Louisville's season begins with a fresh roster but questions about a former assistant coach and a sex scandal.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Just after 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the two—and only two—members of Louisville’s contingent for ACC basketball media day made their way to a pair of small tables in a Ritz-Carlton ballroom. They had appeared at this event a combined zero times, as they had appeared in a combined zero games for the Cardinals to date. They were new at this and approached it with wide-eyed wonder.
Damion Lee snapped a picture of his nameplate, sat down and disseminated the photo to the rest of the digital universe. The graduate transfer from Drexel then looked up and to his right. He saw Trey Lewis, the graduate transfer guard from Cleveland State, with his thumbs furiously at work. Lewis could not resist a brief, excited social media interlude, either.
“Got that sensation?” Lee called over to his teammate, before needling Lewis as though he were a junkie getting a fix: “I neeeeeeeeed it.”
It was hard to miss the genuine satisfaction felt by two players spotlighted after years of relative obscurity. It was also hard not to be cynical about the entire enterprise, and that was sort of a shame. Louisville was in full view but simultaneously in the bunker all Wednesday, living a juxtaposition that will be its burden all season. After the salacious allegations that former assistant coach Andre McGee arranged sex for recruits, the Cardinals will throw up soundproof walls to muffle the clamor all year, even when they have no choice but to let people in.
That’s a pretty stressful way to make it through a day, let alone pursue an ACC championship. But here they were. Or at least here some of them were: Rick Pitino was merely a figurative presence, advised by legal counsel to skip the event. And Lee and Lewis representing the team felt like both a showcase and a strategy, given that they had been on campus for less than five months. Consider, for example, Lewis’s sincere response when he was asked what Pitino told him before the trip.
“He said, once you tell the truth, your problems immediately become part of your past,” said the 6'2" guard who averaged 16.3 points at Cleveland State last year. “The only thing he’s advised me to do is come here, be myself and tell the truth.”
It sounded great, but about that advice: What truths could Lewis tell, anyway?
Only the most convenient ones, naturally. This is to be expected for a program under siege, and it is indicative of the oppressive conditions that Louisville will endure all season. The possibility of an NCAA infractions gutshot looms; investigators were reportedly on campus this week. Beyond the safe haven of the locker room, players may find that the conversation diverts from basketball often. And the logical extension of Pitino’s absence is fairly absurd: If the Cardinals’ coach can’t answer questions in a public forum Wednesday, when can he ever?
To exist even somewhat comfortably in all this, Louisville players will have to keep their heads down, if not entirely in the sand. To hear Lewis and Lee tell it, they have enough on their plates. They don’t need to spin another one.
“Our days are consistent,” said Lee, a forward who averaged 21.4 points for Drexel last year. “Guys wake up around 8, 9, and right after that we’re busy. Guys have class, workouts, study hall, lifting, guys will get a nap in, practice will end probably around 6 every day. All we do is continue to focus on one another.”
“Our schedule is so brutal,” Lewis said. “We have to get up early, guys have class, then there’s individual workouts, then there’s study hall, then more classes, then we have practice, then there’s team dinner. There’s so much that’s going on that we don’t even have time to worry about those things.”
At different tables, at different times, they both delivered essentially the same answer. It smacked of scripting, which was too bad. A pair of players seemingly couldn’t avoid parroting lines, making them sound a little inauthentic on a day they were otherwise excited for. But then a disaster like this is bound to cause collateral damage.
They had company. At the outset of John Swofford’s question-and-answer session Wednesday, the ACC commissioner extolled the various basketball achievements of his league. At one point during the spiel, a graphic displayed on two flat screen televisions noted that the conference is home to five of the 11 winningest programs ever.
“I’m not concerned about the league’s image,” Swofford said. “I don’t like the fact that there are three investigations going on because that’s highly unusual for this conference. But I do have a great deal of confidence in each of those institutions. Issues are going to happen sometimes. We’ve got more schools than we’ve ever had before, maybe there will be a few more issues. They aren’t issues you want, they aren’t issues you welcome. But we can’t allow that to undermine the cornerstones of what league is all about.”
Lately that seems out of his hands. (Though, in fairness, Syracuse’s infractions occurred before it joined the league.) Swofford conceded he was stating the obvious when he said that the Louisville allegations have “absolutely no place in college athletics in any way, shape or form.” But he stopped short of indicating the league would proactively address the situation. Should the Louisville allegations prove true, you’d hope anyone serious about protecting the integrity of a league wouldn’t wait long before applying pressure for action.
For now, Swofford said, it’s fairest to just wait and see.
That is a familiar stance for the Cardinals, at any rate. Lee and Lewis join a roster with five freshmen and without anyone who averaged more than 4.1 points per game last season. Louisville could play small with Lee and 6'7" freshman Deng Adel at the forward slots, or it could supersize—the Cardinals have six available players who stand 6'9" or taller. Practices are effectively daily lineup experiments.
But the Louisville players say they have a good base of camaraderie, despite all the new parts. “That’s saying a lot, for Rick Pitino to say this is one of the best teams he’s coached in 40 years, attitude-wise,” Lewis said.
Little is certain around Louisville. But there was an insistence Wednesday that this predicament is not wearing on the program’s head coach. “I haven’t seen any change in his emotions,” Lee said. Added Lewis: “If it’s affecting him, he has a really great way of hiding it. Because we can’t really tell.”
It ought to be noted that Lewis and Lee were spared rigorous interrogation on Wednesday; it felt like sympathy for the awkward position they were thrust into. While it was unfortunate that they had to field a fleet of unanswerable questions—“I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone,” said Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney, who faced the queries about the Orange’s NCAA troubles last year—it wasn’t that hard to do. By the end of the hour, Lewis was smiling. He was looking forward to it, he said. At one point he advertised his Instagram, and he later joked that the day made him feel important.
“I didn’t come here for all of this,” Lewis said, “but when you’re on a big stage, this is what you sign up for.”
No, Louisville couldn’t have picked two better representatives to send on Wednesday, however you want to interpret that. Soon, though, it would be back into the bunker for everybody, back into the cocoon of a daily routine that protects the Cardinals from the damaging forces outside of it.
They’d work to find answers that were actually within their power to find. They’d continue to learn about themselves, and what Lewis feels will be the measure of the team ultimately: How it will respond when something doesn’t go right.
At Louisville, at the moment, chances to respond are in great supply.