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Senior Day Sentimentality: Dwayne Sutton

One of Louisville’s favorite sons is about to take the court inside the KFC Yum Center for the final time.

Bellarmine v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The first time I heard about Dwayne Sutton was around this time in 2015. He was an All-7th Region senior from Manual High School who had made some major waves that year, at first with a big performance in the LIT. He had a couple of low D-I offers, and Scotty Davenport desperately wanted him to stay home and play for Bellarmine.

When I asked someone who follows this sort of thing much more closely than I do about Sutton and how he projected as a college player, the outlook wasn’t exactly bright.

He plays his ass off and he’s a really, really good athlete. The word from Manual was he broke two backboards there last season.

But ...

He’s too small to play forward at the high D-I level, and he doesn’t shoot it or handle it well enough to play guard there either.

As it turns out, Sutton is fully capable of playing both those spots — and every position on the floor outside of point guard — at the highest level. If you could create a 6th or 7th position, he’d probably be able to play those too.

We know all this now. It just took longer than it should have.

Sutton’s desire to play Division-I basketball ultimately led him to UNC Asheville, where then head coach Nick McDevitt (now at Middle Tennessee) lured him away from Wright State and Wofford with the promise of immediate playing time. McDevitt wasn’t lying. Sutton was a jack of all trades as a freshman for the Bulldogs, averaging 12.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game.

The biggest of stages is where Sutton had always shined the brightest in high school. He quickly proved that the college level would be no different. Sutton scored 25 points in the 2016 Big South tournament championship game to lead UNCA to an upset win over Winthrop and into the NCAA tournament for just the fourth time in program history. Afterwards, he was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Sutton’s first taste of the Big Dance was a lopsided loss to eventual national champion Villanova in a 2/15 first round matchup. Even then, he managed to catch the eyes of the basketball world while Asheville was keeping things close in the first half.

After that season, an opportunity opened up for Sutton. His play had caught the eye of several major conference coaches, who all jumped when Dwayne announced that he would be looking to transfer (presumably up) after his one season in the Big South. One of those head coaches was Rick Pitino, who didn’t have an available scholarship, but did have a preferred walk-on spot for the hometown kid. Since Sutton’s mother worked for the school and the children of university employees automatically received free tuition, Dwayne would essentially be the team’s 14th scholarship player for a year. He would then have an opportunity to earn a true scholarship afterwards.

“I feel like Louisville is the place for me to be,” Sutton said at the time. “I was told that there’s no difference between a scholarship player and a preferred walk-on. Coach Pitino watched my film and really wanted me. I’m just going to do what I do and work hard every day.”

Sutton had claimed when he signed with UNCA that his lifelong dream had been to play Division-I basketball. That wasn’t entirely true. The expanded truth was that his lifelong dream had been to play Division-I basketball ... for the University of Louisville.

While Cardinal fans scrambled to look up Sutton’s numbers and see what type of player they’d be getting after his one season on the sidelines, there was another group of people within the city who didn’t need to do any stat searching. True Derby City hoopers may not have known much about the accolades and honors of UNC Asheville freshman Dwayne Sutton. They knew all about “Waynie,” the undersized kid with a relentless motor who had been scrapping for wins at Shawnee Park, the Second Street YMCA, the Cabbage Patch Settlement House and any other number of local gyms since the first time he’d been given the chance to go head-to-head with the grown men who frequented those courts. They knew you had to damn near kill the kid if you wanted to beat him.

Sutton was coming home, and he was bringing the city’s true basketball mentality with him. He would ultimately earn that U of L scholarship after his one year in hoops purgatory, but he would never play an official game of record for Pitino. His first season as an active member of the Cardinal program will forever be remembered as one of the most bizarre in the school’s history. He was a key reserve on the 2017-18 squad that narrowly missed the NCAA tournament, but he never fully found his footing in his first and only year under interim head coach David Padgett.

When Chris Mack arrived at Louisville in March of 2018, he inherited a roster with pieces that didn’t seem to fit his style of play or his desired program identity. There was one exception. Sutton was a godsend for Mack, and the new head coach who emphasized toughness and heart over natural skill and ability wasn’t a bad match for Dwayne either.

The two took to one another immediately, with Mack saying early on that “if we had 13 Dwayne Suttons, we’d never lose a game.” Sutton returned that faith by emerging as the second leading rebounder and the second-leading scorer on a Louisville team that exceeded everyone’s expectations by easily making the NCAA tournament as a 7-seed.

In year two under Mack, Sutton has proven himself to be even more of a commodity, earning team captain status and playing every position but point guard at various points in the season. He’s scored in double figures 13 times, and his team-leading 8.3 rebounds per game is the sixth highest average in the ACC. The five players in the conference who rebound at a higher rate than Sutton all have at least three inches on the 6’5 Renaissance man.

In a season, and really in an era, where unpredictability has been as consistent as anything else related to Louisville basketball, Sutton’s effort level might be the most notable constant. You may not know if the team’s shooters are going to be hitting from the outside on a given night, you may be worried about the matchup problems a particular opponent presents, but the most comforting thing about being a Cardinal basketball fan over the last three years has been the full confidence that Dwayne Sutton is going to be absolutely busting his ass every second he spends on the floor.

Writing up a scouting report on Sutton is a fool’s errand. You can chart his shooting percentages or his tendency to drive right in this situation or left in another, but none of that will tell the story of why he has become such an effective player at the highest level of college basketball. You have to see it with your own eyes to understand it.

The person who has most aptly described Sutton’s game to date has been, naturally, Dwayne himself. Here’s what he told Jeff Greer in an interview from two Januarys ago:

“Basketball is a short game, so you have to go out there and play hard the whole time and give it all you’ve got. Every team needs a guy who is going to do that, because at the end of the day, that’s what it takes to win. Most games come down to the small things, and every team needs a guy who isn’t afraid to mix it up and make plays other than scoring to be successful. I’ve always taken pride in being that guy.”

In an era where style preference and attribute emphasis seems to differ from one age group to the next more than ever before, Sutton is a player for all generations of Cardinal fans. You don’t need to have the same interests, hobbies or political views to recognize and appreciate that No. 24 in white or red or black (or sometimes grey) plays his balls off every time he’s afforded the opportunity to do so.

“I’m just a 21-year-old kid playing for a university I grew up loving,” Sutton said last season. “I think people see that with the way I play. I don’t really care about exposure. I don’t really care about anything more than winning the game. That’s it.”

Winning will forever be a universal language, and it’s one Sutton has been fluent in for quite some time. When he speaks, everyone in the building has no choice but to pay attention.

We’ll all be paying attention on Sunday, and hopefully for a solid month and change after that.