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Senior Day sentimentality: Saying goodbye to Mangok Mathiang, David Levitch and Tony Hicks

A Senior Day tribute.

Evansville v Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Senior Day is always a difficult celebration to navigate. It’s a day (nor night) bursting with such an eclectic mix of emotions that you're never sure exactly how you should feel 20 minutes before the tip or 20 minutes after the final horn.

There's an important late season game to be won, and of course that's the top priority, but properly honoring a group of players who have done absolutely all they can to add to the rich history of the basketball program you love runs a pretty close second.

We spend a lot of time questioning the decisions these 18-23-year-olds make over the course of a 40-minute basketball game, but something that should never be questioned is the level of effort and determination it takes to bust your ass day after day, month after month, year after year for four (or 5, or 1) collegiate seasons, partly so that we as fans can have something to look forward to twice a week during the winter. That type of commitment demands respect, and to me that's what Senior Day is all about, regardless of who it is playing their final home game.

Before we say our actual goodbyes this afternoon, here are some of my thoughts on the three players we’re bidding farewell to.

Mangok Mathiang

My favorite Mangok Mathiang story is from national championship Monday in 2013. He was redshirting the season so he wasn’t able to travel with the team or partake in pregame events with the team. As a result, he’d actually ridden down to Atlanta with a mutual friend and we’d been together and a handful of the events throughout the course of the weekend.

On Monday, Mangok attended the official alumni pep rally event that U of L put together. I would estimate that somewhere in the vicinity of 70 percent of the people at the function believed he was Gorgui Dieng. Pretty much every time I was in a drink line or standing next to strangers, I would overhear a conversation that went something like this.

“Oh my gosh, there’s Gorgui!”

“Yep, that’s Gorgui all right.”

“What is he doing here? Tip-off is in an hour and a half!”

It was enjoyable. He also unknowingly hit on two different girls I dated within a span of four months, which is a proud tidbit for both of us.

When you look back a the last four seasons, it’s crazy how involved Magok was in some of the most memorable moments. The final minutes against UK in the 2014 Sweet 16, the shot against Virginia, the free-throws against Michigan State, and so on.

In a lot of ways, the worst thing that happened to Mangok was the success that Gorgui enjoyed. From day one, every Cardinal fan attempted to compare the two players with similar builds and foreign backgrounds. That wasn’t fair, but Mangok never complained.

As he prepares to take Denny Crum Court for the final time, Mangok feels like the last vestige of the apex of a golden era that we’re all hopeful isn’t over and isn’t ending any time soon. He was on the national championship team, he suited up with Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, he went through the controversy and heartache of 2015-16, and now he’s geared up for one final memorable month.

Through it all, Mangok has smiled. He has an infectious personality both on and off the court, and he’s been a blessing to Louisville basketball.

David Levitch

Walk-ons are sort of the ultimate gift for people who cover college sports in an unconventional manner. They’re easy to root for and easy to make good-spirited jokes about. Even with that being the case, it’s always important to remember that these kids would absolutely drag you, me and everyone we know if they saw us on the court.

Rarely has that last statement been more true than it is with David Levitch, still the all-time leading scorer at North Oldham High School, and a guy who came up playing AAU ball with the best and most talented players in the city. That all being the case, it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise that Levitch would go from human victory cigar as a freshman to a guy who was seeing the court at crucial moments during both his junior and senior seasons.

In the early years of Levitch’s U of L career, I made a habit of pointing out that Louisville never lost in games where he saw the floor. This was, of course, because he typically only saw the floor near the end of blowouts. Still, the statistic became something that Louisville fans embraced, and Rick Pitino was even asked about it once during a postgame preference.

The anecdote also served as the inspiration for a full column I wrote for The Voice-Tribune, which actually agreed to publish it.

What if I told you there was an extraordinary, almost preternatural, member of the UofL men’s basketball team whose mere presence in games guaranteed a Cardinal victory? You’d probably be wondering why Louisville is heading into mid-February with four losses, and you’d be correct to do so.

What if I then told you that the opening paragraph of this column was no meaningless hypothetical? That such a player does exist and that this fact makes the mighty Cardinals’ 19-4 record an inexcusable mark?

Buckle up, because that’s exactly the ride on which I’m about to take you.

The player in question is David Levitch. If you don’t recognize the name, don’t be too hard on yourself, because apparently his own head coach has a hard time remembering that the young man is on the team. The only difference is you’re a fan, while Rick Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach being paid millions to make simple decisions like giving the David Levitches of the world their justified court time.

Feast your eyes on this fact: David Levitch has played in 11 games for Louisville this season. The Cardinals’ record in those games? Just your standard, everyday 11-0. You don’t have to be “Prince of Mathematics” Carl Friedrich Gauss to figure out that success rate.

In conference play, the lack of every-night Levitch becomes even more difficult to fathom. The Cardinals are 4-0 in AAC games in which the freshman from Goshen plays, defeating those four opponents by a combined 120 points, or 30 points per game. Without Levitch? Louisville is a pedestrian 4-2 in the league, a mark which would put them a full seven wins behind first-place Cincinnati in the current conference standings.

Pitino defenders can spew their rhetoric all they want. That’s fine. I fully expect to be bombarded with emails and contacted by the typical members of Pitino’s inner circle of mind control as soon as this column is distributed, and I’m good with that. As Gandhi once said: “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”

The truth is that this minority of one is growing.

