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Loyal Louisville basketball fans now reaping their reward

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, Saint Mary's basketball coach Randy Bennett served up the following quote after his team had been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament:

"If it didn't sting, it wouldn't be any fun. That's why it stings, because you care so much. There aren't many things you can pour your heart into with a bunch of guys your age and invest so much time and care so much, and that's why it hurts, because when it's over it's gone."

It's a quote which can be applied to virtually all walks of life, but feels especially applicable to this season's Louisville basketball team.

The easy thing for UofL fans to have done this season would have been to have said "whatever," to tell everyone making fun of your team's inability to score that you never even really cared that much in the first place, and then to be hopping back on the bandwagon right now. Instead, most Louisville fans chose to accept the sting of defeat with the hope that they would be reciprocated with an equally strong level of joy at some point, and now those people are being reciprocated.

Louisville's trip to the Sweet 16 is an earned reward for the Cardinal fans who never wavered despite the team's struggles both on and off the court, and it might not be the last one. UofL's East Region is the first since 2004 to lose its No. 1 and No. 2 seeds before the tournament's second weekend. Villanova and Virginia both losing hasn't made the Cards an overwhelming favorite to represent the region at the Final Four in Indianapolis, but there certainly appears to be a more traversable path than there was a week ago.

Of course no path to the national semifinals would be traversable if Louisville didn't step up its game significantly from the place it's been for the bulk of the season. It's an occurrence which appeared to be on full display in the team's round of 32 win over Northern Iowa, which may have very well been the most impressive game it have played all season.

Suddenly, Wayne Blackshear has gone from passive spot-up shooter to senior captain who's in command and willing to do whatever it takes to keep his college career going. Suddenly, Terry Rozier has morphed back into the guy who led the ACC in scoring for the first five weeks of the season and seemed destined to hear his name called in the first round of this June's NBA Draft. Suddenly, Quentin Snider is playing like a starting point guard who deserved to play the part for the entire season.  Suddenly, Louisville's centers and bench are showcasing signs of life.

Montrezl Harrell is also still dunking a lot ... because not everything is different.

None of this is to say that Louisville fans should all be making set plans for Indianapolis or even for Sunday afternoon, but it all feels possible now, doesn't it? And not just the "well you never know, crazier things have happened" possible that Cardinal fans used for self-assurance after the Syracuse loss in mid-February, but really possible.

Northern Iowa isn't out of the tournament right now because it played in a conference that didn't test it enough or because it was over-seeded by the selection committee. Northern Iowa is out of the tournament right now because it ran into a Louisville team which played, at the very least, as well as it has all season. It ran into a Louisville team which suddenly looks like one capable of playing into the tournament's final weekend.

That mere possibility was the greatest dream any Cardinal fan could have had as recently as a couple of weeks ago, but now that it's a dream which has been realized, UofL fans are able to dream even bigger. The new dream will last until Friday, when it either gets crushed, or makes way for an even more an even greater reverie.

A version of this column appears in the latest issue of The Voice-Tribune