Every March, or April if we’re all fortunate enough, on the day after the final Louisville men’s basketball game of the season, I write a post on Card Chronicle titled simply “The Worst Day of the Year.”
It’s hyperbole only in the sense that there’s no way for me to know what awful things are going to happen on other days. The truth is that, as far as guaranteed depressing occurrences are concerned, being faced directly with the knowledge that it’ll be another 12 months before the dream of the mighty Cardinals cutting down the nets has a chance to be realized has always ranked right at the top (or the bottom) of every personal calendar year. It’s something I don’t really get over, or allow myself to get over, until Derby.
Last year was different.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the worst day of the 2015-16 Louisville basketball season was, but it certainly wasn’t the day the Cards played their final game of the year against Virginia. Maybe it’s hard to pinpoint because the entire stretch of time is something that everyone associated with Cardinal basketball would just as soon forget.
“To be perfectly blunt, I don’t think anything of last season,” UofL Head Coach Rick Pitino said on 93.9 The Ville. “I have blocked Andre McGee, as well as last season, out of my mind completely. I don’t ever want to think about it. It depresses me too much. Sometimes you learn from the past, sometimes you cherish it like in 2013. Other times you just want to erase it from your mind.”
Louisville fans spent most of the offseason attempting to do just that. The excitement of the Louisville baseball team’s overwhelming success and Lamar Jackson’s run to the 2016 Heisman Trophy certainly helped, but the memory of missing out on March completely still left a void. Even if that void wasn’t discussed.
Christmas in March didn’t come to the Derby City in 2016, but it’s back with a vengeance 12 months later. Louisville heads to Brooklyn this week as the No. 4 seed in the ACC Tournament, a distinction that afford them the luxury of not having to play their first game until Thursday afternoon. The Cardinals are also the No. 3 overall team in the current RPI and would appear poised to earn either a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is unveiled on Sunday.
This would be an exciting combination of facts in any year, but after what UofL fans endured in 2016, this taste of March is especially sweet. It’s not so bad for the players either, especially two of the most important ones.
For All-ACC selection Donovan Mitchell and UofL’s third leading scorer Deng Adel, both sophomores, this week’s tournament at the Barclays Center will be their first taste of college basketball’s postseason. If you want to take it a step further, junior Quentin Snider and senior Mangok Mathiang are the only two players on this relatively experienced UofL roster who have any extended experience playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“Besides Mangok and Q, there’s really not even one player who has major tournament experience,” Pitino said. “For everybody else, this is going to be their first taste of it. These guys don’t understand that when you’re the better seed, all of the fans at those games who don’t have a rooting interest are going to be rooting for that underdog. It’s going to be a learning experience for those guys, and they’re going to have to learn fast.”
A lack of tournament experience combined with Louisville’s occasional struggles on the road this season is certainly a legitimate concern. It’s not the only one. UofL’s defense uncharacteristically surrendered 90 points to Virginia Tech and 88 to Wake Forest, and its offense is still prone to the occasional drought or three. Still, it feels good to be worrying about things like these in March again.
The worry means there’s hope, and the hope means the Cardinals have more postseason basketball to play. This year, perhaps more than any other, and that’s a fact to be savored. VT