The perspective of this reporter is that the Louisville Basketball season begins in October, when the weather is still warm and Football season is in full swing at Basketball’s Media Day. There is an abundance of hope and happiness that basketball season is here and will be with us for the next 6 months. There is the team picture, interviews on the Yum! Center practice floor, and words from Rick Pitino about the new players and how he plans on creating a team worthy of a run in March.
Historic & common teams alike will begin this way…..only one team will finish on the floor under an umbrella of confetti, with nets around the player’s necks and the overall euphoria that watching One Shining Moment on the floor as champions brings.
A harsh reality is that the rest of the 350 College Basketball programs finish in a locker room. It’s quiet. Seniors with the sudden realization that the ride is over. The jersey that they poured their blood & sweat into is all of the sudden covered in tears…and it’s an unfamiliar feeling for these student-athletes. Basketball (and every sport is this way) has been a huge part of these athletes lives even prior to arriving at college.
Numerous rides to practice from friends, family, and loved ones. The various coaches, gyms, programs, AAU, Middle & High School teams. Innumerable teammates. All that these athletes have cherished and built their lives around is abruptly in the balance…..”What will I do now?”
Knowing this causes a stirring scene in an NCAA Tournament locker room. Like the one in Syracuse last night. Voices are low, heads are down, tears fall between words from kids trying to explain the game & their careers to reporters, but their hearts & minds are elsewhere. A big part of their world just ended. But nothing in the world beats a WINNING NCAA Tournament locker room and somehow those moments make the abrupt emotions at the finish bearable.
Year by year this happens all over the country. And for each of the past 3 seasons, I’ve made it a point to go to the players expected to depart in the final locker room and say, “Thank You For Representing Our School. You made us proud.” Last night, that moment was the only time I saw Montrezl Harrell lift his head, and the public persona that the fans see on the floor don’t see the appreciation Trez has for the praise & admiration of the fans, how conscientious of a person Harrell is. Terry Rozier, already crying and always a professional simply shook my hand and got out “Thank you, I appreciate it.” Wayne Blackshear was steady, he may have been shaky on the podium 5 minutes earlier but now Wayne was back to being Wayne…..EVEN….UNFLAPPABLE.
One thing Rick Pitino said this week was that this run of 4 Straight Sweet 16s, 3 Elite Eights, 2 Final Fours, and a National Championship has raised the ‘Standard of Excellence’ within the Cardinal Basketball program. And he’s right. The program is now beyond the stretch that it endured between 1998-2004 where the Cards did not reach the Sweet 16. 7 seasons without reaching the 2nd weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Now, Louisville has been to the ELITE EIGHT in 5 of the past 8 seasons and the Sweet 16 in 6 of the past 8 seasons. The ‘Standard of Excellence’ has indeed been raised.
Unbelievable. That’s one way to describe the run of 2014-15 season. Louisville lost its senior point guard in the final month of the season and had unreal play from freshman Quentin Snider in the NCAA Tournament. For the season, Cardinal Basketball didn’t allow an opponent to score over 77 points…the 1st time since 1949. No one thought this team could survive to the Elite 8, let alone be a single Free Throw from the Final Four.
Winning the 2015 East Regional Final would have been icing over cherries over icing over cherries on the celebratory and overflowing cake of success Louisville Basketball has enjoyed during Wayne Blackshear’s tenure. A Free Throw or a Block/Foul shy of 3 Final Fours. It wasn’t a road without difficulty….but nothing worthwhile ever is.
And now we are left with the memories. In 2012, losing 5 of 7 in January, and 4 of the last 6 before the post-season. Putting on the Infrared. A Big East Championship. Karl Hess technicals. The Final Four in New Orleans. In 2013, losing 3 in a row in January, losing a 5 Overtime Heartbreaker, reeling off 16 in a row where Montrezl Harrell saved the day in Madison Square Garden for another Big East Championship, and then later where he would blow the roof off of the Georgia Dome for the National Championship. 2014, the Cards steamrolled the eventual National Champion on three different occasions, won another conference title, and bowed out in the Sweet 16. Finally, now in 2015 the Cards improbable run was powered by the perseverance of Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear, and Montrezl Harrell. They refused to allow this roster’s limitations stunt this season’s outcome. ELITE 8.
Years go by, and Louisville Basketball carries on. The stories of this group and era will now join a brotherhood of Cardinal legends. Peyton Siva, Darrell Griffith, DeJuan Wheat, Charlie Tyra, Derek Smith, Billy Thompson, Wes Unseld……we could go on like this for days. But the chapters of this group are now complete and they will join the distinguished alumni of the University of Louisville having added to the program’s legacy. The city, region, and this school will never forget.
Next season is another thing and Cardinal fans will assuredly go through the beautiful agony of watching a team develop, fall in love, get frustrated, and ultimately take so much pride in the product that takes the floor in March…for the name on the front: LOUISVILLE.
Every Louisville Fan across the globe should give a hearty tip of the cap to this group. They’ve given us everything they had, accomplished more than we’ve ever dreamed. And I hope everyone that throws that “L” up will join me and thank this group for representing our school and making us proud. Louisville First, Cards Forever.