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Everything Kenny Payne had to say at Louisville basketball media day

Hoops season is upon us.

Syndication: The Courier-Journal Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

(Opening Statement)

“Really excited about tomorrow (Louisville Live) for our players, for the women’s program, and for the community to come out. Really thankful for Jack (Harlow). I think he’s gone public and said he’ll be a part of it, coming and supporting us. I think it’s big for everybody, and it’ll be the first time that we get to show that we can bring people together. Whether that’s 10,000 or 5,000 (people), I don’t really care. I just want us all to come together, that’s important. I think our players need it on both sides, women’s basketball, and the men. I want this community to know that for us on the men’s side, it’s not going to be perfect. But we’re going to go out and fight as hard as we can every single day. It’s really important for me to say that.”

(What has it been like for you to come here every day and run practices at Louisville and just be here doing this job?)

“It’s been both rewarding and frustrating, to be honest with you. Rewarding in the fact that I’m establishing a culture and the reason I know it’s good, is because the players are on their knees. ‘I can’t make it through practice.’ Their eyes are saying it. ‘This is hard. This is unbearable.’ That’s how I know it’s good. I’m changing the culture with a work ethic that’s probably borderline impossible. I like that part of it. I get frustrated because I want them to embrace it more. I want them to understand why I’m doing it. I want them to dominate a practice. After every practice I’m asking them, ‘Did practice beat you, or did you beat the practice?’ So, they’re being challenged and some of them are embracing it and some of them are more like, ‘This is a lot.’ You only can tell what character is through adverse situations, and that’s what we’re trying to do, establish who we are as players. I can’t talk about another team. I can’t talk about an opponent until I get players to conquer themselves. We get players to conquer themselves then we can talk about being a unit and caring for each other, protecting each other, and being a team. Then we can talk about an opponent.”

(What’s your take on where you are now versus seven months ago when you first got here?)

“We have gotten better. A lot better, but we still got a long way to go. What does that mean? I can’t put (wins and losses) on that. I can just tell you that we’ve gotten better. We’ve gotten better as a unit. We’ve gotten better individually. We’ve tried really hard. But we still need every person to get better and conquer themselves, to feel great about themselves.”

(You talked about work ethic. What kind of things have you asked them to do that you think they haven’t been asked to do before?)

“Imagine I put two minutes on the clock, and I say ‘You’re running baseline to baseline, you got to make 20 touches in two minutes. As soon as you finish, we put another three minutes on the clock and then three players: drive, pass, drive, pass, shot. You make ten in three minutes, then you go on to the next.’ There are days that you’re doing it from a very fatigued state, where you can barely stand up much less drive the ball hard, much less hit a shooter in the shooting pocket, much less jump up and shoot the ball with confidence and hold your follow-through with the correct technique. That takes time, but that’s the type of thing I’m asking them to do. Everything that I want them to do is from a fatigued state. I want them tired, and I want to see them executing.”

(What can the fans expect from an offensive and defensive philosophy standpoint?)

“Offensively, I think we have a group of guys that are long and athletic. We should be a great offensive rebounding team, which may mean we’re going to miss a lot of shots. I don’t know yet. But I expect to be a good post-up team. For me, passing is a component to offense that I really think is vital. Most people look at good offensive teams and they see the threes and they see the shooting. I look at it and I say, ‘What did they do before they got the three?’ They broke the defense down, the ball got in the lane, the ball was passed three or four times. With ball movement, body movement, and great passing, you get open shots that are in rhythm. You get good post-ups that are in rhythm. You get good drives and layups in rhythm. So, that’s my goal is to create an offense where the ball is moving, and multiple players touch the ball. It’d be easy for me to say, ‘Okay, I want two or three guys to touch the ball and the other two don’t.’ But I want this to be all-encompassing because I’m not just worried about today. I’m worried about long-term.”

(You’ve mentioned a few times that you want this to be a defensive minded team. Is this something that’s pertinent to just this group of players, the collection of players you’ve assembled or is that going to be a part of your overall culture at Louisville moving forward?)

