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Louisville promised its 2 best players 1 shot at the NCAA Tournament, then took it away from them

Damion Lee and Trey Lewis came to Louisville for one opportunity to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals' self-imposed postseason ban ensures they won't get there.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville will not play in the 2016 NCAA Tournament after the team has self-imposed a postseason ban because of the sex scandal that's surrounded the team for the past few months. From the sounds of it, Louisville didn't think a postseason ban was an option until Thursday, when an independent investigator and the NCAA confirmed violations had been committed.

It's a shame for Louisville's fans, who won't spent March cheering a good basketball team that had ACC and perhaps even national title hopes. It's a shame for the players on the team, who are certainly good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. Let's even say it's a shame for Rick Pitino, whose official claim is that he had no idea women were being paid to have sex with potential Louisville recruits.

But the people who suffer the most are Louisville's two best players, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. Neither were at Louisville during the years the scandal allegedly took place, and yet they're the two players whose punishment will be the most bitter.

Last year, Lee was the top scorer at Drexel and Lewis was the top scorer at Cleveland State. Both had graduated from their schools, but had an extra year of eligibility -- Lee because an ACL injury cost him his junior year, and Lewis because he'd sat out while transferring from Penn State to Cleveland State.

That enabled them to take advantage of the NCAA's graduate transfer rule. Neither was highly touted as a high school recruit, and both ended up at smaller schools with an uphill climb to make the NCAA Tournament. But both showed they deserved to play at high majors, and schools lined up to court them: Lee had offers from Arizona, Gonzaga, Marquette and Maryland, while Lewis had offers from Ohio State and Xavier.

But Louisville was at the front of the line. The Cardinals lost Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear and Chris Jones from last year's team, leaving them without any seniors on the roster and without most of their best players.

The players and the school had a deal here. Lee and Lewis provided much-needed experience to help Louisville be competitive in a bridge year. Louisville recruited Lee and Lewis with a potential NCAA Tournament bid as a selling point. Lee told the Baltimore Sun he was motivated by a desire to play in the NCAA Tournament, and Lewis spoke about it at ACC Media Day.

Lee and Lewis filled their end of the deal. They represented Louisville at ACC Media Days without Pitino, who didn't go because lawyers advised him to avoid going someplace where he might have to answer questions about the sex scandal. They played their hearts out for the Cardinals on the court, and are currently first and second on the team with 17.0 and 12.1 points respectively.

Louisville just made the choice not to uphold theirs. And if I were in their shoes, I'd do the same thing. If the evidence against a school is particularly bad, a self-imposed postseason ban can go a long way towards showing contrition and ensuring a less strict penalty from the NCAA. Judging from the fact that they just called off their own postseason in a year when they legitimately might have won the ACC title, I would guess that the evidence against Louisville might be particularly bad.

Maybe Louisville shouldn't have recruited Lee and Lewis, knowing this scandal existed. But nobody would expect a school to punt on its upcoming season if they didn't have firm reason to believe something might happen.

Maybe Louisville should've announced the postseason ban before the season, when Lee and Lewis still had time to transfer. But it genuinely sounds like Louisville wasn't expecting this to happen until, well, now.

Maybe Louisville should have announced a postseason ban for next season, allowing Lee and Lewis to reach the promised land this year and allowing anybody not down with a tourney-less year the opportunity to transfer. But that would be asking Louisville to intentionally hamper itself for the sake of a few of its athletes. Plus, they'd kinda just be delaying the problem.

Maybe Louisville should've just let the NCAA handle the problem. After all, this is a self-imposed punishment that actively hurts their own players. But that would run the risk that the NCAA's eventual punishment would be significantly larger than this one. And at the end of the day, that would end with the most possible players being punished for violations they had nothing to do with.

Damion Lee and Trey Lewis both fought hard to make the most out of the college athletics setup. They fought injuries and bounced out of bad situations until they finally ended up in starring roles on one of the most elite college basketball schools in the country.

But no matter what college athletes do, colleges and the NCAA still hold all the power. Louisville sold Lee and Lewis on a dream and without warning, stripped it away from them as punishment for something a person they've never met did without asking them. And yet it's not surprising, it's not uncommon and your school would probably do it in a heartbeat.