His departure, like his time here, was a little bit surprising. He was one of the only players I can think of that had his minutes drop considerably as he gained experience, from 10.1 mpg in his freshman year to 4.9 in his sophomore.
A quiet and unassuming kid, the only real drama in Justice's tenure came before he even arrived on campus. The high school legend was nonetheless overlooked for college ball and held scholarship offers from only Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville University. He opted to walk-on at UofL, but then Calipari started meddlin' and decided he wanted Mr. Basketball for himself, and reached out about accepting a one-year scholarship to UK.
But Justice said no, a word Cal is not used to hearing. He stuck by his commitment and cited loyalty and the fact that he had given his word as his reasons. In that moment, while we were still unsure of what kind of talent we had on our hands, it was apparent Justice was a throwback in terms of his values and character. He immediately won the respect of the Cardinal community and especially his head coach.
Pitino was so enamored he quickly rewarded Justice with a scholarship when Samardo made his unexpected jump to the pros; he spent a good portion of the pre-2010 season raving about his "Bullet", a nickname that sprung up out of nowhere but nonetheless stuck. Coach couldn't stop talking about Justice's work ethic, his intelligence, his court vision and his humility.
It was no stretch to think that perhaps the Cards really had found a diamond in the rough, a solid four-year contributor. And when Bullet thoroughly outplayed Peyton Siva in his very first game, leading UofL over Butler with 12 points, 6 boards, and 2 assists in the christening of the Kayefseum, anything and everything seemed possible.
He continued to shine in the early season, playing major minutes and scoring in double figures twice more. But as the schedule toughened, his productivity and his playing time dropped.
Justice was mostly a nonfactor throughout the Big East tournament, but then was thrust into the most pressure-filled moment of all, spelling an out-of-sync Petyon Siva with 23 big minutes against Morehead State in the first round of the Tourney. And he nearly guided the team to a win, save for a Demonte Harper buzzer-beater (pause to collect...pause to collect...OK) and again seemed ready to be a regular contributor the following season.
For whatever reason, 2011-12 didn't bring that for Justice. He was relegated mostly to practice duty, not even seeing the floor for a shocking 15 games last season. And when he did see the court, sophomore Bullet seemed more gunshy, focusing on not making a mistake more than making an impact.
Still, it did not go unnoticed that the offense ran smoothly when Justice was in the game. And by and large the fans had none of the anxiety with him running the show like was felt when Kevin Ware or Russ Smith took over point guard duties.
And now he's gone. Back to eastern Kentucky from whence he came. Suddenly, with the news that Kevin Ware will not be playing point guard, and with Terry Rozier still needing to drop some knowledge before setting foot on campus, his departure stings even more. The Cards, presumably, could have really used him next year.
But just like his decision to come to UofL in the first place, he has his reasons.
Coach Pitino said Justice will return to receive his Final Four ring during a game next season (Pikeville presumably will be on our early-season schedule). No doubt, he will receive a thundering round of applause.
Loyalty begets loyalty.