“I can say it to you like this, every successful team I’ve ever been a part of won off their defense. Now, that doesn’t mean they weren’t great offensive teams, but we won games off of defense. So, the one thing that I know is that in order to win games and win on a high level, you better be defending, and you better be defending desperately. What that means is, if we don’t get this stop, the mentality is: we die. That’s how hard you have to play defense.”

(You’ve been an assistant for such a long time. How different is it in that relationship with the players when you’re one seat over?)

“I’ve had a lot of talks about it being different. I can see players are apprehensive to come in, sit down, and talk to me, but I encourage that. For example, Brandon (Huntley-Hatfield) came to me yesterday and said, ‘Coach, I need to talk to you. What can I do more? I feel like I’m at this place. What do you see?’ I love that. I also like talking to the parents. ‘What is your son saying to you? Did he tell you that we’re doing a book club, that we’re reading? Did he tell you that we’re eating together?’ Whatever it may be. Watching film together on what good offense is and what good defenses are, and then listening to what their parents say and then going back to the kid and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell your mom this? Let them know what you’re going through. Let them know how we’re doing this. Let them know that you’re enjoying it, or you wish it was more of this or that.’ Whatever it is. I want relationships, and relationships aren’t one-sided. I have great relationships with these players, but there is a little bit of apprehension of coming to a head coach, and I’m trying to meet them halfway, so I’m going to them more.”

(You’ve talked about El Ellis embracing Louisville basketball and how he’s becoming your point guard. What have you seen from the other guards or forwards in their ability to bring the ball up the court and set the offense?)

“I’ll start with Fabio (Basili). Fabio is a good basketball player, still has a lot to learn. There’s going to be a transition period with any guard that’s coming out of high school that’s trying to hold together a group. Playing before in high school, you’re just worried about you. I’m asking him to worry about everybody else. I’m asking him to know the five spot, the four spot, the three spot, the two spot. Know their positions and be able to play their positions. That’s different, he’s a kid. But he’s embracing it. He comes to work every day, he’s fighting. Hercy Miller, I’m just asking him to be solid. Just be solid for me, and I’ll play you. I know what you’ll give me defensively. I know where your heart is, I know you work very hard. I don’t care about talent level. I don’t care that it may look like on paper that a guy may be way more talented than you. Will over skill, I’ll take that.”

(Reflecting back on your time here as a player, did you think at times that it was unbearable and you couldn’t do it? Are you doing this similar to how Coach Denny Crum did it, or are you taking your own approach?)

“A little bit of both, but I’d say my own approach. I think I didn’t have the ‘know how.’ I may have been talented, I didn’t have the experience that a Billy Thompson, that a Herb Crook, those guys had been in college longer. I came in just a skinny, slow kid that just was like… ‘what do you mean that the offense has got to pass the ball six times? What do you mean I’ve got to cut here?’ I was used to throw me the ball and let me shoot it. I had to learn team basketball, they already knew it. To answer your question, for these guys, I want the young guys to embrace what it is to be part of a team. But they can’t be a part of a team or embrace it until they conquer themselves. Until they feel good about themselves. If you’re insecure as a player, you’re not worrying about what the other guys are doing, you’re only concerned about ‘I missed that shot.’ I want you to get past that, I want you to be secure in knowing that you worked hard every morning, every practice, every night you got in this gym, you shot the ball… you’ve watched film with the coaches… you understand what you’re doing so that you feel good about your development. At that point, you’ll care about the team. If you’re insecure or not comfortable with where you are as a player with yourself, you’ll never be comfortable to four others or five others or 10 others.

(What do you want to see out of the scrimmages and preseason exhibitions?)

“For me, when I think about what’s coming up ahead in the next few weeks, it’ll be one of the first few times we get to truly evaluate. It’s an evaluation time. I want everybody to play. I want to see who everybody is when the lights are on. When fans are in the seats, who is going to be nervous, whose hands are shaking and who is going to embrace it. Who is going to get a rush, who is going to be fighting within a team concept. So this will give me that opportunity?”

(What has it been like to coach your son [Zan]?)

“Not a lot of conversations, more conversations with his mother. I can say this, Zan texted me about a week ago and said, ‘Dad, thank you. Thank you for riding me and pushing me to be better. I feel myself getting better, my confidence is growing. I feel like if I can get in a little better shape, I can help you win.’ Great for me. Now I get to go home in peace. But my son has been around winning basketball and I’m proud of that. He has a dynamic that most kids don’t have and it can help this team. Is it going to be easy? Am I going to hand him anything? Absolutely not. He’s going to have to earn everything he gets.”

(What have you seen from JJ Traynor?)

“I saw a kid whose confidence was wavering in the beginning. We addressed it. I saw a kid that was searching to find out who he is. I saw a kid that was maybe nervous about opening up and saying ‘look at me and who I am and tell me who I am or what I am… what type of player I am.’ Now I see a guy that’s growing. About a week ago, he made his condition times and I said, ‘did JJ make it?’ I knew he made it. He was so proud to say ‘coach, I made it.’ So I brought the team together and I said ‘Guys, let me explain this to you. If I turn my back on JJ Traynor right now, he’s liable to hit me in the back of the head with a hammer. I understand it. He absolutely hates the way that I am pushing him. It is not a choice for him. I’m not going to allow it to be a choice, but what he doesn’t know is that when I took this job, the perception that people had of him… I already knew who he was, and my job was to bring that piece that I knew out and I’m going to do that. And I said this to the group, ‘I’m nervous about giving him praise, because he may go back into that turtle shell. And if he does, I’m going to feel like I’m running in the Kentucky Derby, and I’m going to that that strap… I’m proud of JJ, there is so much more inside of him that he has, I need him to conquer himself. To really embrace who he is, what he can be, and fight to be that player.”

(What is the level of excitement heading into this season?)

“Excitement? A little bit. I want to make everybody happy – everybody. I want you guys to be happy with this program. I want this community, this university to be happy. That is an obligation that I feel for this place, for these players, for this community. The reality of it is, I don’t know where we’re going to be. I really don’t. Again, I’ll say this. You can’t conquer an opponent if you can’t conquer yourself. I’m doing everything in my power to get them to conquer themselves. It may be January or February before I’ll know how good or bad we’ll be. So I have to make a decision, do I abandon doing hard stuff to just pacify them to get them to that point? Or do it every single day until they get it? I stay hard, I stay pushing, I stay grinding. Again, I’m going to say this, I’m trying to establish a culture. It may not be for everybody. But those that it’s for, if you love this game and you have a passion to be great and you want to play for a coach that’s going to give you freedom to be great, with no stipulations, just play for the team, play for the name on the front of your shirt, play for your family, play for this university. I brought a lady to practice the other day. I had her talk to the team – she’s an author. Her passion for this university, for this basketball team jumped off it. Her words, how powerfully she spoke to those guys. They need to know it’s bigger than them. That’s why I’m saying conquer yourselves so you can really see what Louisville basketball truly is. You’ll never know if it you’re stuck in ‘I’ve got to make it for me.’ It’s bigger than you.”

(You talked about JJ Traynor, but in almost the same vein, did you have to build Jae’Lyn Withers back up? At times it seems like he’s got this ability, but sometimes something’s holding him back as well?)

“No question about it. A couple of NBA people have been in here and they saw Jae’Lyn (Withers) play as a freshman. And to hear their words, they are like ‘Kenny, we loved him as a freshman. We think he can be special. We need to see this out of him, we need to see him be confident in who he is and know that he has these dynamics to his game.’ He’s long. He’s athletic. He can be a great defender. He can rebound above the rim. He can score. He can be a finisher. He can pass. He’s talented, he’s really talented. But at times, he second guesses. When adversity hits, he backs up sometimes. He gets frustrated with himself. I’m saying to him every day: What if you’re our leader, and you miss a shot and you throw the ball against the wall or you kick a ball out of bounds. You’re our leader. What if you hang your head, you are our leader. We’re following you. So, when your head goes down, everyone else’s head goes down. We are expecting you to lead us. You have to lead us the right way. You have to know that you’re going to have adversity in this game. There is not one player, ever, that has played this game and has had all success. Everybody has bumped their head and fell, got up and dusted themselves off went back in there and succeeded. They may have failed again. You have to know that about yourself and embrace that and embrace the process of what it takes to be great. He does that, we’re going to be pretty good.”

