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Out — for now

CRAWFORD | Louisville, hampered by COVID-19 pauses, left out of NCAA field but is a replacement team

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Chris Mack NCAA

Chris Mack speaks with reporters before the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The start-and-stop University of Louisville men's basketball season may not get a chance to go on in the NCAA Tournament.

The Cardinals were not among the 68 teams chosen for the field when it was announced on Sunday afternoon, the third time in four years the program has been absent but also the most surprising.

But in this strange year — Louisville may not be completely out. Louisville is the No. 1 replacement team, which means that it could replace any team from a multi-bid league that is forced to withdraw from the tournament for COVID-19 reasons. Should any of those have a team withdraw, the Cardinals would fill its spot in the bracket. No replacement teams will be added after 6 p.m. Tuesday. Any team withdrawing after that would leave its game declared a "no contest."

So Louisville will wait anxiously. The program will not accept a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, according to sports information director Kenny Klein, in a decision made prior to Sunday.

Most bracketologists had Louisville among the final handful of teams in the field, but a lack of Quad 1 wins, a lack of games down the stretch because of a 19-day coronavirus pause and a pair of double-digit wins to finish the season hurt Louisville in the end.

"I had Louisville in the tournament," Seth Davis with CBS said. "I had Louisville in and Utah State out. But what strikes me is number of games. Louisville had a 19-day COVID pause in February. That's hard to come back from, and then they lost to Duke in the conference tournament. If they won that game, they would be in."

In the end, according to Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, the chair of the men's basketball selection committee, surprise tournament wins by Georgetown and Oregon State cost Louisville — as did its failure to improve its tournament resume late.

But he acknowledged that for some teams like Louisville, COVID pauses definitely played a part.

"Certainly, pauses have been a part of that conversation," Barnhart said. "What we noticed, they were under consideration deep into discussions that we had. The challenge was that you had two teams that made really remarkable tournament runs in Georgetown and Oregon State ... and as they took those spots, some people had to fall off. Unfortunately, you have an opportunity during the course of the year to get your resume where you want it to be, and at the end of the day if it’s not where you want it to be, you have a chance to go to the tournament and secure the (automatic qualifier). Two teams did that, and in the process of doing that, they took two bids away."

Louisville finished a season with two long COVID-19 pauses and a couple of significant injuries to key players with a 13-7 record, 8-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In the end, a 68-58 loss to Virginia to finish the regular season and a 70-54 setback to Duke to open the ACC Tournament may have failed to convince the committee that the team was headed the right direction. 

Louisville was sharp to begin the season, despite losing starting center Malik Williams to a knee injury and expected starter Charles Minlend to a knee issue. The Cardinals won their first four games — including a 21-point win over WKU — before the first of its two coronavirus pauses.

After an 18-day break, Louisville returned without starting point guard Carlik Jones and was hammered at Wisconsin, 85-48.

The Cardinals then reeled off five straight wins before losing three of four. On Feb. 1, they scored their best win of the season, a 74-58 victory over eventual ACC Tournament champion Georgia Tech.

Then came another pause, this one of 19 days, and another shaky return — a 99-54 setback at North Carolina. After wins over Notre Dame and Duke, the Cards lost to Virginia, 68-58, to end the regular season and to Duke, 70-56, in the ACC Tournament.

Louisville was led this season by Jones. The transfer guard was a first-team All-ACC performer who averaged 16.8 points per game, along with nearly five rebounds and 4.5 steals per contest.

David Johnson was Louisville’s No. 2 scorer at 12.6 points per game, followed by Jae’Lyn Withers at 10.1 points per contest. Losing Williams left the squad undersized, but Withers has played well in the post and Samuell Williamson has become the team’s best rebounder, averaging 8.1 per contest.

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