LOUISVILLE, Ky. – March Madness is back! And everyone here in this fundamental basketball city is furious.
The metropolitan area that annually has the highest audience in the United States for the NCAA men’s tournament is broken, embittered and devoid of basketball. Louisville had its soul crushed by a confluence of unexpected events in the days leading up to Selection Sunday, and few people fully realized it until the results were on national television at 6:37 p.m. local time.
The 68-team field was announced. And the Louisville Cardinals weren’t one of them. This was the snub that no one saw coming.
Louisville’s joy was stolen by bargain thieves and bad losses and very few quality wins and two damaging breaks in a season shortened by the pandemic and, if you want to indulge in conspiracy theories, by the athletic director of America’s most hated rival. Cardinals, who went on to chair the tournament selection committee. Kentucky’s Milquetoast Mitch Barnhart has done next to nothing to stoke the fires of rivalry during his 19-year tenure – until now. (Even if this was not his doing).
Y-Y“If you want the arsenic cherry on top of Selection Sunday cyanide ice cream, ex-trainer Rick Pitino is dancing with Cinderella Iona again.” He’s still on the run from NCAA sanctions, he’s still a good coach, and he’s less popular than ever in this city now.
Pitino’s former team was officially number 69, the first team to come out of the Big Dance. As such, the Cardinals may still have a chance to play. If a team retires at 6 p.m. Tuesday for COVID-19 reasons, Louisville gets the call from the bullpen to take their place.
While that leaves the door cracked, it’s a pretty daunting point of view. “Miserable feeling,” was the description from a staff member.
For months and months, as the bracket industry churned out its fake (but hilarious) NCAA projected fields, Louisville was in. Until recently, that didn’t really seem in doubt: The Cardinals started 9-1, finished with a record winning at the noble Atlantic Coast Conference, beat a few marks.
But upon closer inspection, there were flaws in the resume. Beating Kentucky didn’t matter, because the Wildcats were terrible. Beating Duke twice didn’t move the needle either. Seton Hall’s season dwindled, taking the helium out of that victory. A Western Kentucky overtime loss in the US Conference final deprived Louisville of another victory over an NCAA tournament team.
In the end, the Cardinals’ only victories over teams on the field were home games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. That was offset by five losses to tournament teams, two of them horrific beatings from COVID breaks, 37 to Wisconsin and 45 against North Carolina. Throw in a bad loss to Miami and a 14-point loss in the ACC tournament against the Duke team that it beat twice, and Louisville had quietly slipped into the finer reaches of the bubble.
Then the bargain thieves went to work. Georgetown won the Big East tournament on Saturday night, which (unbeknownst to the public) pushed Louisville to the last team in the tournament. And after midnight, Oregon State delivered the coup de grace by winning the Pac-12 tournament.
As the brackets were revealed, Louisville’s chances diminished. Shrewd observers kept an eye on the number 11 seeds, usually the last refuge of scoundrels in general.
Drake and Wichita State were inside, ticketed for a First Four game. Next up was Utah State, runner-up in the Mountain West Conference tournament. The ACC Syracuse team was inside, despite a 2-7 road record. And then the other First Four couple threw a battered blue blood match from Michigan State and UCLA.
The last option was the last No. 10 seed. When the TV screen showed Maryland there, Louisville was out. The subsequent kick to the stomach came in the final pair of the night: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 15 Iona.
Pitino was inside. Louisville was out. Kentucky AD was in charge of the selections. Holy melt. The city’s radio will be radioactive this week.
But these are things Mitch Barnhart didn’t impact: The Cardinals missed too many games, they had too few opportunities to improve their résumé (including two canceled matchups with Syracuse, which could have been reversed with the ACC team that got that last offer). They didn’t play well in some big places. His losses from long breaks were horrible.
Pitino is a different part of the equation. His appearance in the field of 68 is the ultimate example of the NCAA’s broken crime and punishment system: He was fired in Louisville, went into exile in Greece, returned to America, got a new job, and took his new team to the Ball. all before any sanction can be applied. (According to the NCAA sanctions matrix, you will have multiple games suspended if the charges against you continue, until midseason.)
In fact, no one has been punished by the NCAA for the scandal that erupted in September 2017. That’s grossly inept, even with a federal investigation and a pandemic factoring in.
But while Pitino continues to train without penalties, Louisville also played this year without penalties. Whatever comes in the Cardinals’ path (a likely postseason ban) won’t be felt until the 2021-22 season, if at all then. So Louisville had his Stay Out of Jail Free card to play this season, and he screwed it up.
The plot twist was that no one knew he had been ruined until the selection committee unveiled his work on live television. In a sudden flurry of parenthetical revelations, it became clear. March Madness was canceled again, in the city that loves her more than any other.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.