ACC media day: With no Rick Pitino, Louisville players left facing the heat

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Trey Lewis and Damion Lee, Louisville’s two graduate transfers, have yet to play an official game with the Cardinals’ logo on their chest, yet on Wednesday they were the only mouthpiece at ACC media day for a program in the middle of one of the most shocking scandals in recent memory in college sports.

Lewis and Lee, to their credit, handled the situation like champs. Both players were calm and composed, taking question after question about the Louisville sex scandal — even though media were instructed that the players would only be ready for “basketball” questions — and offering their best answers.

Rick Pitino wasn’t at the ACC’s media day, taking himself out of the festivities because he didn’t want to distract from the event. His absence created a losing situation for Lewis and Lee, as an entire league’s worth of media surrounded the Louisville table looking for any nuggets related to the scandal after an ex-Louisville staffer was accused of paying escorts to have sex with recruits.

“It doesn’t involve us, so I’m not really worried about it,” Lewis said. “Plus, I can’t really speak on it. I came here to talk some basketball and have some fun, and so far I have.”

Lewis’ attitude, even after answering question after question that “wasn’t related to the scandal” (but totally was), was unwavering. Considering that he will be one of the most important players on this year’s Louisville team, that kind of poise is a good sign for the Cardinals on the court.

Lewis did say that Rick Pitino hasn’t shown any signs of being caught up with the ongoing investigation, and offered up some lessons that Pitino has shared with the team about facing these challenges, but not much else in terms of news related to the ongoing investigation.

In the ACC, off-court drama has become the norm for the league. If Lewis and Lee need any advice on how to handle these outside pressures or distractions, North Carolina and Syracuse players were a bounce pass away and willing to offer words of encouragement.

“I would just tell them the attention that they’re getting, whether it’s actually for them or the shenanigans going on over there, I would just say try to flip it, use the attention that you’re getting to maybe put your own message out there, whether it’s positive or whatever you’ve got going,” Syracuse guard Michael Gbinije said. “At the end of the day, they’re giving you the attention so you get to choose what you want to do with it.”

North Carolina has been in the NCAA spotlight for nearly a half-decade for transgressions that occurred before Kennedy Meeks was enrolled in his first class. Still, the Tar Heels big man said was important to offer support to those players caught up in the story for the wrong reasons.

“Just focus on the season because that’s what’s most important right now,” Meeks said. “You can’t worry about the off the court stuff. They have a great team. They beat us last year, so I don’t see why the confidence still wouldn’t be there for them. They have a great coach, great program.

“With us with the whole NCAA thing, we can’t focus on that. We have to focus on our team, whether it has to do with us or not. We have to be there for the players that were involved, because we’re a family still no matter what. We move on from it.”

When these off-court scandals occur, the losers are always the players. Lewis and Lee gave a little bit of hope to Louisville fans with grace under pressure and a calm confidence that should translate to the court.

If there is any season for the Cardinals to be led by a pair of graduate transfers, players who have seen and done it all in college basketball and only want to succeed in their last year of eligiblity, this is the year. Pitino unintentionally threw them into the fire of the ACC media grind with his absence, but they emerged in one piece, ready to get back to basketball.

Trey Lewis (USATSI)
Guard Trey Lewis answers questions about Louisville’s sex scandal at ACC media day Wednesday. (USATSI)

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