Rick Pitino

The Granville Inn is where the diehards congregate for the final college basketball game of the season for the University of Louisville. Usually on a Saturday in March, a seat is a luxury, but this evening there are a few empty tables and barstools.

A good crowd is here but you’ve seen better; especially during what is normally the most wonderful time of the year in these parts. Where are the raucous revelers? What happened to the C-A-R-D-S chant? The sporadic cheers are half-hearted, and it’s not just because the Cardinals have missed their first 12 shots against Virginia and don’t score their first basket until 10:42 left in the first half. This feels like a wake. Everyone is mourning.

A self-imposed postseason ban sucks the joy out of March Madness.

It’s the strangest, saddest ending ever to a Louisville basketball season. Just three years after winning the national championship, the joie de vivre is gone. All because of an ongoing NCAA investigation into an alleged recruiting scandal involving a former escort saying that former Louisville staffer Andre McGee hired dancers to have sex with recruits on campus.

A Granville Inn patron who only identifies himself as Mike is enraged. He’s not the only one. Many in the Louisville fan base wish the school didn’t punish itself as a preemptive strike to prevent further NCAA sanctions.

Louisville was unranked in the preseason polls and picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference. These Cardinals surprised some by being ranked for most of the season, climbing as high as No.11 in the Associated Press poll. They also beat North Carolina in the lone meeting between the schools. That same North Carolina squad won the ACC and might be a No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Louisville finished fourth in the conference standings and would have been formidable in the NCAA tournament. According to Fivethirtyeight.com, these Cardinals are one of the best teams ever banned from the tournament.

Who knows what might have happened?

“I want to poke somebody in the face but I don’t know who,” Mike says. That’s the clean version of his take. His actual opinion is laced with expletives and he looks like he’s one missed Louisville shot away from cardiac arrest.

Many fans blame embattled school president James Ramsey. Some blame coach Rick Pitino and/or athletic director Tom Jurich. Everyone blames McGee and Katina Powell, the former escort who wrote the book “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen,” detailing the allegations.

At the Granville Inn, one younger fan isn’t as hostile as Mike. Jake Karem, a University of Louisville sophomore, is wearing a No.35 UofL jersey. That’s the number of Darrell Griffith – the greatest player in the program’s history. Karem feels bad for graduate school transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. They came to the basketball team to play for one season – to play in the NCAAs.

Their college playing careers ended Saturday.

“You want to punish the school, take away our money,” Karem said. “Don’t punish the kids. They came here to play for the tournament and they don’t get it. It’s not their fault. It’s completely uncalled for.”

The Commonwealth takes its college basketball seriously. There are seven Division I programs in the state of Kentucky and six have participated in the NCAA tournament at least once since 2011. (The outlier is partially due to a technicality. Former Division II power Northern Kentucky will be eligible for the 2017 NCAA tournament).

According to Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader, this could be the first time since 1991 that the state will only send one school – the University of Kentucky – to the tournament. If you don’t realize how much of a punch to the solar plexus that is, you’ve never lived in Kentucky.

The city of Louisville has its own distinct brand of passion. Check out the University of Louisville’s NBA-quality arena. The KFC Yum! Center, which opened in 2010, is nicer than many professional stadiums. The Cardinals have finished third in the nation in attendance the past six seasons. Syracuse, Kentucky and Louisville are the only programs to draw an average of at least 20,000 fans per home game the past five years.

Check out the ratings. The city of Louisville regularly tops the NCAA tournament viewership and ESPN’s college basketball ratings. Last year, the Wall Street Journal declared Louisville “The College Basketball Capital of the World.

All that enthusiasm is now muted. It was squelched on Feb. 5 when Ramsey announced the ban saying it was “reasonable to conclude violations have occurred in the past.” The following day a restaurant a block away from the KFC Yum! Center put up a banner which read: “Ramsey is a Coward”

“For the fans, it has been disappointment and sadness,” John Lewis of Louisville television station WDRB said. “It shows the importance of basketball in this community. Everything Ramsey had gone through before; he had the backing of UofL fans. They did a sudden 180 after the decision.”

Pitino tried to quell fan dissatisfaction by telling the public not to blame Ramsey. But you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. This season is over and the worst may be yet to come. Pitino sounds like he’s coming back but hasn’t issued any guarantees. NCAA could hand down severe penalties.

Ramsey, who has had a number of missteps recently, could be gone too.

This is the most uncertain time in the school’s sports history. A sex scandal has rocked Louisville and it may take a while before everything is known and made public. NCAA investigations are methodically slow.

“A lot of people didn’t believe this happened until the ban,” former Louisville star and NBA player Lancaster Gordon said. “But if you see something and you know that it’s wrong, it has to be corrected.”

Selection Sunday is this weekend and soon “One Shining Moment” will be playing. Louisville fans might as well be listening to “The End” by The Doors.

Back at the Granville Inn, the Cardinals’ performance at Virginia doesn’t get any better. A 68-46 clunker officially wraps up the season.

Near the end of the bar, a morose Louisville fan is nursing his bourbon and coke. When Louisville plays, the special on Jim Beam is $3.50 so at least he can drink at a $1 discount. The game ends around 10:30 p.m. but he still has time to drown his sorrows.

Closing time is 4:00 a.m.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.