Louisville mask huddle

Chris Mack talks with his team during a timeout.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- By now, news of the University of Louisville men’s basketball team missing out on the 2021 NCAA Tournament has hit home — and hit hard with a fan base that wasn’t entirely prepared for it.

Nobody was. My colleague, Rick Bozich, took a look at the BracketMatrix projections, and 81 out of 90 brackets had Louisville in the field. Now, these days, experts are wrong all the time. For almost all the experts to be wrong, though, still is pretty rare.

Nonetheless, this is the situation. Louisville was the first team out, with the only shred of hope being that it could be pulled off the bench as a “replacement team” if any of the qualifying teams is sidelined by COVID-19. That has to happen by 6 p.m. Tuesday.

By virtue of being the tournament’s first replacement team Louisville would have been the No. 1 overall seed in the 16-team NIT but decided well before Selection Sunday that it would not accept a bid.

So, what now? What is the fallout of this?

In one sense, it’s worth not overreacting. This was a young team whose greatest chances for success were felled by preseason injuries to Malik Williams and Charles Minlend, and by long in-season pauses from COVID-19.

At the same time, the talent remaining on this team was better than the results it finally posted, particularly in a down year in the ACC. Heading into its regular-season finale against Virginia at home, Louisville still had a chance to finish tied for first in the ACC (in the loss column, anyway) and tied for third in the league overall with Virginia Tech.

Instead, they lose, drop a 14-point loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament and are out of the field.

Make the field and a lot of conversations being had today, on social media, talk radio and elsewhere, are completely different. But given the situation, I have six takeaways: five of them not encouraging, one of them good.

In no particular order:

1. LOUISVILLE NEEDED TO TALK. Yes, Mack scheduled a news conference for 1:30 p.m. Monday as soon as the Selection Show ended, but somebody from the university would’ve been well-served by getting out in front of this, by talking about it, by either defending the team’s season or commiserating with fans. It might seem like an empty gesture. It might make some fans even more angry. I guess there’s some truth to the notion that there’s nothing you can say in a situation like this that will help.

But Louisville is a program that aspires to national stature. It has come to expect a certain level of support from its fanbase. In this day and age, you need to engage to get that more than just on social media. There’s a spotlight that comes with that kind of program, and it should be embraced. Deal with the media is viewed by some as a necessary evil. But in this case, it’s also the primary way to engage with your fan base. Leaving them with radio silence in a tough time is not exactly engaging them.

2. THIS HURTS FROM A RETURN STANDPOINT. Ticket sales at Louisville, and everywhere else, were slumping even pre-pandemic. The school figured to take advantage of a desire for people to get back out to games once full capacity was allowed again. But you need enthusiasm to make that happen.

Selling tickets after missing the NCAA Tournament and the drain of enthusiasm that causes is not going to be an easy thing for Louisville. Getting people back downtown who hold memories of unrest down there and don’t want to deal with it — or who have gotten comfortable just sitting at home watching and developing new game-day traditions — also pose challenges.

Given those issues, you have to sell more. You need to do more with media, not less. You need to be out in the public more, not less. You need to set your visibility gauge to “high.” Those don’t necessarily seem to be things that Mack is fond of, but they become more important now.

3. LOUISVILLE PROBABLY NEEDED TO ACCEPT THE NIT BID. I hate to say this. I don’t even think they should be having the NIT, and I darn sure don’t think they should be having it in Texas. And of all years, I completely understand why teams are taking a pass on it this year. It isn’t fun and games. It’s going to Texas and staying isolated on an empty hotel floor and taking meals in your room and another bunch of disruption with no real payoff at the end.

But it’s also a chance to play basketball. And all we’ve been told since this pandemic stuff started is that players deserved opportunities to play, and everything was going to be done to ensure that.

I don’t know. You turn down an opportunity to play, and it seems counter to some of those arguments. More than that, you turn down an opportunity to leave a positive impression. You have a chance to go win basketball games, to play together, to learn how to navigate a tournament, to do something more than sit around and stew about what might’ve been.

Initially, when Louisville said it would turn down the NIT, I kind of agreed with it. The more I thought about it, and heard from fans, the more I tend to think the Cardinals should have played.

It’s worth noting, as a replacement team, Louisville will get to keep practicing. And with NIT games beginning in Texas on Wednesday, there would’ve been logistical issues in getting prepared, and travel down, and all that.

But after a season in which games kept getting taken away, to turn down a chance to play some more at least raises questions.

4. THE LOOMING CLOUD. Obviously, this situation is made more painful by not knowing when the NCAA hammer could fall from allegations still not dealt with by the NCAA infractions process. Within that is the feeling that U of L, as a repeat offender, could still see a one-year NCAA postseason ban at some point.

NCAA bans are bad enough. Not making the tournament on your own merits (or lack thereof) is even worse.

One compounds the other. There are good players at Louisville who should get the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, but who can reasonably look at the landscape and wonder about that possibility.

And what is that possibility? With Louisville involved in the new Independent Accountability Resolution Process, what is the timeline? At least one person involved in these kinds of matters told me that it might not even be resolved in time for the 2022 tournament, which pushes the uncertainty even further out.

Who knows? This much is certain. Being left out of the field this season is the last thing Louisville needed, no matter what viewpoint you take — from a basketball, program, department, financial, emotional or even reputational perspective. It’s not the end of the world, mind you. But it’s not good on multiple fronts.

5. IT’S A LOSS FOR THE CITY. Louisville needs some wins. Its downtown is struggling. You haven’t read much about the KFC Yum! Center debt crisis with the pandemic taking center stage, but it’s still there. Louisville basketball is a centerpiece of this arena. Because of that, when it struggles, the city is going to struggle.

Downtown needs the business. It needs the good vibes. It needs a rallying point. This program is one of the handful of this city’s most visible institutions. That’s a lot riding on a bunch of college kids playing basketball. More than is fair, probably. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

6. ONE GOOD THING. It’s never good to end on all those negatives. And this isn’t entirely a positive, because it hinges on some team having a COVID-19 outbreak and seeing a tournament bid it earned being lost. So, honestly, I hope it doesn’t happen. But in today’s climate, you never know.

Louisville could still wind up in this NCAA Tournament with a far better seeding than it would’ve gotten. If a team has bad luck and winds up out of the field, Louisville would fill its slot. Given a second chance, maybe the young team makes the most of that opportunity.

And even if it doesn’t, there is a good nucleus of young talent on this roster. Jae’Lyn Withers was asked to step into a significant position this season and made huge strides. Samuell Williamson is growing into his role. Mack has signed a good recruiting class.

Once Williams was injured the second time, this team’s prospects for a deep run likely took a significant hit. Still, getting to go to the NCAA Tournament was something this team believed it had earned, and would’ve benefitted these young players, who were robbed of the experience a year ago.

It could yet happen. And after a year like no other, stranger things have happened.

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