Never before, never again.
Caoches, players, and fans of the University of Louisville Men's Basketball Program do not find familiarity in an absolute absence from postseason play and March Madness. There have been the occasional disappointing seasons that led to an NIT appearance or the even scarcer occurrence where the Cards had to take their ball and go home after a conference tournament. Louisville Basketball and its supporters can handle not being good enough, but being denied the chance at a championship by the president of our own university when the trophy is well within reach is a scenario invoking emotions and reactions never dealt with before. The situation currently enveloping this basketball team is unprecedented, but the 2015-2016 Cardinals have chosen to set an example of selflessness, class, leadership, and perseverance that will define the next era of dominance for Louisville Basketball.
Before rambling on for a few more paragraphs let's set the record straight. If the NCAA exercises any fairness, justice, or consistency for the first time in its history, then Louisville's self-imposed postseason ban should be the only severe sentence served by the Cardinals. Some sort of probation, perhaps some recruiting limitations, or even a Pitino suspension may be coming our way, but the Cardinals will, and should be fully eligible for the postseason in 2016-2017. SMU covered up a violation, did not self-report to the NCAA, and were given a one year postseason ban. Syracuse ignored multiple policies and compliance (including drug testing) for almost a decade, didn't self-report, and were given a one year postseason ban on top of their self-imposed ban on a team that wasn't making the tournament anyways. Louisville broke the rules, but unlike SMU, Syracuse, and North Carolina, when those in positions of authority became aware of the possible violations they immediately self-reported to the NCAA, launched an investigation, and have done everything according to compliance and by the book. If the NCAA attempts to ban the Cardinals again then it's pitchforks and torches all the way to Indianapolis.
This season will be remembered as Rick Pitino's best year ever as a head coach. First, the Cardinals didn't sniff preseason rankings and were picked to finish 8th in the ACC. Also, Louisville has played almost the entire season without their most experienced player, Mangok. Over the course of a few months, Pitino has molded two fifth year seniors, three freshmen, and five scholarship sophomores into one cohesive unit that has consistently displayed chemistry unrivaled by every team Pitino has had at Louisville, championship year aside. With one month remaining in the season and as the team was beginning to peak, the Cardinals were smacked across the face with the self-imposed ban. Tears were shed, anger and frustration showed, but Coach Pitino and the fans rallied around the team and the players chose to be better and not bitter.
Louisville now finds itself alongside North Carolina in the driver seat to be ACC Regular Season Champions. Most recently, the Cardinals traveled to Pittsburgh and beat a desperate team on their home floor without Mahmoud, Spalding, and Mathiang. In case the preceding wasn't enough to give Pitino every coach of the year award imaginable, remember that the lineup of Matz Stockman, David Levitch, Damion Lee, Jay Henderson, and Quentin Snider dominated the Panthers to close the first half, and healing true freshman Deng Adel slammed the door shut on Pittsburgh's soul to secure victory for Louisville. Pitino is in the Hall of Fame for many reasons, but 2015-2016 should be remembered as the year that showcased his greatness.
Damion Lee and Trey Lewis' careers at Louisville have been too brief and I consistently scratch my head wondering why they weren't Cardinals from the beginning. I certainly won't remember Damion for his hairstyles, but Lee and Lewis will be remembered for their immediate impact and unwavering leadership of this team. These two adopted the Cardinal Culture immediately, set perfect examples for the younger players in terms of effort, enthusiasm, and public perception, and have handled every obstacle in their path with class and maturity unseen in the majority of today's youth. If the Cardinals rebound and capture any banners in 2017, Lee and Lewis will be heavily responsible for any future success of this program. Their impact in terms of wins and losses will be rather overlooked as time passes, but Damion Lee and Trey Lewis will be Cardinals forever because they have completely redefined and reminded us all what it means to be a Louisville Cardinal.
As for the rest of the roster, their legacy has started to take shape this season, but the future is unsettled. With every player returning, Lee and Lewis aside, the Cardinals should be in the running for a preseason number one ranking and the Cardinal Community will certainly set expectations unreasonably high coming off the postseason drought. The returning Cardinals must continue down the path that was laid this season and continue to develop this inspiring chemistry. This team will always be remembered for how they handled a complete injustice, but the returning roster will be defined by what they do next.
Louisville Basketball and its supporters are less than 10 days away from having to embrace the cold reality that one of its most promising seasons and teams is over. As momma says, life isn't fair, but the pain and anger will not be real until the buzzer sounds in Charlottesville on March 5th. The 2015-2016 Louisville Cardinals may not be remembered by rings, banners, or cut nets, but their legacy was etched in stone on February 6, 2016. Coach Pitino and his band of overlooked misfits held their heads high, chose to become better instead of bitter, finished the season chasing an ACC Championship, and have successfully launched the next era of Cardinal dominance. Injustices, obstacles, and enemies are only overcome by perseverance and unity. The 2015-2016 Louisville Basketball Team chose to be a family, chose to be a part of the Cardinal Family forever, and that is exactly how I'll remember them.
All Hail UofL !