The Year Before the Year

Louisville Cardinals center Anas Mahmoud (14) blocks the shot of Michigan Wolverines guard Zak Irvin (21) during the second round game of the NCAA Tournament between the Michigan Wolverines and the Louisville Cardinals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. (Photo by Adam Creech)

Louisville Cardinals center Anas Mahmoud (14) blocks the shot of Michigan Wolverines guard Zak Irvin (21) during the second round game of the NCAA Tournament between the Michigan Wolverines and the Louisville Cardinals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. (Photo by Adam Creech)

When something ends, you’re allowed to admit thoughts you had but didn’t want to say out-loud while the thing was alive. So long as they’re within reason.

Now that the 2016-17 Louisville basketball season has come to an end at least a week earlier than most people expected, I think it’s okay for all of us to admit something. From some point in late January or early February on, this season took on a real “this is the year before the year” feel. The team was good, no question, but they always lost games the same way. There would be a sizable lead in the first half, a decent lead in the second half, then the Cardinals would relax, their opponent would make a run, the game would get close, and UofL would fall woefully short of making the plays in the final minute necessary to win the game.

When something like that happens early on in the season, you call it a teaching point or part of the learning process. When it’s a consistent sequence of events throughout conference play and all the way into the conference tournament, it’s both a trend and a staple of your team. The only hope that it’ll be fixed is if it happens on the fly during the NCAA tournament, and that rarely, if ever, occurs.

It didn’t occur for Louisville last Sunday. The Cardinals carried an eight-point lead over red-hot Michigan into the locker room at halftime, extended that lead to nine in the second half, watched it all slip away when the Wolverines started making shots and they stopped, and then saw their season dissolve in front of them as they couldn’t make the plays necessary to stage a full rally in the final minute.

“It’s just tough when you lose the same way in big games many times,” said sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell after the game. “We had the effort that was there. We just had to focus in when they focused in. We prepared for those crunch-time moments all the time in practice. Now that we’ve been through them on the biggest stage, it’ll definitely be something we look back on and say, ‘This is what we have to do.’”

The year before the year: The storyline was predictable well before it actually unfolded. So is the next chapter. If you listen carefully enough, you can almost hear the Louisville players already talking in March 2018 about how the pain they felt from the Michigan loss inspired them all offseason, and how it’s something they never want to feel again.

Rick Pitino figures to have a team capable of making that happen. None of Louisville’s top four scorers and only one of its top eight are going to be lost to graduation. Toss in a top 10 recruiting class that features four new contributors and you have the recipe for a team set to start next season ranked either in the top five or just outside it.

The one question mark would seem to be Mitchell. The First Team All-ACC performer talked in the moments immediately following Louisville’s loss about how he “couldn’t wait” to win a national next season, and spoke in definitive terms about his return for at least one more college season. In a radio interview on 93.9 The Ville on Monday, Pitino also stated his belief that Mitchell would be back but added that he would work out for an NBA team and could leave if he worked himself into the 13-20 range of the first round of the draft. That certainly seems like an achievable goal for a player with as much upside as Mitchell.

Regardless, Louisville will be loaded next season, and that’s a comforting week during an overly uncomfortable week for Cardinal fans. It also doesn’t take away the pain of thinking about what could have been or what should have been.

Sometimes, the “year before the year” becomes the year. Such was the case with Florida in 2005-06, when the Gators surprised the country by winning the national title as a three seed and then defending its crown as the overwhelming favorite a season later.

The hope was that this could be Louisville, a team that delivers both ahead of schedule and on its slated delivery date. That hope never materialized, and now all anyone who loves the program can do is wait. Hopefully for “the year.” VT