The Return of Christmas in March

Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino yells instructions to his team during the game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Louisville Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center. (Photo by Adam Creech)

Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino yells instructions to his team during the game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Louisville Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center.
(Photo by Adam Creech)

Louisville had missed out on the postseason before 2016. The Cards didn’t play in the big dance in either of the years immediately before or after winning the 1986 national championship. They missed out on March Madness and had to watch a Kentucky team they had beaten cut down the nets in 1997, they had even not heard their names called on Selection Sunday twice under Rick Pitino, both in his first season of 2001-02, and in 2005-06.

I think everyone can agree that 12 months ago, watching an NCAA tournament sans Louisville felt much different than it had in years past. For the same reason, watching the Cardinals play in the tournament a year later is also going to feel like something of an original experience.

Earning a No. 2 seed when the common thought was that you were going to be a No. 3? Cool. Getting to play your first two games of the tournament close by in Indianapolis? Awesome. Getting what appears to be a somewhat manageable draw? Swell.

All of this minutiae that would have Louisville fans howling in past seasons has taken a back seat to the mere fact that the Cardinals are simply playing in the tournament again. Christmas in March has returned to the Derby City a year after flying right over it, and that makes the opening of every single present that much more of a rewarding experience than it would have been otherwise.

This sort of talk might seem crazy to an outsider, but there’s little about Louisville’s relationship with college basketball that makes much sense to the rest of the country.

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal named Louisville as the unofficial “college basketball capital of the world.” The title wasn’t assigned because of the Cardinals’ overwhelming success in recent seasons under Pitino, it was given because Louisvillians watch more hoops than any other city in America … by a lot.

Regular season college basketball games on ESPN averaged a 5.5 rating in Louisville this season, which means that an average of 5.5 percent of the city’s households are watching college hoops on “the worldwide leader in sports” anytime it is airing a game. For a sport with dwindling attendance numbers and television audiences across the country, and whose product has been referred to as “unwatchable” a number of times this season, Louisville remains both a rock and an outlier.

The next largest market for college basketball viewing? Raleigh-Durham, which finished with a 2.4. Only three other cities — Kansas City, Indianapolis and Greensboro — finished with a 2.0 or better. Basically, Louisvillians will obviously support their local teams, but they also care more about college basketball in general than any other place on the planet.

We love the game 12 months out of the year, every year, but we really love it in March, in large part because it lays claim to the best postseason in American sports. Regardless of what you’ve achieved or haven’t achieved over the course of the previous four months, you get the opportunity to play until you lose. In that way, it’s easy to make the case that college basketball is the most Democratic sport that America boasts.

This time of year is so special in the city because it represents the endless possibilities of the weeks ahead. The bracket has been filled in with 68 names, but it’s still blank outside of the first round games. The thought of being able to write “Louisville” five more times between now and the first Monday of April is what drives the excitement of this moment.

Just a year after having to endure the harsh reality of one of the most negative sagas to ever affect any Louisville sport, Cardinal basketball is dancing again. No one knows what the weeks ahead hold. It could be disappointment, it could be merely meeting expectations, or it could be the ultimate redemption story for all who are still feeling the lasting impact of 2016. Dreaming about the possibilities is the beauty of March, and despite the unseasonal weather, March is beautiful again in Louisville. VT