On the morning of Feb. 5, 2016, the University of Louisville men’s basketball program was seemingly in a great spot. The Cards were 18-4 and in second place in the ACC. Earlier that week, Louisville had beaten North Carolina at home. The same UNC team that would go on to win the ACC outright, earn a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, and come within a few seconds of a national championship, losing at the buzzer by three points to Villanova.
Louisville had the look of a team that could make some serious noise in March. They were ranked 19th in the AP poll. Ken Pomeroy had them 8th by his metrics. The Cards were led by two high profile grad transfers in Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. A promising freshman class that included Donovan Mitchell, Ray Spalding, and Deng Adel had really started contributing. It was a team with depth and experience coming off its program’s best four-year stretch since the early 1980s. All of that changed on February 5.
The University announced that it was imposing a postseason ban on its own men’s basketball program for the 2015-2016 season. By now you probably know why. Prior to the season, reports surfaced that a woman named Katina Powell claimed that she and other escorts were paid thousands of dollars in exchange for stripping and having sex with both players and recruits from 2010-2014. While the NCAA was only investigating a few thousand dollars worth of impermissible benefits, it was a case with no precedence at all. No one knew for sure how the NCAA was going to address the allegations.
The thought behind self-imposing a postseason ban was that the program would admit wrongdoing and get ahead of any potential punishment. It turns out that it probably did more harm than good. Louisville still got stripped of its 2013 national championship. Altogether, the NCAA vacated 123 wins that took place from 2010-2014.
All of that was bad, but to make matters worse, the program found themselves in trouble just 20 months later when the FBI released a massive report that included the Louisville men’s basketball program. This time, they were accused of conspiring with Adidas to pay the family of 5-star recruit Brian Bowen $100,000 in exchange for his commitment. Head Coach Rick Pitino and Athletic Director Tom Jurich were eventually fired and the program faced even more sanctions from the NCAA. As of February 2021, we still do not know exactly what the punishment will be.
In the five years since the self-imposed postseason ban, there has been an undeniable cloud over the men’s basketball program at the University of Louisville. In the four years prior to 2016, the Cards had as much success as anyone in college basketball. From 2012-2015, Louisville won two conference titles and three conference tournaments. It made the Sweet 16 every year, played in three Elite Eights, reached two Final Fours, and won a national championship.
Louisville is among the all-time storied programs in the sport. A fanbase with already high expectations had become a bit spoiled. In the five years since 2016, the program has looked quite different. Louisville has had a decent level of regular season success, but the postseason accomplishments have not been there. Since 2015, the men’s basketball program has played in just three NCAA tournament games. It has one win, a first round victory over Jacksonville State in 2017.
Photo Courtesy of Travel Bender
Naturally, attendance numbers have dropped. For years the KFC Yum! Center averaged over 21,000 fans at home games. In 2019-20, Louisville averaged 16,658 fans at the Yum Center. That was still good for 7th in the nation, but it is a huge drop from the perennial top-3 finishes we saw in years prior.
Ultimately, the Louisville men’s basketball program is much bigger than any 5-year stretch of bad fortune. It is a top-10 program of all time; arguably 6th or 7th. The NCAA shadow is very much still looming. The program cannot fully move on until it receives the final ruling regarding the 2017 case. Louisville already has the resources to bounce back from any sort of punishment. The fact that the Cards have remained relevant is a testament to the strength of the program as a whole.
Photo Courtesy of Adam Creech/Louisville Athletics
The current era of Louisville men’s basketball will undoubtedly be defined by the legal troubles and the resulting staff turnover. It is one that has created a overwhelmingly cynical fanbase. A group of people who were spoiled by a decade’s worth of perennial success have now been conditioned to expect the worst. If you have been paying attention, you know that Louisville still has some of the most passionate fans in the nation. The past five years have definitely been hard, but I can still see a future that resembles the years prior to 2016.
The good news? Cardinal fans can cheer on the current team without fear of any future punishment. If we learned anything from 2016, it is that the program should never again self impose a ban, especially mid-season. Time will tell if the 2021 season will be one worth it.
Not too long go, Louisville had an overall hopeful men’s basketball program. Of course, winning games can expedite the process of moving on. The past five years have humbled us in a way that I think might be appreciated in the future. When Louisville has the chance to fully move forward, and I think it will, the program as a whole will be much better for experiencing this. The success will be that much sweeter, and the past few years will prove to be nothing more than a small blip on the radar for our tradition rich Louisville men’s basketball program.