Because of a self-imposed postseason tournament ban, Louisville’s season will come to an end after just two more games with a home outing against Georgia Tech Tuesday night and a prime-time game at Virginia Saturday night.
No high seed awaits the Cardinals in either the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament or the NCAA tourney that follows.
Nevertheless, this team has earned a special spot in Rick Pitino’s coaching legacy.
“This is the most overachieving team I’ve coached in my life outside of Providence in ’87,” he says, “because mentally they’ve been just let down like balloon burst, and you would think right now we’re playing for a one seed how hard we’re playing.”
Pitino’s remarks came minutes after the Cardinals battled Miami on more than even terms for 36 minutes before going cold over the final four minutes and losing 73-65. Three days earlier, the Cardinals had notched a hard-earned 67-60 road win over Pittsburgh.
“We beat Pitt on the road with two walk-ons in the game, and we go on a 7-0 run,” he said. “We play a great first half here. We’re playing so hard that this is probably the team that I will appreciate the most.
“Now we won’t hang any banners, we won’t have any Final Fours. But personally, after coaching 41 years, I think I’ll look back and appreciate this team so much.”
The situation is somewhat akin to the circumstances Pitino faced his first year at Kentucky, but with key differences.
That team overachieved, he said, but the players knew going into the season that they weren’t going anywhere in March because of probation penalties resulting from violations of the previous staff.
These Cardinals were off to a 7-2 start in ACC play and had just beaten North Carolina when the word came from school administration that it was self-imposing the ban in anticipation of potential NCAA sanctions stemming from an investigation into an alleged recruiting scandal involving strippers and prostitutes.
“The Kentucky team that year was a great group of guys that certainly overachieved,” Pitino said, looking back at the Wildcats’ 1989-90 season. “But they were .500. This team is 22-7. And if we were healthy, who knows. If we had Anas and Mangok, who knows what we would be.”
The Cardinals lost Mangok Mathiang (7.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.2 blocks) to a broken foot in December and Anas Mahmoud (2.2/3.0/1.3) to an ankle injury just a couple of weeks ago, leaving Chinanu Onuaku to do the heavy lifting inside.
In fact, Pitino said, just three days before getting the word of the ban, he was showing his players video of Louisville’s recent Final Four appearances, which include the 2013 national title, to acclimate them to what is demanded of a team to mount a deep tournament run. Suddenly, he had to edit his message.
“My line was let’s get better, not bitter,” he said. “And let’s do something about it on the court.
“Most teams, here’s what they would do. They wouldn’t quit. But they would say, ‘Let me get some points tonight. We’re not going anywhere, let me get mine tonight.’ And this team doesn’t do that. That’s the thing I appreciate the most as a coach.”
The Cardinals beat Boston College the day after learning of the ban, then lost their next two at Duke and at Notre Dame. But they bounced back from those losses with wins over Syracuse and Duke in the rematch to put themselves within reach of their adjusted goal of winning the ACC’s regular-season title.
The loss to the Hurricanes, however, leaves them a game behind North Carolina and Miami in the standings. The Tar Heels and Hurricanes each are 12-4 in league play. Louisville is 11-5, tied with Virginia for third.
“They won’t get down,” Pitino said of his players. “We got two more games left. They’ll play just like they did tonight. They may get beat, but they’ll play just like they did tonight.”
Senior guard Trey Lewis, who, along with Damion Lee, came to Louisville as a graduate transfer just to have a shot at an NCAA appearance, expects that to happen.
“We have to finish off,” Lewis said. “That’s who we are as a team. We’re a team that’s been persevering all year, so we’re going to finish strong.”