Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino says that college basketball players are generally not too concerned with conference realignment. Tell them where they are playing and who they are playing against and they will take care of the rest.
But Pitino said that last year sometimes felt different. It was the Cardinals' lone season in the American Athletic Conference, and it was sandwiched between a goodbye to the Big East and a hello to the ACC.
It's not that the overall competition was especially inferior — Connecticut went on to win a national title, after all — it's just that the players could sense that it was not home. It felt so temporary because it was so temporary.
"They were in the greatest conference in all of college basketball [the Big East], and then suddenly they're in a league they weren't going to be in the following year," Pitino said in a phone interview Monday evening. "It felt like every place they went, they weren't a part of things…They didn't like where they were last year. They didn't like feeling like you're a visitor every place you go. You don't feel like you're really in the league."
But the basketball team's wait for something more permanent is over now. On Tuesday, U of L officially enters the Atlantic Coast Conference, a watershed moment for the entire athletic program. This latest move, like every move in the seemingly unending conference shuffle, was guided by the big money of big-time college football.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals' entrance into a conference with such a basketball-rich history is the most alluring aspect of this new era. Pitino said that Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Louisville are four of the top 10 programs of all-time. And now they are together. Now they are one.
Pitino recently asked Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose team joined the ACC last season, about the transition. They agree that keeping the old Big East intact would have been preferable. But they also know they are fortunate to find such a comfy landing spot amid conference chaos.
"This is going to be totally new and different," Pitino said. "'I'm intrigued by it. It's like, you don't know what to expect. You don't know what it's going to be like."
For example, Pitino said he has never seen Clemson play in person. He is looking forward to things like visiting Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, but he also knows that eventually that novelty and newness will fade, and then games against North Carolina will be the new normal, and fresh rivalries will bloom.
Given the Cardinals' prestige, this feels like the rare instance where a team is as much of a boon to its new conference as the new conferences is to the team. There's the world-class arena, the Hall of Fame coach, the recent national title, the deep history.
Pitino pointed out how the television ratings in Louisville for last week's NBA draft were the highest of any city in the country—though he acknowledged that Kentucky fans played a large role in that figure, too.
"Tobacco Road is very, very good," Pitino said, "but I don't think anything can beat the city of Louisville in terms of basketball popularity."
With a returning core that includes Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear and Chris Jones, the Cardinals appear well-positioned to take a spot in the league's upper tier right away.
During the AAC stopover, fans were thirsty to see better competition in all sports. That won't be an issue any longer, but wins probably won't flow as freely now, and everyone likes wins.
Of course, when those basketball victories do come against Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse, they will probably seem even sweeter.
"Our fans are going to see the best competition they've seen here," Pitino said.