Perhaps the most glaring issue with the 2014-15 Louisville basketball team, from the start of the season up until the waning moments of the Cards' NCAA Tournament win over UC Irvine, was that the guys donning the red and black didn't seem to particularly enjoy playing with one another.
Individually, the players were all as easy to cheer for, but collectively there was a noticeable disconnect that hadn't been around in years past.
There was Wayne Blackshear, the senior captain who had already done it all and seen it all, including every other member of his original recruiting class move on to somewhere (or something) else. There was Montrezl Harrell, the superstar who led by pure intimidation, and who had zero patience for anyone who didn't want to work the way he worked. There was the backcourt clique of Chris Jones, Anton Gill and Terry Rozier, who'd all been around for a couple of years and who enjoyed each other's company. And then there were the newcomers, as lost as all freshmen entering the world of Rick Pitino, and forever looking for a helping hand that never seemed to come.
One of those Cardinal rookies, center Chinanu Onuaku, recently talked about his first Louisville team's lack of chemistry in an interview with The Sporting News.
"Last year we had cliques," Onuaku said. "Certain people hung out with certain people. I think like everybody wanted to get theirs, for real."
As tends to happen when everything is on the line, the team came together in March. There was one moment in particular, just minutes after UofL had nearly been stunned in the NCAA Tournament's round of 64, that really drove home the point that the tide was finally turning.
Here's the transcript of that moment from the postgame press conference, when Quentin Snider was asked about being a freshman and hitting the two free-throws that ultimately gave Louisville a 57-55 win over No. 13 seed UC Irvine:
Quentin Snider: Well, just going to the line I wasn't really -- I didn't really think about it. I just got up to the line and just shot it. I just knew my team needed those points, so I just knocked them down.
Wayne Blackshear: We all believed that he would knock them down, too. We had all the confidence in the world in him.
Quentin Snider: Thanks, Wayne. (Laughter)
It seemed like such an insignificant moment, until you remember that there is no such thing in March.
What Wayne Blackshear actually said wasn't especially poignant or original, but it was the fact that he felt the need to step in and, unprompted, say something reassuring and complimentary of his freshman point guard, and then acted on that instinct, which struck a chord. Not only would Blackshear not have done this as a freshman or sophomore, he probably wouldn't have done it three weeks prior to that moment. It was the first real sign that the long-awaited gelling was finally happening and that the chance of a special run occurring was in the air.
This year, fans probably aren't going to have to wait that long to see the same level of chemistry.
"These young men are of the highest character I've dealt with," Rick Pitino said on 93.9 The Ville last week. "There's a lot of Peyton Sivas on this team in terms of high moral and just tremendous character in the way that they act. That's about the highest compliment I can pay anybody."
With so many newcomers, both of the freshmen and the 5th year transfer variety, team chemistry was always going to be one of the hot topics of the summer, especially with the squad headed to Puerto Rico for an exhibition tour in August. According to Onuaku, worried fans can rest easy.
"The whole team went to the movies the other day," Onuaku said. "We only did that last year when the coaches forced us to. We're going to have better chemistry, I believe."
Louisville basketball's era of good feelings, both on and off the court, appears to be here to stay.
This column appears in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune