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David Levitch was in a familiar place when the University of Louisville Cardinals took the floor this fall for their first scrimmage at the KFC Yum! Center.
Levitch, a lifelong U of L fan, grew up going to games with his parents at the Yum! Center and, before that, Freedom Hall.
But this time Levitch wasn’t in the stands with his mom or dad. He was trotting out of the tunnel in a red-and-white warm-up uniform, taking the court as a member of the Cardinals basketball team.
The environment nearly overwhelmed Levitch at first, he said.
“It was just a crazy experience,” Levitch said. “Obviously I’ve gone to games but it’s nothing like when you step out there. You’re right in the middle of the spotlight.”
The former North Oldham basketball star has adjusted to that spotlight and embraced his role as a freshman walk-on for defending national champion U of L.
The 6-foot-3 guard has appeared in seven games this season, hitting two 3-pointers. His Cardinals were 9-1 and ranked No. 6 by the Associated Press as of the Era’s press deadline.
“When the exhibition games came I kind of settled in,” Levitch said. “When I get out there now I don’t really think about it anymore because I’m sort of getting used to it.”
Levitch had some options going into the 2012-13 high school season, his senior year at North. Belmont, Morehead State, Bellarmine and some other schools were recruiting him.
Levitch’s performance in summer AAU ball with his team, The Ville 2013, garnered attention from U of L’s coaching staff, especially assistant Kevin Keatts.
He eventually met with the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino, who offered Levitch the chance to walk-on at U of L.
North coach Chris Stobaugh, whose first season as Mustang head coach was Levitch’s senior year, saw walking-on with the Cardinals as an ideal situation for Levitch.
“When he told me about Louisville I could tell the look in his eyes that he was destined to go to Louisville,” Stobaugh said. “There was no advice needed at that point. He knew that’s where he wanted to go.”
But Levitch had to embrace a new role with U of L. Throughout high school he’d been an offensive star, scoring nearly 2,000 points for his career.
Suddenly he was going to a role as a player who wouldn’t see a lot of on-court action outside of late-game blowouts.
Levitch, who averaged 24 points per game for North last year, likely won’t score 24 points for U of L this year. So instead he’s focused on getting stronger and improving his defense. The weight room work has paid off, with Levitch adding 14 pounds of muscle since arriving on campus this summer.
“I’m just working on the things I can control, my dribbling, my defense,” Levitch said. “Because obviously going against people like Russ (Smith) and Terry (Rozier) and Chris (Jones), you get better playing against them every day.”
But Levitch is playing for a coach in Pitino who’s put homegrown walk-ons in key situations during his career.
Cameron Mills was a Paul Dunbar High School graduate who wasn’t heavily recruited out of school. Mills walked on at Kentucky and was an important guy off the bench for Pitino’s national-runner up team in 1996-97, hitting 42-of-79 3-pointers that season.
The same goes for current U of L walk-on Tim Henderson. The Christian Academy-Louisville graduate didn’t have any major scholarship offers, but walked on for Pitino and hit two clutch 3-pointers in the Final Four against Wichita State this March.
“Henderson and Cameron Mills, their bodies were more physically ready for the college game than David,” Stobaugh said. “But I think in terms of IQ and knowing how to play the game, David is superior to those two guys.
“That’s going to carry David for quite some time at that level… I think once his body catches up he’ll be every bit as good as both of those guys.”
For now Levitch said he’s working in practice every day to help make his teammates better. He’s developed a friendship with Smith, who’s offered Levitch advice about playing for U of L.
“Russ has been a really outspoken person to me in telling me what I need to do, what not to do,” Levitch said. “Just watching what he does and how he does it. He and Tim have both said there’s going to be a lot of bumps in the road but you’ve got to fight through it.”
The Cardinals play their most anticipated regular season game of the year Dec. 28 in Lexington against archrival UK.
The Wildcats, currently No. 19 with an 8-3 record, will pose a tough test for a U of L team that dropped the only game it’s played this year vs. a current Top 25 opponent – a 93-84 neutral court loss to No. 14 North Carolina last month.
Levitch is confident the experience of Cardinal veterans like Smith, Luke Hancock and Chane Behanan will win out over the talent of UK’s highly touted freshman class.
“They’re all a bunch of freshmen and we have guys that have been to two Final Fours, won championships,” Levitch said. “It’s a different type of talent, a more experienced one.”
Levitch is also staying near to his alma mater. He was in attendance at North Dec. 11 to watch the Mustangs’ loss to Male.
“He chooses to spend his free time, which he doesn’t have very much of at all, back at North Oldham watching his teammates from last year,” Stobaugh said. “I think that’s really cool.”
Levitch said he misses wearing the teal-and-black but looks forward to watching the Mustangs this year as often as he can.
“Those so far have definitely been the best four years of my life,” he said. “There’s been so many fun memories playing at North. I’m going to miss all the student sections and stuff like that. It’s going to be hard at first. I wish I was out there.”