Luck is not a word we’ve often associated with Louisville basketball over the last five years, so much so that I don’t feel comfortable using it to begin this post. We’re going to ride with “fortune” instead. It feels more appropriate for the subject at hand.
If there’s one area where Louisville has had better fortune than the rest of the college basketball world over the last five years, it’s the graduate transfer market.
Christen Cunningham ran the point brilliantly for a 2018-19 team that overachieved and made the NCAA tournament with more ease than anticipated. Fresh Kimble made clutch shots and emerged as a leader a year later on a squad that could have beaten anyone in the country. Damion Lee came from Drexel, became an All-ACC performer, and is now in his third season as a key contributor for the Golden State Warriors.
This brings us to Carlik Jones, who will almost certainly be playing the final home game of his brief but spectacular Cardinal career on Saturday. The crowd will be the largest of the season — 25 percent capacity for the first time in 2020-21. It still won’t be anywhere near large enough.
It’s now been over half a decade since Louisville basketball felt “right” or “normal” or whatever it felt like to you during the pre-2015 portion of your life. 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 I think we can all admit that the fun hasn’t come as naturally in recent years. We’ve probably got at least a few more years until that finally changes for good.
The only way, I think, to be a Louisville basketball fan at the moment who is effectively able to maintain both a healthy level of fun and their sanity is to embrace at least a portion of the absurdity. Losing by 45 in Chapel Hill and then winning at Cameron Indoor seven days later? Sure. Ending the regular season with fewer than 20 games played after winning at least 20 in each of the last 18 years? Hey, what can you do?
Perhaps most beautifully absurd of all is the very real possibility that the program’s first conference Player of the Year since 1994 will be a 6-foot graduate transfer from Radford. That’s a span of nearly three decades that includes three Final Four trips, a national championship, and numerous NBA draftees. None of the talent from those years could accomplish what Carlik Jones is on the verge of accomplishing,
As strange and, at times, difficult as these last four months have been, try imagining them without Jones. For fans, U of L games this season have possessed this bizarre balance of serving both a pleasant distraction from the lack of normalcy surrounding the program, and a less pleasant reminder of the lack of normalcy surrounding ... well, everything. If Jones hadn’t made the decision to spend his (likely) final college season in red and black, I fear that only the latter part of the previous sentence would be true.
While Jones’ commitment to Louisville certainly came with an appropriate level of fanfare, it was also weighed down by a handful of small, but heavy, doubts.
Jones’ sparkling stat lines at Radford weren’t produced in the fashion most undersized, high-scoring guards at the low/mid-major level are. Instead of using a lightning quick first step or unlimited range to post his gaudy numbers, Jones relied on craftiness and a superior feel for the game. That’s all well and good when you’re going up against VMI and High Point, but what would happen when Jones was consistently driving into the bigs of Duke and Florida State and Kentucky?
As it turns out ... pretty much the same damn thing.
Jones is a thriving cable access show with a hipster fan base who landed a primetime spot on a major network and instantly appealed to a broader audience without missing a beat. Basically, he’s Waynes World 2 without any sort of conflict.
More than once this winter, I’ve been asked the question of what makes Jones so effective, of how he’s producing these numbers on a nightly basis in college basketball’s most storied conference. The question may as well be, “how the fuck is he doing this?”
The only thing I can ever tell these people is that you have to watch the man at work for yourself. And not highlights or condensed games on YouTube. The Carlik Jones experience doesn’t work if its cheapened. Appreciation for the painting can only move to the next level when you’re afforded the opportunity to observe the artist at work.
No one in the country changes pace more effectively than Jones. His understanding of angles — both when it comes to finishing a drive and predicting where a missed shot is going to land — is staggering. His court vision, his awareness, and his ability to step up and make something happen at the precise moment where such an action is supremely vital is about as impressive as we’ve seen from any Cardinal in my lifetime.
Of course, there is a sympathetic aspect to this otherwise dream season for Jones. He’ll never receive the standing ovation from 23,000 home fans that he has more than earned. He didn’t get to experience the true in-game fan vitriol that’s omnipresent during the Battle of the Bluegrass. His heroics inside Cameron Indoor did nothing to make college basketball’s noisiest arena more silent than it already was.
None of this seems to matter to Jones. For the bulk of his basketball career, he’s been something of an afterthought. The kid with the rare birth defect in his skull that kept him from playing sports with his friends at a young age. The two-star recruit who couldn’t get a look from either of the major programs in his hometown. The Big South star who couldn’t possibly hack it in the ACC.
All of that led Jones here, to this moment, where he is the unquestioned leader and star for one of the biggest programs in college basketball. No one appreciates that more than the man himself.
And now, the kid who says he grew up dreaming about making his own March moment on the biggest of stages gets that chance. Even if the weeks ahead don’t play out exactly how they always have in his daydreams, Jones has solidified his place in Louisville lore forever.
All of this can be summed pretty succinctly: Thank God Carlik Jones picked Louisville.