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The Last Waltz

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Photo - USA TODAY Sports

Any Louisville fan emerging from a time capsule put into the ground in March 2015 must have been vexed Tuesday night. They’d have recognized a few of the players, the pregame rituals, the half-hearted murmurs of an exhibition crowd in November. Conspicuously absent, however, was Rick Pitino, a man who’d always vacillated between saying he was going to retire tomorrow and saying he’d coach until he was dead. In his place was head coach David Padgett, born 13 months before Louisville won its second national title, doing his best Pitino impersonation – suit perfectly tailored, both hands behind his back as he leaned in to bark instructions to the frontcourt.

Padgett’s first job upon returning to campus in 2014 was Andre McGee's old job. Sitting to Padgett’s left was Trent Johnson, the guy who coached the Lopez twins at Stanford back when Louisville beat the Cardinal by 1000 points in the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Padgett had 16 points in that game. Sitting to Johnson's left was Greg Paulus – yes, that Greg Paulus – who played basketball in the ACC then switched to football in the Big East, where he proceeded to go 0-1 vs. Steve Kragthorpe.

What I'm saying, Louisville fan from a March 2015 time capsule, is that it's gotten weird. Very weird.

There is an inescapable feeling that this entire season is taking place on a fault line. It begins in the wake of federal indictments, clumsy public statements, cryptic interviews, and an ever-present refreshing Twitter feed that only seems to bring more bad news. A good way to test a basketball fan’s muscle memory is to set everything on fire and see if their enthusiasm wanes in the five-alarm mess. It’s difficult to get excited about V.J. King’s sophomore leap when there are 200 unread tweets. Who knows what any one of them might reveal.

Even the most ardent critic of high-major college athletics and its hypocrisies could be forgiven for wanting to, in this instance, "stick to sports." We don't enter college sports fandom to answer for scandals stacked like Russian nesting dolls, or read reports that Tom Jurich is actually Boss Tweed, or watch a pizza kingpin throw his weight around amid the turmoil with the grace of his wasted-in-the-Georgia-Dome-concourse photo while also trying to blame languishing sales on everything but his ingredients. We much prefer winking Anas, Deng emulating 1995 Jerry Stackhouse, Ray Spalding’s media guide revelation that “few people know that he likes turtles.” Give us the moments that drew us to Louisville basketball to begin with and kindly get the rest the fuck out of here, please.

Imagine the surprise, then, at how normal everything felt when watching the Cards play Bellarmine on Tuesday night. Aesthetically, it all felt the same. Maybe I shouldn't have been caught off-guard; it was, after all, the same players wearing the same colors in the same building. Not only is this team still good, it remains a familiar brand of good. When I watched the team pass and move and trap on Tuesday, all of the rest fell to the side for a few hours. A new coach doesn’t make Anas any less of an incisive passer, nor Deng any less of a scary athlete, nor Dwayne Sutton any less the kind of do-it-all, positionless basketball player embraced in 2017.

The onslaught of breaking news in the past six weeks has made it feel as though nothing will ever be the same, and that's partially correct; that sea change is coming, in one form or another. But just looking at the court on Tuesday, at familiar players doing familiar things – it was comforting. This goes right down to the uniforms which, in an odd twist, will be the same ones worn during the 2016-17 season. With Pitino at the helm, the uniforms were the one dependable yearly update; now, with the program in flux, they remain unchanged.

This season will be the last iteration of Louisville basketball as we've known it for most of this century. Yes, that tradition and framework will remain as always, but make no mistake: the identity will change very soon. Louisville basketball was not the same under Denny Crum as it was under Rick Pitino, and going forward, it will look different once again. With that in mind, the next four months are a final ode to an era, to weird December non-conference games, to a huge conference home win on a weekend, to the predictable ACC slump somewhere in the dead of winter. This is it.

For everyone who’s long held the notion that the playoff committee is out to get us, or that ESPN hates Lamar Jackson, or that there is some kind of intricate vendetta against the athletic department by someone, somewhere: now is your time to shine. No one is going to want this team to succeed this season. They’re going to see a program mired in scandal, not a group of players who didn’t ask for any of this shit. Louisville winning will fire up a slew of columnists who wonder why the school has a program at all in light of the headlines. They will declare, stupidly, that its short-term success is somehow emblematic of all of the sport’s ills, in spite of all of the long-term damage to the program we know has been done.

I try and operate above the conspiracy theories and the rage and how all of this will affect the permanent successor, but when I consider this – fans and pundits rooting for Anas and Quentin and V.J. and the rest of the squad to fail because of the last two years – I get fucking angry. These players didn’t ask for a scandal, and yet many of them got two. They didn’t ask to answer questions—for which they were expected to respond perfectly—on matters wholly beyond their control. I hope that they follow the advice Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall offers to his defense: play angry. For once, the number of haters isn’t exaggerated, or imaginary. I hope this team plays like it’s them against the world, because in many ways, that’s the truth. Play angry. Play like you’re Cassius Clay in Miami in 1964 and nobody expects you to last three rounds, much less emerge victorious.

But here’s the thing about the 2017-18 team playing like underdogs: they’re not – at all. It only took a game for me to believe that this is a bona fide top-15 team and that the starting lineup is probably comfortably inside the top 10.

This is Rick Pitino’s team, yet in many ways, it is not his team at all. It is a weird buffer period, an encore where hits will play in a slightly different key. It belongs to all of us, Louisville basketball as it has always been. It’s the last year for the guy from Ballard, the guy from Egypt, and the guy from Australia by way of Sudan. This team is Loo-uh-vull as it once was and Louisville in what it’s become ­­­– a storied program in a proud, changing city. No team in the history of Louisville basketball has entered the season having faced this kind of adversity. Join me in hoping that by season’s end, they’re pointing directly at the naysayers and telling them to eat their words.