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Louisville basketball fans don’t deserve this

The “era of scandal” has taken an unhealthy toll on even the most ardent Cardinal fan.

Clemson v Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

On the evening of March 28, 2014, just minutes after his team had suffered a soul-crushing Sweet 16 defeat at the hands of arch-rival Kentucky, Rick Pitino declared that the occasion marked “the end of an era.”

Time has only cast more accuracy on those words.

Losing out on a shot at a national title because of a narrow loss to the team that makes defeat sting worse than any other was only part of the reason why that game seemed to take forever for most of us to get over. I tried to put that lingering, hard to define feeling in words a few days afterward.

The third, and I think most painful of the layers, is the "end of an era" talk that has been so prevalent over the past six days. What we know is unpleasant enough. Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Stephan Van Treese and Tim Henderson will never suit up for the Cards again. This wonderful string of continuity that we've enjoyed since the opening of the Yum Center at the beginning of the 2010-11 season is about to be broken for the first time, and that's a little scary. Maybe Trez comes back, maybe Terry Rozier and Anton Gill make enormous leaps in their sophomore seasons, maybe the freshmen are even better than advertised...or maybe none of that happens. Maybe five or six years from now we're looking back at this moment as the end of the good times. There are plenty of reasons to be very excited about the uncertainty surrounding the future, but there are also plenty of reasons to be a tad unsettled as well.

That feeling of impending doom, like the “era of good feelings” had all been too good to be true, proved to be more instinctive than any of us would have liked.

First there was the 2014-15 season, a campaign rife with inconsistency and drama, saved only by an improbable run to the Elite Eight. There would be no such deus ex machina a year later, when the stripper party scandal that broke in October wound up costing a likable and overachieving U of L squad the chance to participate in the postseason. That scandal hovered over Louisville throughout 2016-17, always threatening to further infect not only the current season, but any lingering positive feelings from the previous era.

Then came Tuesday, when the thought that maybe, just maybe, life as a Louisville basketball fan could return to normal was obliterated for the foreseeable future.

You know most of the important details by now. The FBI has blown up college basketball as we know it, and U of L once again finds itself in the eye of the storm.

This time it isn’t because of a “rogue” 20-something staff member who wanted to be cool in the eyes of the college kids he was supposed to be mentoring. It’s because of two full-on assistant coaches who had complete knowledge of the catastrophic ramifications of their actions if they were ever discovered.

There is no “he said, she said” this time around. This is the FBI. They have tapes, taps and recordings of all sorts of incriminating behavior, including Louisville assistants taking active measures to pay $100,000 for a kid that, to be honest, the 2017-18 team didn’t even really need.

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know what to wish for because quite frankly, I don’t know where we can go from here.

All I know is that I want this feeling to be gone.

What feeling is that? It’s probably the same one (or at least one of the same ones) that you’ve had these last couple of years, but that we all describe differently.

This is as well as I can describe mine ...

Have you ever been involved in a competition — or even like a video game session with a friend — where you’ve benefitted from a really lucky break or some minor infraction that you committed and got called out on? Obviously you still spend the rest of the competition trying your hardest to win, but the knowledge of what’s going to come afterward sticks in your mind. There will be anger from the other side, allegations about your character, and no sense of total satisfaction. That knowledge taints the entire process.

It’s a feeling similar to what I experienced during last year’s NCAA tournament and what I’ll probably feel again this March ... assuming Louisville has a March worth feeling anything for. Obviously I was cheering for U of L to advance with every ounce of my being, but the dark cloud was still there. Had the Cardinals advanced to Phoenix last year and wound up cutting down the nets, there would have been a terrific celebration in this city, sure. There also would have been endless jokes from the fans of other programs, endless columns written about how Louisville’s triumph embodied all that was wrong with college sports, and a healthy amount of winner’s guilt that we all would have had to somehow push out of our collective conscience.

I want that to go away. I need that to go away. We all do.

This is supposed to be about basketball, about on-court victories and defeats for an institution most of us have cared far too much about for as long as we can remember. The extreme lows used to be tolerable because they were part of the game and they made the extreme highs possible. The extreme lows since 2015 haven’t been part of the game — at least the game as we know it — and that’s made the ride more tedious than it ever should be.

For the past decade, I’ve always written an opening day post on this website toasting to the new season of Louisville basketball. They used to always result in a flutter of excitement and activity around here, but that hasn’t been the case in either of the past two years. Last November I told myself it was because the success of the football season had demanded so much attention and taken so much out of the fan base, but that odd haze of nonchalance never really lifted.

This thing is so special to so many of us. It should never feel like a chore or something we follow merely out of habit. This is supposed to be fun — the best kind of fun — and it hasn’t felt that way in far too long. That was at least tolerable when there was a promise that the good times would be back in short order, but Tuesday’s news washed that hope away.

I don’t know what the solution is or if there even is a solution at this point. I just know that I shouldn’t have to keep trudging through these types of days. None of us should.