While your typical “Joe Cardinal” fan will point to Pitino’s consecutive Final Fours, 2013 national championship, recent Hall of Fame enshrinement and status as the only coach in college basketball history to guide two different programs to national titles as proof of his “job security,” there’s another group of supporters out there with the bravery to think for themselves. And they’re starting to get angry.

“I can’t really tell whether or not you’re being serious,” one enraged season ticket holder told me over the phone Wednesday morning.

That rage is indicative of a growing faction of enlightened Louisville fans who are starting to ask questions the brass at UofL doesn’t want you to hear. Questions like: Do you really think that rising stars in the coaching ranks like Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics or Shaka Smart at VCU would keep a player whose mere presence in a game guaranteed victory on the bench? They don’t want you to hear those questions because they know the obvious answer demands action.

Averaging 24.0 points per game as a senior at North Oldham High School, Levitch was the seventh leading scorer in the state of Kentucky in 2012-13. His favorite book is “The Kite Runner,” and he was receiving attention from programs like Bellarmine and Stetson before taking Pitino up on his offer to walk-on at UofL. It was the place where David had always dreamed of playing, and he turned down the opportunity for more playing time to make his dream come true.

They say loyalty in sports is dead – probably because this is the way it’s repaid in this day and age.

Pitino has spoken at length in recent years about the importance of humility. The significance of the trait was one of the main focal points of the coach’s most recent book, “The One Day Contract: How to Add Value to Every Minute of Your Life.” Perhaps there are pages of that bestseller that need to be re-read by the author, because it certainly seems as though a recurrent bout of hardheadedness is the only thing keeping Pitino’s present team from a perfect season.

“The data speaks pretty loudly,” said college basketball statistical guru Ken Pomeroy in a recent interview that didn’t actually take place. “When (David Levitch) appears in a box score, Louisville is a perfect 11-0, which correlates to a win percentage of 100 percent. Take him out of the box score and the Cardinals’ win percentage dips all the way down to 66.66 percent. I’m not even going to get into the morality aspect of those figures, but suffice it to say, the data indicates that it would be in Coach Pitino’s best interest to change up his rotations and get this player on the court for at least one second every game.”

This isn’t just about basketball. Levitch’s resemblance to international pop icon Justin Bieber has already been noticed by a handful of opposing student sections, laying the foundation for a crossover superstar whose ties to Louisville could benefit both the basketball program and the university for years to come. “His hair will remind you of Bieber, his game will make you a believer” was one slogan I was thinking about. It’d be a lot easier if one of his names rhymed with “Justin” or “Bieber,” but none of that will ever matter so long as Pitino is calling the shots inside the KFC Yum! Center.

Pitino has spoken many times before about the dangers of our current “microwave society,” where people can only see what’s happening right now and largely ignore the past and the future. Perhaps it’s a phenomenon that can also explain Pitino’s newfound place in Springfield, Mass., because what’s happening with one of his players right now certainly makes it seem like the folks from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame decided to call his name a year too early.

The first time I ever met Levitch it wasn’t long before I was like, “you know if you ever want me to cut that shit out, just let me know.” He was always cool with it, and has always been willing to fire things back at me (something I assume there will be more of once he’s allowed to use Twitter again), which has only made me like him more.

It’s rare that a player’s “basketball instincts” are readily apparent to the average fan, but that’s something we’ve all seen from Levitch for four years now. He always seems to know where the ball is going to bounce off the rim, he always seems to know what the man he’s guarding is about to do next, and he knows the best way to get the ball from point A to point B without the larger and more athletic man in front of him intercepting it. That’s why he’s been such an asset for Rick Pitino since he’s been here.

People think David knows a lot about horses, which is true. The flip side is that people also think that David knows a lot about which horses are going to win races, and that isn’t true. Just ask Mohaymen and Frosted and the people who lost money listening to the Casse Stable’s “golden boy.”

Still, we’ll miss him. Time to bust out the Levitchtation shirts one last time.

Tony Hicks

This something of an odd situation, and one that Louisville finds itself in for the first time. A year ago, because of all the extenuating circumstances, it felt natural (if not demanded) to honor Trey Lewis and Damion Lee before and after the team’s final home game of the season. With Tony Hicks, we’re left with more of the grad transfer conundrum that other programs across the country have been faced with these last few years.

Hicks has been a model citizen since he arrived on campus last summer, and he was finally starting to have some significant success on the court when a broken finger derailed his progress and kept him sidelined until last week. Still, as is the case with any player who has only been a part of the program for less than a year, there’s a sense that we don’t know Tony Hicks as well as we’d like to before we say goodbye.

With that being the case, here are some made-up Tony Hicks facts to make him feel more “Louisville” before we say goodbye:

—Has correctly picked 12 consecutive Kentucky Derby winners.

—Is the reason East End bridge finally got built.

—Once dated Jennifer Lawrence, but gallantly broke up with her so that she could pursue her love of acting.

—Can make his own hot brown.

—Will talk for hours about elements of bourbon-making that you don’t understand.

—Recognizes that traffic here is better than it is in Atlanta or Chicago, but still believes it shouldn’t be this bad for a city this size.

We’re going to miss you Tony.