The thing about rock bottom is that takes it a while to realize you’ve gotten there. And even then, how can you be so sure?
In the wake of Louisville’s latest defeat — a humbling 75-68 road loss to an abysmal DePaul squad in a matchup of the two worst power conference teams that elicited jokes from nearly every member of the national media — I received some variation of the same message at least a few dozen times.
“It’s time to get angry.”
“Can’t wait to listen to Salty Mike on the radio on Monday.”
“How mad are you going to be on the next podcast?”
“You HAVE to call for his job.”
The reality is there is nothing I could say here, nothing I could have said yesterday, nothing I could say tomorrow that I haven’t already said a hundred times over the last year and-a-half.
Losing to DePaul — a name we’ve certainly poked fun at consistently over the years and a program fielding likely the worst team of any of the atrocious Blue Demon squads we’ve seen in our lifetimes — resonated a bit more because of the name, but there’s no reason for the loss in Chicago to be some sort of tipping or breaking point.
This wasn’t “the moment where everything changed” or THE thing that finally pushed everyone over the edge, it was just simply the latest thing in a 21-month stretch where nearly all the things have been embarrassing.
When Kenny Payne’s name came up as a candidate to be the head coach of the Louisville men’s basketball program in 2018 and 2022, both times I stated my belief that based on what I had heard and what I knew to be true, that hiring Payne would be “a disaster.” When Payne was officially hired in March of 2022, I stated that belief one final time, locked it away in the holiday decorations closet of my sports conscious, and tried to come into this experiment with an open mind.
What has transpired in the year and a half since has been beyond my worst fears. It’s been beyond your worst fears too.
There shouldn’t have been any debate about this following a 4-28 season that began with the program’s first ever exhibition loss to a college opponent, but there was. There can be no debate about it now.
Louisville finished last season at an unthinkable No. 290 in Ken Pomeroy’s oft-cited college hoops rankings. For comparison’s sake, U of L’s NIT teams of 2002, 2006 and 2021 (the worst years!) finished No. 61, No. 46 and No. 59, respectively. Denny Crum’s final team, the one which won just 12 games while playing in Conference USA, finished that 2000-01 season at No. 133.
Through nine games, Payne’s second group of Cardinals sit at No. 275 in the NET Rankings, No. 255 in the Haslam Metric rankings and No. 185 in Bart Torvik’s rankings and No. 177 on KenPom. In three of those four rankings, Louisville is the lowest-ranked of the 80 power conference teams that play Division-I basketball (Ken Pom has the Cards 28 spots higher than the DePaul team they just lost to).
At the present time, Louisville is predicted to be favored in just three more games this season — its two non-conference home games this week against lowly Arkansas State and Pepperdine, and then when it hosts Notre Dame in February.
This is the part in our story where I’d love to toss in some Hail Mary anecdote of hope. The “I’d love to be wrong here” that served as the precursor to a thousand statements over the last two summers.
The reality is there’s just nothing to point to anymore.
The players look defeated, the game-plan is nearly impossible to discern, recruiting is non-existent, and every Payne postgame press conference continues to be loaded with the types of statements you’d expect to hear at an introductory presser.
“We need to play hard. We need to play together. We need to understand the name on the front of the jersey. We need to fight.”
These were the hurdles we needed to see cleared in week one of year one. The hurdles that don’t require Louisville-level talent to be swiftly and easily put in the rearview. That a coach at a program the stature of U of L’s could still be harping on such things 21 months into his tenure is the red flag of a thousand red flags.
Payne has produced eight wins and 33 losses at Louisville. He is 2-20 in conference games. He is 0-19 in games played outside the city of Louisville. The next time the Cardinals play a true road game — Jan. 3, 2024 — it will have been more than two full calendar years since the last time U of L defeated an opponent on its home floor.
None of this is even anger-inducing anymore, at least not to me. It simply is.
The thing about rock bottom is that everyone agrees on where you need to go, but no one agrees on the best course of action. Do we scream for help? Do we try to climb? Do we search for tools? Do we dig even deeper?
