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Expectations, appreciation, and hope for Louisville basketball in March

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

During the primitive days of my life as a sports fan in the 1990s, I was occasionally jealous of my friends who were Big Blue Nation members in training. It was hard not to be. Rick Pitino had made Kentucky the "cool" program in college basketball, and the Wildcats were racking up conference titles and No. 1 seeds in historic fashion. Meanwhile, I was listening to my elders discuss how Louisville had done the same thing during a period I'd been cursed to miss by the narrowest of margins.

Even during those harrowing times, there was a similarity in the personas of my blue-clad classmates that I did not envy. You see, the morning after games had been played and UK and UofL victories had been secured, my Wildcat friends never seemed as excited about their wins as my Cardinal friends and I were about ours. They spoke loudly and thumped their chests in the same manner that's still on full display these days, but there was always an absence of joy wrought by the expectation of victory.

We, as Louisville fans, were thrilled about wins and saddened by defeats. They, as Kentucky fans, were satisfied with wins and angered by defeats. I always felt extremely fortunate to be on the former side of the rivalry if for no other reason than that it just seemed like it was the happier place.

Still in the midst of the most successful era of Louisville basketball that my generation has ever known, my fear is that all this prosperity is breeding a new batch of Cardinal fans that in some ways resembles the BBN supporters of my youth.

The 2014-15 Louisville Cardinals have spent the entirety of this season ranked in the nation's top 20. They have no "terrible" losses, they're going to finish somewhere near the top of the standings in what many believe is the nation's best conference, and they still have a solid chance of securing a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament for a fifth straight year.

So why haven't the past four months been more fun? It's not as simple as a spoiled fan base overindulging after finally getting bumped up to the most desired dinner table at Thanksgiving, but it's impossible to deny that phenomenon isn't a large part of it.

Louisville is a top 10 all-time program with a Hall of Fame coach, a combination that should result in the highest level of expectations from its fan base. That doesn't mean that victory should always be assumed or that anything less than perfection should be condemned. The fact of the matter is, it's hard to be in the thick of the national title race each and every season. It's really hard. Want an example? Look at defending national champion Connecticut, which is about to miss the NCAA Tournament entirely. Look at last season's No. 1 overall seed Florida, which is about to do the same. Or, if you want to take things even further, look at the previous two decades of UofL basketball.

Louisville went 19 years between Final Four appearances, and 27 between national championships. From 1991-2004, the Cards earned a seed of No. 4 or better just three times, and the advanced past the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament only once. And the thing is, 95 percent of the 347 Division-I college basketball programs would kill for that sort of stretch. At Louisville, it's a dark period. Cardinal fans should take pride in that, but they should also use it as a reminder.

Hope is really all you can ask for once March arrives. Hope that all the time spent watching, screaming, debating and following for the past five months will ultimately be rewarded. For all its faults, this Louisville team has, at times, given us hope in recent weeks. Hope that the program can win its fourth straight conference tournament championship (which would be a staggering accomplishment), and hope that it can make a run in the big dance during the succeeding weeks.

There is no doubt in my mind that one day Louisville fans will look back on this period and be blown away by some of the numbers and all of the accomplishments. I hope that when the day comes, none of us ever say, "I wish I would have appreciated it all more."

The previous column appears in this week's issue of The Voice-Tribune. It was written on Monday, before Louisville's loss to Notre Dame.