The action Louisville took Friday, self-imposing a postseason ban, is hardly unprecedented. This, in fact, seems to be the time of year for it. It was, after all, just one year plus a day ago that Syracuse did the exact thing, cutting out its postseason legs on Feb. 4, 2015.
But this is not the same thing, not by a long shot. For starters, Syracuse withheld itself from a postseason it wasn't going to qualify for, at least not a postseason that included the letters N-C-A-A.
Louisville is not just on track to make the tourney. With a little more than a month to go before Selection Sunday, the Cardinals were streaking toward a high seed (Bracketology had them as a No. 5 seed before they beat No. 2 North Carolina) and a possible long run through March.
It's even more than that. By the time Syracuse decided to self-inflict its wounds, the Orange already had appeared before the Committee on Infractions. Jim Boeheim and others had pleaded their case and in just a month, would receive the NCAA's final verdict and penalties.
Though Louisville would not reveal where it was in the investigative process, the Cardinals are nowhere near the finish line. As far as we know, the school has yet to receive a notice of allegations, and it most definitely has not appeared before the COI.
Considering the NCAA wheels of justice tend to move with the alacrity of a turtle carrying a piano through quicksand, that means we are months from a conclusion.
Yet according to school president Dr. James Ramsey, the school received an update from the NCAA and its own investigative committee Thursday, and by just a little past lunchtime Friday, announced a seasonal death penalty. The Cardinals' 2015-16 season will come to a close on March 5 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Which can only mean one thing.
As bad as Friday might seem to the Cardinals' faithful, things could get even uglier.
Unless Ramsey, who insists both Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich have not been privy to updates on the investigation, is more impetuous than his head coach, has a really nice timeshare he wants to get a jump on this spring, or wants to give his Hall of Fame coach reason to quit, the only reason he would make such a harsh decision is because he felt like he had no choice; that whatever the NCAA has found is both solidly proven and incredibly damaging. This is more than throwing oneself at the mercy of the court; this is admitting that something ugly, unseemly, embarrassing and damaging happened.
In other words, Katina Powell's book doesn't belong on the fiction shelves.
There is simply no other reason to do this now instead of say, anytime after 11:30 p.m. on April 4, the day of the national championship game. Even if Louisville went through the NCAA express lane, the folks in Indy wouldn't render any punishments before this season ended.
"We looked at what was the appropriate action to take,'' Louisville's lawyer, Chuck Smrt said. "This is a very significant action for the institution to take when the case has not been concluded.''
The significance is always felt most harshly by the players. They are rarely the culprits and yet always the ones asked to serve the sentence, an unfair exchange even more striking with this Louisville team. The Cards are who they are because of two fifth-year graduate transfers, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. Both came to Louisville because they wanted to see how the big boys lived, Lee transferring in from Drexel and Lewis from Cleveland State.
Certainly the allure of improving their own post-college stock was a big draw, but so was playing in the NCAA tournament. Neither had before.
And now they never will. There will be no Selection Sunday drama, no hope of making a cut in the "One Shining Moment" reel, no more imagining how long the Madness of March might stretch. There will be a buzzer at Virginia, a flight home, and then nothing.
I just spoke to Lee on Thursday. He's got a mixtape in the works, was planning to drop the first song next week and hopefully get the whole collection out on SoundCloud right in time for the tourney. He has a song planned about his team, about his newly adopted city of Louisville, Kentucky, about his journey. He was not just content; he was giddy.
"I definitely wish I had more time here, but I really can't complain,'' he said. "This is perfect timing. I've got a few months left of the college basketball season and I'm going to enjoy every moment.''
Now he has one month.
Players are rarely considered when NCAA punishment is doled out. Still, it strains even the most cynical imagination to believe that anyone, even the worst autocratic, bureaucratic talking head of a university president, would knowingly and unnecessarily punish these two guys -- players who not only play good basketball but are by all accounts good and universally adored citizens -- unless it absolutely had to be done.
So if this had to be done, what could be next? That's the million-dollar question wrapped in that double-top-secret file that Ramsey and Smrt have. What has the NCAA corroborated, and how bad is it? Will Pitino be suspended, and if so, for how long? Scholarship reductions? Recruiting limitations? What else could happen?
Instead of wondering about potential seeds and March matchups, those will be the questions consuming the Cards now.
Since October, Pitino has told anyone who's asked how much he loves this team, comparing these Cardinals to his beloved 1987 Providence Final Four squad. He also privately told people just how good he thought they could be -- scary good, Final Four good.
And when the Cards rebounded from an ugly loss to Virginia to soundly beat North Carolina, the coach's preseason prophecy seemed possible. That was Monday, back when the future looked so bright.
And now just four days and one unprecedented action later, the Cardinals not only don't have a future to look forward to, they have to worry about what could come next.