It’s difficult, and not wise really, to talk about this specific ’98-’99 campaign, without providing context.
Finishing with a record of 12-20, the season before was not only the first losing one of beloved Hall of Famer Denny Crum’s career, it was the first for U of L since the Cards went 7-10 in ’41-’42.
How much did we love the graphic the networks would put on the screen during every national telecast, “Louisville has had 56 consecutive winning seasons.” A matter of pride had been shattered.
After two more seasons, including another 12-19 clunker in ’00-’01, the two-time national champion mentor, who at the top of his game was as good as any who ever coached, would be gone, becoming an ambassador for the university, and giving his time and lending his stature to many charities in the community.
But before that, something not so good was happening to U of L hoops, and nobody really knew exactly what it was.
There are lots of theories.
One is that Crum never adjusted to the three point shot. Another is that health issues adversely affected his b-ball acumen.
Many point to his assistants beyond lifer Jerry Jones, those in charge of assessing high school talent, and getting the good ones to matriculate on the Belknap Campus. Bill Olsen knew how to find gems and coach ’em up. But he was elevated to AD after the ’80 title.
Wade Houston did the same, and the Red & Black Nation was salivating in advance of son Allan’s presence as a Cardinal. Until Tennessee swooped in for Papa, and son followed him to Rocky Top, losses which for many of the faithful sucked the air out of Cardinal hoops.
According to this line of thought, charlatan assistant Larry Gay was a prime mover of the Cards downward spiral.
By ’98-’99, the Cards were culling the Juco ranks, and coming up essentially empty. That squad “featured” Dion Edward and Tobiah Hopper, neither of which is ever mentioned when chatting about Cardinal all-timers. During one primary recruiting weekend, U of L hosted two more second tier Jucos and Brandon Bender.
I distinctly recall a press conference when Denny talked up mediocre reserve Troy McKinley, saying something like, “He’s a great practice player, I just can’t figure out why he doesn’t seem to perform that way in games.”
The halcyon days were over. Unfortunately Denny Crum’s coaching career ended not with a bang but a whimper.
The highlight of that losing ’97-’98 season was an inexplicable 79-76 victory over eventual national champion, arch rival Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
Then there was a rerun. The Wildcats were greeted at Freedom Hall this campaign with a sign that read, “U of L Defending State Champs.” The Cardinals pulled off the trick again in ’98, with a nine point W over Tubby Smith’s Wildcats, causing considerable consternation in the BBN.
The game featured a couple of brouhahas between Cardinal Nate Johnson and Jamal Magliore. And a handrailing in the stands gave way, causing a few injuries to fans.
The other “highlight” of the 19-11 season was Selection Sunday, when the Cards were tabbed to play Dana Altman-coached Creighton in Orlando in the South Regional.
But the Johnson-Marques Maybin-Tony Williams-Alex Sanders-Cameron Murray squad, which never really got it together, was one and done.
(Personal note: I remember a couple of things about that trip, besides U of L’s loss. Then Washington Post writer Michael Wilbon regaled a few of us in the media room with Lefty Dreisell stories. And U of L’s loss meant the traveling party returned the day after the game, denying me a trip to Disney World.)
Other than the UK victory, the Cardinals went ofer the Top 20 that year, falling to #7 North Carolina, #13 Michigan State, Cincy twice when they were ranked #5 and #9, and #13 UCLA. U of L lost 2of 3 to end the regular campaign, and came up short to Charlotte in the C-USA tourney final.
The Bluejays put an appropriate end to a mediocre Cardinal campaign.
The future would turn out to be bright, but it took awhile.
(Sources: My memory. U of L Basketball Media Guide. Ashley McGeachy, Courier-Journal.)