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March 14, 2006

A season late, a basket short

U of L can retire its dancin’ shoes for another yearSometimes writing assignments go awry.Imagine it’s Good Friday, April 1865. You’re an aspiring theater critic for some Washington gazette. Your assignment is to review a romantic comedy, “My American Cousin,” at Ford Theater. Curtain’s up, a shot rings out, some guy jumps from a balcony. All of a sudden the staging of romantic interludes gives way to entirely different reportage.Or, say, you are a cub reporter for a New Jersey weekly in ’37. You are looking for a new angle on the overbearing German presence in Europe. You hop a ride to Lakehurst to see if you might interview some of the passengers on the swastika-festooned dirigible Hindenburg arriving that day. Next thing you know the sky’s a fireball, people are running for their lives and that Hitler guy doesn’t seem important for the moment.Last example. You’re a talking head for Entertainment Tonight, assigned to interview Brad and Jennifer. Instead he shows up with a fresh tatt, Angelina and her kid in tow.Catastrophes happen. Surprise is inevitable. Writers adapt. Hopefully.Here it is the grandest time of year in Hoopsylvania and the assignment for this NCAA tournament coverage package is to set the stage for U of L’s post-season. Not an onerous assignment on its face.Welcome to the morning after.Bleariness reigns.In Louisville’s Big East tournament opener — a game that the red and black absolutely had to win to even earn a chew of Double Bubble — league officials started the game while the Cards were caught in a Manhattan traffic jam. Rick Pitino’s enigmas showed up 8 minutes, 40 seconds after tip-off. Pitt had already scored 16 points.A bit later, anxious and increasingly angry U of L fans were rubbing their eyes. The tally with the first stanza almost complete: Beloved But Befuddled Cards 5, Panthers 33. Ouch!A belated rally that fell inevitably short only increased the confusion that has enshrouded this season’s Cardinals from the moment they were nip and tuck to beat Bellarmine in the exhibition opener.I sit here the morning after, striving to meet deadline, struggling to make sense of the strangest season in memory.Bottom line: There will be no meaningful post-season for the Cards. By the time you read this, The Rick should have decided that enough is enough, allowed his charges to head home for spring break, while he heads to his manse in sunny Florida for some golf.Or, regrettably, U of L may have already played — possibly won or probably lost — a tilt in the National Invitation Tournament. It is of little consequence.Your daddy’s NIT no longer exists. In ’56, when Louisville won the then-showcase event, the field was full of Top-20 teams. That’s yesterday’s yellowed papers. The NCAA now runs the NIT, the last gasp for also-rans, a meaningless quest so one school’s fans can boast, “We’re No. 66.”The NCAA hierarchy would have college hoops fans believe it’s a new dawn for the old horse. Reality is that the NIT is nothing more than basketball’s equivalent of the Poulan Weedeater Independence Bowl. Big East No. 11 v. Pac 10 No. 6. And without the trip to bucolic Shreveport, to add insult to injury. Unless your team draws Centenary in the first round and your home venue is otherwise hosting a lawn tractor conclave.A year after a scintillating run to the Final Four, U of L is off the radar.Temporarily, says tradition.Mixed in with the Cardinals’ four national titles since ’48 (NCAA twice, NIT, NAIB) are some desultory post-seasons. Wes Unseld, the school’s most dominating player ever, won only a single post-season game. And that was truly meaningless, a regional consolation match against Kansas. Louisville’s second “great” recruiting class — the Price/Bacon bunch — muddled through the post-season for several years. They lost first-rounders in the NCAA to Oklahoma and NIT to Providence, before zipping to the Final Four as seniors.U of L finished this regular season with an 18-12 mark. Seriously disappointing. Truly mediocre.The ’58-59 team finished its regular season 16-10. Yet that was enough to get them to the dance before it was the Big Dance. They proved worthy, besting No. 2 Kentucky and No. 7 Michigan State to get to the Final Four.Such tradition is scant consolation in the era of RPI, bracketology and mealy-mouthed, color-coordinated Digger.Boss, The Truth: There’s no meaningful post-season for Louisville’s Cardinals this year.Period. End of story.