If the "experts" are right, only Indiana has a better chance to claim the 2013 men's NCAA basketball title than Louisville.
Yet instead of spending his junior season pursuing an NCAA championship ring with Rick Pitino's Cardinals, Elisha Justice — if a balky knee heals — will be playing at the University of Pikeville of the NAIA.
For very personal reasons, the former Eastern Kentucky high school hoops folk hero says the decision to give up a spot on a team that could easily be the next NCAA champ was not a hard one.
The guard was with his U of L teammates last March in Phoenix during the NCAA tourney's West Region when the phone call came. His maternal grandfather, Otto Newsom, had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Amid the hoopla that ensued as Louisville earned its first Final Four berth since 2005 and met archrival Kentucky in the national semifinals for the first time ever, Justice hid a heavy heart.
In an age when too many children grow up without the support of both parents, Justice was unusually fortunate. His parents, Joey and Robin Justice, raised their three children in a house next door to Robin's parents, Otto and Bea Newsom.
The little boy who would grow up to lead Shelby Valley to the 2010 state high school championship and win Kentucky Mr. Basketball honors had all but a second home on his grandparents' porch swing. "He always seemed to enjoy hearing about when we were young and how different it was back then," says Bea, 79.
Whatever his grandfather was doing, Elisha could often be found tagging along. When Otto, who is now 84, put up a new bannister or added new steps at his house, Elisha "was always right there in the middle of it, trying to help out," Bea recalls.
As Elisha developed into the high school basketball star who would go on to score 2,096 points and set a state record with 540 steals, his grandparents "were almost always there in the stands, wherever I played," Justice says.
That didn't completely stop after high school. Justice turned down a late recruiting push by Kentucky and John Calipari to keep the word he had previously given Pitino that he would walk on at Louisville. At U of L, Justice wound up being placed on scholarship for his freshman year, then was asked to pay his own way as a sophomore.
To see their grandson play college hoops, Otto and Bea made many a trek from Eastern Kentucky to the KFC Yum Center and then back home again in the wee hours.
"A lot of times, we didn't get home until 2 o'clock in the morning," Bea Newsom says.
'I'll never regret that'
Thinking about what a big a part of his life his grandparents have been helped motivate Justice to seek a meeting with Pitino after last season.
In his two years as a U of L reserve, Justice had his moments. In his first college game against Butler, he scored 12 points as the Cardinals inaugurated the new Yum Center with a victory.
Against Morehead State in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Justice had seven points, three rebounds and three steals, and he hit a clutch three-pointer that gave U of L a late lead. He is tormented, though, by a missed last-minute front end of the bonus that opened the door for Demonte Harper's game-winning trey in what became an MSU upset.
"Coach Pitino said in the locker room after the game not to worry about the free throw because we wouldn't have had the lead anyway if I hadn't hit the three," Justice says.
As a sophomore, Justice did not play as big a part for the Cardinals, but he did make a cameo appearance at the end of the first half of U of L's Final Four loss to UK in the Superdome in New Orleans.
"The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry was already so big, but that was crazy," Justice says. "That place was so big and the atmosphere, it was just incredible."
Even with Justice's diminished role in his second year at U of L, it was not playing time and/or his future standing that sent him to meet with Pitino.
"I met with him in his office," Justice says. "I just told him what the situation was with my Pappa, what I needed to do and why. He understood. He told me if I ever needed his help, if I wanted to get into coaching, he would do whatever he could."
Once word was out that Justice was leaving Louisville, other Division I schools inquired about him. But the 5-foot-10 point guard never considered them.
He was going home.
Pikeville won the 2011 NAIA Division I national crown, but Bears Coach Kelly Wells says that did not juice season-ticket sales like the return of a local high-school legend has.
"They have pretty much doubled," Wells said. "And, no question, I think the biggest reason is Elisha. He's the kind of kid that uplifts everybody."
For now, Justice is hoping he will get to play in front of the new Pikeville season-ticket buyers. After being diagnosed with a bone bruise on his left knee, Justice said the suggested remedy was four to five weeks wearing a brace designed to immobilize the injury.
"It's frustrating," Justice says. "I came home to play. Hopefully, at the end (of the four to five weeks), everything will be OK."
In the meantime, Justice is happy to again be able to regularly attend his church, Pilgrim's Prayer in Dorton. He has a dormitory room at UPike, but many nights he simply goes home to be near his family — including his granddad.
Bea Newsom reports that Otto "is doing well, but it's colon cancer and we don't know how it will turn out. But we're happy to have Elisha home. He's always been a lot of help and company to us." In leaving U of L, it is entirely possible that Justice gave up a place on the 2013 NCAA champions. "I hope Louisville does win it," he says. "I'd be happy for the guys. I'd like to see that."
Yet if that happens, Justice says, he won't second-guess his decision to leave for even a minute.
"I came home for my family, to spend as much time with them as I can, while I can," he says. "Whatever happens at Louisville, I'll never regret that."
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com