By Noah Allison–
Unlike some Division I college basketball programs, Louisville basketball isn’t accustomed to “one-and-done” players. “One-and-done” refers to student-athletes who leave school after playing basketball for just one year.
In the past, the closest thing Louisville has had to a one-and-done player was freshman Shaqquan Aaron of the 2014-15 team. Despite being a highly touted recruit, Aaron played sparring minutes throughout his freshman year. At the season’s end he transferred to USC because he wasn’t “a Louisville man” by head coach Rick Pitino’s standards.
This year, though, Louisville has a whole new breed of one-and-done players, guys who have rewritten Louisville’s perspective of what one-and-done players can be. From the moment fifth-year seniors Damion Lee and Trey Lewis arrived at Louisville there has been no doubt that they are Louisville men.
With their one-year eligibility as graduate students, Lee and Lewis came to Louisville to make this year’s youth-filled squad a competitive one, improving the outlook of this year and keeping Louisville a national contender.
“It’s one-and-done in a different option… We would have been in a total rebuilding mode this year if it wasn’t for getting those two guys,” Pitino said. “When you get two guys who have been the key component to their team and everybody is trying to stop them, that experience is invaluable.”
Lee and Lewis brought much needed experience. This year’s roster is made up of only four upperclassmen compared to 11 underclassmen. Lee and Lewis are Louisville’s only seniors.
As the season started the public was already well aware of the scandal and allegations that emerged from Katina Powell’s book, “Breaking Cardinal Rules.” With all the negative press and fear of punishment in the air, it happened that this year’s roster seemed to be the most redeemable aspect and combative force of the negativity surrounding Louisville.
One day after news of the scandal broke, U of L defeated Bellarmine University in the first scrimmage of the year. From the start of the season, even in light of the scandal, Pitino raved about the good character and positive attitude of this year’s team and his three captains.
“I think all three of these guys have great leadership ability. Trey is the ultimate positive person that gathers them all the time. Mangok (Mathiang) is the guy that keeps them laughing, keeps them loose, keeps them passionate. And then Damion, everybody looks up to. The three of them are special people, its unusual,” Pitino said.
“It’s a very unusual group. Not since ’87 have I had a team like this. As you get to know them you’ll understand that its not just chalk talk. They’re an incredible group for 2015. You don’t see this too much,” Pitino said. “They really care about each other, which is a great sign.”
Louisville has performed at a high level with a 19-6 overall record and a 8-4 record in ACC play. With noteable wins and admirable performances, this year’s team has lived up to the expectations of Pitino.
It comes to no shock that the season success has largely been due to Lee and Lewis.
Lee leads the team in scoring with 16.7 points per game. He has a team high 37 steals on the season, is second with 48 assists and is tied for third with 93 rebounds on the year.
Lewis is second on the team in scoring averaging 12.3 points per game. He is third on the team with 58 assists on the year and is third on the team with 24 steals on the year.
With Mathiang, the third captain, sidelined for all of the ACC season with an injury, Lee and Lewis have truly stepped up as the team’s two leaders. They helped the young roster grow through good times and bad.
Recently, fresh off a win over second-ranked North Carolina, Louisville’s season turned upside down.
Due to the fact “that violations had occurred in the men’s basketball program in the past,” Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich and university President James Ramsey implemented a self-imposed ban on any post-season play for U of L men’s basketball this year.
While serious repercussions from the preseason accusations were possible, the decision is still crushing. The accusations made in Powell’s book reflect a period in U of L basketball from 2010 to 2014. Lee, Lewis, and the entirety of this year’s roster played no part in the accusations that are linked to the ban of postseason play.
Many are outraged at the decision. Not because Louisville is without fault, but because this year’s roster is without fault, and more importantly, Lee and Lewis are without fault.
These two fifth-year seniors, whose careers at Louisville will end with the regular season, are now the martyrs of the alleged crimes of others. There has been one punishment handed down thus far due to the scandal, and Damion Lee and Trey Lewis are taking the brunt of the punishment.
“As I told (the players about) the penalty they all just stood up and started holding Damion and Trey as they cried,” Pitino said.
Lee and Lewis came to Louisville in hopes of an NCAA Tournament run, and now that dream is stripped of them. But, their Louisville careers are not in vain. Lee and Lewis were brought to Louisville to lead a young, bright group of basketball players through the 2015-16 season.
It turns out that their purpose wasn’t to lead the young Louisville roster through the NCAA Tournament, but to lead them through some of the toughest times in Louisville’s history. With such trying times, Louisville couldn’t have asked for two more outstanding people to lead this team on and off the court.
Through all the disappointment the two 23-year-old captains happen to keep the game and the big picture in perspective.
“I have a tattoo on my arm. It’s a scripture and it says, ‘Those who walk with the Lord may stumble, but will never fall, for the Lord holds their hand,’” Lee said.
“It’s very similar with what my Mom always tells me. ‘You’ll go through a lot of hard times in life, but not playing in the tournament isn’t as bad as losing a family member, or losing a best friend,’” Lee said. “Basketball can help reveal your character, and I think for myself I’m definitely just blessed to be surrounded with the positive people that are on this team.”
With their time at Louisville dwindling, Lewis knows what is most important at this time.
“What you want to do in these moments is enjoy it, because it’s going to be gone before I know it,” Lewis said. “Right now, I am just trying to be here with these guys and enjoy the little things. The little things are what I am looking forward to right now.”
Lee and Lewis are playing toward the end of their Louisville and college careers with each passing game. Even though there is no post-season, it doesn’t mean that the U of L basketball season is over.
With five games left this Louisville team is in the thick of a fight for a regular season ACC title, a title that could mean the world in the legacy of this 2015-16 team and the legacy of Lee and Lewis.
Cheer them on and appreciate every moment of their time at Louisville. Consider the bright spot they have been in an otherwise dark year. Lee and Lewis are two of the more special Cardinals to ever play for Louisville.
If this young team prevails in the future it will be a direct result of the guidance they’ve had this year. Lee and Lewis could go down as the most important and beloved Cardinals to never go to an NCAA Tournament. To lead a team to a championship is quite an endeavor, but to lead a team through such trying times is admirable on a whole other level.
Photo by Wade Morgen / The Louisville Cardinal