This time last year, the Louisville Cardinals were gearing up to host No. 2 and eventual National Runner-Up North Carolina. A win over the Tarheels would’ve been the signature win that team needed. They had talent, leadership, and were widely considered as one of the most enjoyable Louisville teams to watch in recent memory. All they lacked was a marquee win.
It started with an aggressive drive capped off by a thunderous one-handed slam from senior grad-student transfer and crowd favorite Damion Lee. He’d finish with a game-high 24 points, and would lead the Cardinals to their recognition-earning win. The city, fans, and team expressed their elation all night and into the next morning. Then, everything changed.
The next morning started with talks of March and how far the team could go. Those talks came to an abrupt halt when news of a spontaneous press conference spread throughout the city. No one could’ve imagined the devastation that came with the news, there would be no postseason due to a self-imposed ban. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, who had only been Cardinals for less than a year, who both had dreams of playing in their first NCAA tournament, who had nothing to do with the scandal that tore apart their hard work in building that team into a contender, they both saw their goals put out of reach for reasons they did not deserve. However, they never questioned their decision to play their last season at Louisville, they didn’t throw in the towel on a doomed season, instead, they taught the young guys, they led by example, and most importantly they showed the nation what it means to be a Louisville man in a time when everyone formed their own foundationless opinions. For all those things, the city, the fans, and this year’s team will be forever indebted to Damion and Trey.
Fast forward to today, the same players Damion and Trey served as mentors for, are leading one of the nation’s hottest and scariest teams. Sophomore Donovan Mitchell is looking like an NBA lottery pick, Anas Mahmoud is playing an elite level of defense, Deng Adel is resurging alongside his sophomore companion, Mangok is on the best stretch of his career after being replaced in the starting lineup by Mahmoud, Q stepped up against UK after 2 years of seemingly absent play against the in-state rival, and the team continues to respond to adversity, doubts, and negative criticisms with class, optimism, and blowouts-dominant, ACC-record breaking blowouts.
There isn’t a day that you can’t find someone bringing up the scandal. That will be a dark cloud hovering over the program for years to come, but this team continues to persevere. Despite the ridiculously good offensive performances lately (without starting point guard Quentin Snider and back up Tony Hicks), coupled with the stifling signature Rick Pitino defense, there are still analysts, fans, and rivals doubting the team’s offensive capability, consistency, and overall caliber. Never mind Louisville beat UK this season, there are still people claiming the Wildcats are a better team (not sure how that works, Lunardi). Even with the best defense in the nation, being top-5 in RPI, KenPom and BPI, still doubters remain. We’re used to this as fans, “wait until March” has become a saying even I’m tired of reiterating. But the team this year didn’t want to wait until March, they’ve made statement after statement, suffered a few tough losses, but never lost faith (even when some fans did). Against all the pessimism surrounding the program, Pitino, and the team’s potential, the Cards continue to prove the doubters wrong.
You see, resilience is a powerful thing, most of this team suffered through hard times that the vast majority of collegiate basketball players have never and will never experience. We as fans shared in their disappointment and heartache, but as distraught as we were, we will never understand the pain those young men went through, all for someone else’s mistakes. But as the saying goes, “it’s not how hard you get hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”.
This team has seen obstacles that no one in this year’s realm of college basketball has seen. It’s an easy thing to give up, especially when the majority of the viewers are rooting against you. As a wise man once told me, “in order to go from being good to being great, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Last year’s team was good, but it wasn’t the chance of a national title that made the ban so excruciating. It was the players that embraced our city as their own, never mind it was only for a short while, that time they spent here was severely elongated by the insurmountable weight bestowed on their backs for past mistakes they had no responsibility for. To Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, thank you for the time you spent in our city, thank you for the way you handled a situation you unknowingly and unfairly adopted as your own, and now, thank you for mentoring, uplifting, and creating one of the most feared basketball teams in the nation. This year is for you, but I’m sure you already know that.
We have a special team on our hands, CardNation. As each game passes, it appears more and more likely to be Donovan Mitchell’s last year in a Louisville uniform. Quentin Snider hasn’t played in 4 games, a stretch that saw the Cards go 3-1 with wins by 32 over Clemson, 55 on the road over Pittsburgh, and 25 over NC State. In a year where the ACC has been nothing short of chaotic, the Cards are beginning to establish themselves as the team to beat. At 6-3 in the conference, Louisville sits one game behind UNC for 1st place in the nation’s best basketball conference, the ACC. The Cards control their destiny with 9 games remaining. Q should be back by Virginia, Donovan doesn’t appear to be stoppable, and the defensive jigsaw puzzle Rick Pitino has assembled seems to be impossible to crack. For all these things, this team is destined for success. It’s always darkest before the dawn, regardless of the dark times this team has seen, they continue to rise up and shine through. No more talk of next year, the time is now.