With football’s regular season having drawn to a close and only a second tier bowl game left to play, it has become harder to ignore the vastness of the void that’s waiting for us in the months ahead.
And that’s the worst part of this immeasurably depressing moment in time: The void. The absence of any real significant emotion whatsoever attached to the Louisville men’s basketball program as we head for the holidays. The feeling that we have three months to sit here and spin our wheels before maybe, just maybe, there will be an opportunity to get excited about something again.
For as long I’ve lived, the weeks leading up to Christmas and everything that comes with them have been intertwined the cornucopia of emotions that come with the Louisville-Kentucky men’s basketball game. The excitement, the anxiousness, the dread, the disdain; it’s all there in the back of your mind, even while you’re watching Linus quote from the Book of Luke for a 30th time.
This year, and for the second year in a row, I feel next to nothing. I’d be willing to guess most of you feel next to nothing too. No excitement, no dread, no anxiousness, no “hey, they lost to UNC Wilmington, maybe there’s a shot.”
“It’d be pretty funny,” is about as far as my mind will go.
I never thought such an absence of feeling this time of year was possible.
I never thought I’d be in a position to say the same thing about the succeeding winter months as well.
Since I was a child, I’ve always known that Louisville men’s basketball was there to carry this city through the otherwise unendurable months that offer little else outside of cold and darkness and teddy bears holding candy hearts.
Rushing home from work on an especially dark 5:30 day to kiss the spouse, grab a quick bite, and then head to the arena or get focused on your favorite couch for the two hours of the day you’ve looked forward to since the weekend. That’s supposed to be your reward for all the bundling up, window scraping and grey sky staring that comes after New Year’s. It’s what post-Christmas winter has always been to people like you and me.
It’s not the way it is right now.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still excited to root for yet another extremely capable Louisville women’s basketball team this winter. I’m also getting really sick of having to say “don’t get me wrong, I’m still excited to root for yet another extremely capable Louisville women’s basketball team” every winter because the men’s program is still a thousand miles away from being nationally relevant in any sort of positive way.
The thing about rock bottom is that it feels so wrong to just sit there.
Any time there’s something undeniably broken with a thing you care deeply for — be it a relationship, a possession, a part of your body, whatever — our natural inclination as human beings is to act.
Where do we start? What can we do? Who can we call? Tell me what to hammer. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST LET ME KNOW WHAT I CAN DO TO MAKE THIS FEEL RIGHT AGAIN.
This is where we find ourselves. In the most frustrating of all positions.
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably like me in that you’ve cared more about Louisville basketball than you should for about as long as you can remember. This thing that is so special to so many of us should never feel like a chore or something we follow merely out of habit. This is supposed to be fun — the best kind of fun — and it hasn’t felt that way in far too long.
This is what leads to the lashing out, the empty seats, the debates about change and the fractures in the fan base. We are all on the same page in the most important of respects: We all want this to go back to being fun again. We all want this to make us feel the way it used to.
That desire is so intense that it makes the task at hand feel impossible — the task at hand being just finding a way to get through ... this. All of this.
I’ve said this one the radio and I’ll say it here: There will be no judgment from me for the next three months. Everyone needs to fan however they have to fan to make it through to the other side.
I will watch every game, but if you find yourself unable to, that’s fine. If you have season tickets and will be there in full throat for every game, awesome. If you have season tickets and don’t want to waste your time and energy supporting the product on the floor, fine. Cursing at your TV from home? Fine. Cheering like hell from your home? Fine. Making jokes under your breath while listening on the radio? Fine.
This is a survive by whatever means situation. And survival, for the time being, means coming to terms with the fact that any sort of significant change isn’t coming as soon as any of us would like. It’s coming to terms with the fact that the next March is going to feel an awful lot like the last few Marches. It’s sitting quietly at rock bottom for a little while longer simply because there isn’t any other choice.
The thing about rock bottom is that once you’re out, everything is better than it would have been if you’d never hit the depths you fell to. The sun is brighter, the air tastes sweeter, the successes resonate longer, and the sting of defeat lingers shorter.
There will be another climb, and there will eventually be an emergence. It will be wonderful.
For now, we sit.