting a wall in the last month of his sophomore season, Terry Rozier is now in a place where the likelihood of him leaving Louisville and becoming a first round pick in this summer's NBA Draft isn't nearly as high as it was back in January. That being the case, the only possible way this winds up being an easy decision for him is if he plays like an absolute star while leading the Cards extremely deep in the tournament. If Terry can carry the Cards all the way to Indianapolis, I think most fans would give him permission to take his game on to the professional level.
5. Some sort of passing of the torch takes place
One of the biggest themes of the season has been Pitino's insistence that the veteran players on the team teach the six newcomers about the "culture of Louisville basketball." It's an understanding point of emphasis given that Blackshear and Harrell are the only remaining pieces from the national championship team, and after this year's tournament run, they're both going to be gone.
A massive part of Louisville's recent "culture" has been success in March. This is going to be the first tournament taste for guys like Quentin Snider, Chinanu Onuaku and Shaqquan Aaron, and if they're the ones responsible for continuing this recent run of Cardinal greatness in the coming years, they're going to have to "get" what tournament success is all about at some point in these next couple of weeks.
A version of this column appears in this week's issue of The Voice-Tribune