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In Louisville, basketball must now wait its turn

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The Louisville men's basketball team is off to a flawless start in 2016-17. The Cards have decimated their first two opponents, are ranked in the nation's top 12, and have legitimate Final Four and national championship aspirations.

And no one seems to care.

All right, that might be a little over-the-top, but the point stands that this is likely the least amount of attention that a really good Cardinal basketball team has received in the history of UofL athletics.

The reason is fairly straightforward. UofL's other flagship sport, football, is in the middle of the most exciting season that it has ever enjoyed, a season that has captivated Cardinal fans in a way some thought would never happen. With Louisville still chasing a national title and quarterback Lamar Jackson likely a month away from becoming the school's first Heisman Trophy winner, sports fans in the Derby City simply aren't ready to turn their full attention to the hardwood just yet.

It's a new phenomenon that the man in charge of Cardinal hoops says he's perfectly okay with.

"It's not our time right now, it's their time," Rick Pitino said of the football team during an interview on 93.9 The Ville. "We understand that, and we're perfectly fine with that. It'll be basketball season once football season is over, but for now, they deserve to have the spotlight on them. They've certainly earned that."

There are many high-profile basketball coaches -- perhaps another one in this very state -- who would rather give half their annual salary than make an admission like that, but Pitino himself is another Louisvillian who has gotten swept up in the glory of Cardinal football this fall.

Long before Jackson was a ridiculous 1/50 shot in Las Vegas to win the Heisman, Pitino was touting him as the man who was going to bring home the hardware. When Pitino had to be in New York for a wedding on the same day as the Florida State game, he crashed a UofL alumni watch party where patrons reported that the Hall of Famer was more into the game than anyone else in the building. Even after his own team's win over William & Mary, Pitino dedicated a chunk of his postgame press conference to blasting what he felt had been unfair criticism made by the analyst during the football team's recent victory over Wake Forest.

Pitino isn't the only one who can't keep his mind off of Bobby Petrino's team. Local website traffic and talk radio show phone lines have been blowing up at unprecedented rates in November, and it's not because basketball is back. Sports fans in the city aren't looking for answers to how the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament is going to play out or what seed UofL might be once March rolls around, instead the focus is solely Louisville's path to the College Football Playoff, and what's going on in the minds of those committee members.

Louisville has had great football teams before during Card Chronicle's decade of covering Cardinal sports, but this is a different animal. Sure, part of that is because the team has never had a player as exciting as Jackson or a legitimate chance this late to play for a national title, but part is that UofL fans are evolving as a football fan base.

National success was still a relatively new concept during the first Petrino era and the last two Charlie Strong years, and there was also no guarantee that it wouldn't be fleeting. Now, Cardinal fans are more comfortable with the spotlight, and more confident that it's not going to shift to stage left any time soon.

I'm not the only one who has noticed the shift over the last three months.

"Football is all anyone wants to talk about, and we definitely see that in our website traffic and things of that nature," said longtime local sports reporter Eric Crawford of WDRB. "I thought it was possible for Cardinal football to eventually trump Cardinal basketball in November, I just wasn't sure that I'd be around to see it when it happened."

It's not an overnight process for a football fan base to get to the point where they are in, say, Columbus or Tuscaloosa, it takes generations. Louisville doesn't have a generation of football fans who have experienced consistent success, great crowds, great tailgating and an overall powerhouse college football culture. But it's about to.

A version of this column runs in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune