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On the current state of Louisville basketball

Cardinal fans don’t want the moon right now, just some hope.

Bellarmine v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Let’s get two things out of the way straight from the jump:

1) No one — or at least very few people and certainly no one rational — is arguing that Kenny Payne deserves to be fired three games (and two exhibitions) into his tenure.

2) No one — or at least very few people and certainly no one rational — was saying going into this season that Louisville was “immediately going to be contending for a national title” under Payne, or anything remotely close to that.

We can have a million different discussions about the current state of the Louisville men’s basketball program, and we can have all of them without bringing any straw men into the equation.

There’s never any hard data available for this sort of thing, but my sense is that when the U of L head coaching job opened up in earnest last January, a majority of this fan base was clamoring for Payne as their preferred candidate. That being said, the majority was far from an overwhelming one, and the other side made their reservations about hiring a man with zero head coaching experience known throughout the process.

While this was going on, I stated numerous times that if Payne was going to unite the fan base in year one by providing some tangible evidence that he was the man to eventually get Louisville basketball back to being Louisville basketball, he had to accomplish one of two things in his first year on the job.

The first option was to take a Cardinal team that was always going to have some of the lowest preseason expectations in the history of the program (picked 12th in the ACC, appearing in zero bracket projections, etc.) and dramatically overachieve on the court with them. The second was to knock it out of the park with his first recruiting class and communicate to the fan base that he is without question the ace recruiter he’s been hyped to be, and that his first U of L roster is the only one that was ever going to look this pedestrian.

The early returns on both fronts aren’t just iffy. They’re bad. We can say that.

According to Ken Pom (or any predictive metric/analytical ranking service you want to look at), Louisville has faced three of the four worst teams on its 2022-23 schedule. The Cardinals are 0-3. Before that, they lost an exhibition game for the first time in over two decades to a bad Division-II team. That was playing without its two best players. By 10.

On the 2023 recruiting trail, Payne managed to maintain the commitment of and eventually get a signing from former Male (now La Lumiere) star Kaleb Glenn. He has also signed Brother Rice (Mich.) small forward Curtis Williams. Glenn is the No. 69 player in the class according to 247 Sports. Williams is No. 78.

I think everyone is well-versed on the D.J. Wagner saga, one which saw Cardinal fans shift their focus to fellow 5-star guard A.J. Johnson in its closing weeks. This morning we learned that Johnson, who canceled a visit to Louisville Live on the day he was supposed to arrive for a weekend where he was assured of being the focal point, will announce his college decision on Monday without ever making a trip to the Derby City.

Johnson’s likely commitment to Texas will ensure that Payne’s first true class at Louisville will come without the benefit of a 5-star player. California big man Isaiah Miranda — the No. 33-ranked player in the class — is the only other 2023 player that the Cardinals are currently actively recruiting, and one of just two players ranked in the top 50 that haven’t either committed to or signed with another school. Bronny James is the other.

While Miranda, Glenn and Williams could certainly all wind up being very good college players, the trio seems extremely unlikely to be able to take Louisville from where it is at the moment to NCAA tournament good a year from now. If making the Big Dance in year two is the goal (and I think it has to be for any new Cardinal head coach), it seems apparent in this moment that Payne is going to have to do this spring what he was unable to do last spring: Kill it in the transfer portal.

About a third of the players in college basketball are likely to become available once again next March-May. Even in its weakened state, Louisville should be a highly attractive option for players who are looking for a bigger stage and a brighter spotlight. If they’re looking for a financial boost through NIL, well, that’s a conversation that we’re going to have when the time comes. Payne’s stance on the issue is understandable, perhaps even admirable, but it also feels increasingly idealistic. If the head coach had been a bit more flexible on that front could Tyrese Hunter be leading this squad to a 3-0 start instead of dropping 26 on Gonzaga in a 93-74 Texas win Wednesday night? We’ll never know for certain, but it would have been nice to have been playing with the same deck of cards that Chris Beard is playing with down in Austin.

But let’s forget the hypotheticals and the projecting the future for a moment. For me, the most disappointing aspect of the last three weeks has been what we’ve all been able to see with our own eyes. And I’m not talking about the scores or the stats or the system or the questionable late-game decision making from the coaches and the players.

After a failed run loaded with drama and controversy, a replacement regime is supposed to usher in a new era defined by a refreshing culture shift. Results may not come immediately, but a revitalizing effort and spirit is the first sign that better days are on the horizon.

The lowest bar I had for this team, and the only one I really cared about it clearing was as simple and straightforward as possible: Play hard. Play like this means something to you. Play like you’re willing to do whatever it takes to be the start of something great and get this program back to where it’s supposed to be.

They do in spurts. They certainly don’t with any degree of consistency. If they did, they’d be 3-0.

With a coach whose reputation is built on player connection and an opportunity for healthy playing time up for grabs for at least 11 players on this roster, I just don’t understand it, and I can’t tell you in words how much it bothers me. Wins and losses be damned, this is the only change that I really care about seeing between now and the end of the season. If that changes, every other negative characteristic surrounding the program will start to change with it.

Louisville has a talent deficiency, sure. I don’t think anyone is debating that. Louisville also has no excuse to be 0-3 right now. Both of these things can be true.

El Ellis is the former No. 1 junior college player in America and he’s currently the 8th-leading scorer in Division-I. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield is a former 5-star recruit. Jae’Lyn WIthers is a guy who has received NBA buzz since the moment he arrived on campus. Sydney Curry picked Louisville over reigning national champion Kansas and was this team’s best player at the end of last season. Kamari Lands, Mike James and every other scholarship player on this roster was a 4-star, top 100 talent coming out of high school.

Whether its by a total of 3 points, 30 points or 300 points, there is zero reason for that collection of players to be 0-3 after games against teams picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic Sun, seventh in the Sun Belt and third in the Horizon League. This is the 109th season of Louisville basketball, and the first time ever that the Cardinals have started 0-3 with three home losses.

Like most everyone, I am hopeful that all of this will wind up being a quirky anecdote that we could use on the next generation of Cardinal fans when Kenny Payne is killing it 20 years from now. I am hopeful that things will start to get better next week when the Cards to take a significant step up in competition at the Maui Invitational. I am hopeful that at some point in the relatively near future, Louisville’s new head coach will prove unequivocally to everyone that he was the right man for the job.

Being hopeful about the future doesn’t prohibit you from being realistic about the present, and the present is as bad as we’ve ever seen.

Whether it’s on here, on Twitter or on the text line for the radio show, I see and hear all of the extreme opinions that are floating around at the moment. I’m not mad at anyone for having them, even the ones with which I disagree the most.

The feelings are as extreme as they are in large part because of how wounded we’ve all been by the last 5-7 years. Everyone is so desperate for this thing to get back to feeling the way it did before, and so scared (whether we admit it or not) that the wait for that return is going to be much longer than we ever could have guessed in 2015 or 2017. Apathy hasn’t come close to setting in for the heart of the fan base, and that’s a good thing, but the passion won’t burn this brightly forever if it isn’t fueled by some sincere hope.

That’s all most of us want in this moment: Not the world, not a national title, not even a win, just some hope. The sooner Payne and company can deliver on that front, the better.