(Kenny, you mentioned that leadership. I know you’ve just recently announced the captains on this team. How, collectively, have you seen those guys embrace that role?)

“El (Ellis) has been great. Syd (Sydney Curry) is trying to figure it out. He’s fighting the conditioning, just to be honest with you. I know he wants to do it. And it’s hard.

Jae’lyn (Withers) has been fine. He has been more vocal than people who have been here in the past, they have been watching us practice. They have never seen him talking as much as he is talking now. He’s orchestrating guys, telling them where to be. Even when he is on the sideline, talking to different players. They have all embraced the leadership part. But leadership is more than just using your voice. So I am telling Syd, ‘Syd, you’re a leader, you can’t come in last in the running, and you’re a leader. You have to fight, even if you come next to last, that’s better than last.’ And then when you do, give your all, don’t give 80%. Because giving 80%, the other guys see it. Be a leader by example as well.”

(Kenny, the media poll came out from the ACC, you guys are picked 11th. Not a lot of recognition for any of the players. Not many expectations, do you like that?)

“Yes I do. I want this team to earn everything they get. I want this team to prove to people that they are willing to fight and that nobody else controls their destiny. It’s better when it is the way it is now. I don’t even know where we were picked, 11th or whatever. That’s great. I wished they had picked us 12th. How many teams are in it? Pick us 16th.

I want my players to understand what that means. Go fight to prove that they belong in the upper echelon. Now, they have to want that. It doesn’t matter that I want it. They have to want it and they have to come together and fight for it together.”

(You said that Brandon (Huntley-Hatfield) asked you what you have seen. What have you seen out of Brandon? What is he giving you, what can he give you?)

“He’s (Brandon Huntley-Hatfield) more confident than I have ever seen him. He’s really studying and trying to understand what we want from him. Basically, what I am asking him to do is at 6-9, 6-10, whatever he is, 245-250 pounds, be a bear around that basket. Be a bear. You’re skilled. Don’t let that be the main thing that you try to rely on, your skill. Rely on your toughness, your fight, your will to be great. Impose your will on people. Impose your will on winning. I do a drill where the guards are turning, the offensive play on the full court. I told offense that we are running at the other end. I am bringing him up and making him guard a point guard. Have defensive confidence. Fight for it. If I can get you to buy into that, that you have confidence in that, I can get you to switch all over the floor. That’s what I really want to do. So, I need you to buy into it. And he’s embracing it. I am very happy with Brandon. And as I say I am happy with him; he has another percentage of like 30 or 40% more. He could be a great player. He has all the attributes.”

(How big are things like Louisville Live as far as recruiting and what do you feel like is the perception out there of you and this program right now as you recruit?)

“I think there’s a buzz. People are recognizing that this program in the next couple years could be special. I think kids are recognizing it, I think families are recognizing it nationally. We’re recruiting kids from all over the country. I want this program to be a program that’s different. I want it to be about character. I want it to be about work ethic. I’m a little afraid of the hype of Louisville Live. I want substance, but every program needs the hype. We need the attention and the notoriety of having something that’s special about us. We need Jack Harlow to be there, but also, we need to know that that’s not the main thing. The main thing is substance. How are we building this program? How are we changing the culture? We’re changing it with high-character kids that are really talented, with high-character men coaching them that are giving their hearts to them, so that they’re successful in whatever they want to do in life. They want to be NBA players, go be the best. You want to be a doctor, go be the best. We’re supporting you in all of that, so I’m happy about that part of it.”