Louisville Basketball Has Not Been This Bad Since The ’30s
5:03 PM EST on January 28, 2024
It was another historic performance Saturday in Louisville for the Cardinals, one of many the team has put together for the last two seasons. The Louisville men’s basketball team is making the wrong kind of history, though. Their 28-point halftime deficit yesterday to Virginia, per Cardinals stats guru Kelly Dickey, was their third-largest ever—and the biggest since the 1938-39 season. It was the second time in recent history that the team scored just 13 points in the first half. Yesterday’s game did not get much closer. Virginia lead by 20 until garbage time, beating Louisville 69-52 in the end.
It has been quite the fall. In December of 2019, The Courier Journal wrote that Louisville was “the center of the college basketball world.” Chris Mack’s Cardinals were ranked No. 1. They finished tied for second in the ACC and were ranked No. 15 in the country when COVID ended the college basketball season.
For Louisville, it's been mostly downhill since then. Mack was suspended for the first six games of the 2021-22 season for how he handled an extortion attempt. Assistant Dino Gaudio tried to extort Mack regarding low-level NCAA violations after being told told his contract wouldn’t be renewed. Mack recorded the conversation and alerted the Louisville administration, but he was suspended for failing "to follow university guidelines, policies, and procedures in handling the matter." (Louisville was looking to remain squeaky-clean after a variety of scandals under former coach Rick Pitino—an employee hiring sex workers for players, Adidas paying a recruit’s father $100,000, a woman Pitino had sex with trying to extort him, etc.) Donors and the fanbase turned on Mack after an 11-9 start that year, and he and Louisville reached a separation argeement in January of 2022. His tenure was considered one of the worst in modern team history.
Yet the program was still considered a prime college basketball job. When Louisville athletics director Josh Heird announced that the university had hired Kenny Payne, who won a national title with the Cardinals in 1986, to serve as head coach, he said, “The University of Louisville is a destination job and the strength of our candidate pool proved this out."
Payne's tenure as coach has been far worse than Mack’s. He is 6-14 this year, and the team looks likely to finish last in the ACC for the second-straight year. It is still an improvement on last year’s 4-28 mark, a year that opened with nine losses and was considered the worst in modern history. The last real Louisville coach to have as worse record than Payne was back in 1938-39. Payne is 10-42. Lawrence Apitz went 10-52 in his four years but, in his defense, Apitz had to coach the football team too. It's unlikely Payne will make it to a third season.
Multiple media members have called for Payne’s firing, if only to put him out of his misery. There is a “Fire Kenny Payne” song. There was even a report from CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander in December saying his time was short. Heird, the AD, later said Payne would continue as coach through 2023. It’s seeming likely that Payne will not be fired until after March 31, when his buyout will drop from $8 million to $6 million.
The losses on the court have leaked off of it. At one press conference, Payne explained why Ty-Laur Johnson didn’t play in the first half of a game by saying: “I probably shouldn’t tell you this—we didn’t have the tights that he wanted, so he didn’t know if he wanted to play.” Louisville said Koron Davis intended to transfer, then later said he had been cut. Davis said he did not tell the university he wanted to transfer, and then sat in the stands to watch the Cardinals lose to Arkansas State. Davis told The Athletic in December the tension stemmed from an incident the previous month: "He told my teammates: 'Koron said fuck all y’all.' Things escalated from there, but never turned physical." A teammate corroborated what Davis said.
As Brendan Quinn wrote in that story, the Cardinals have missed out on some recruits but they still had 247Sports’s 26th-ranked class in Payne’s first year. And even though five-star recruit Trentyn Flowers dropped out of Louisville to spend a year in Australia’s NBL, his next recruiting class was ranked sixth by 247Sports. “We’re never going to be the most talented team,” Payne said after a exhibition loss to Division II Kentucky Wesleyan before the season.
The team has lived up to his quote. It does basically nothing well but get to the free-throw line. When Johnson finds his leggings, he is the only one who can distribute the ball. But he also averages just 3.2 assists a game. Mike James and Curtis Williams can shoot threes OK, but they each take fewer than four a game. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield shoots well, but takes just 3.75 shots a game. And the offense is the better side of the team. Louisville is 308th in the country in effective field goal percentage allowed. Even when Louisville scores a bunch, it usually gives up more.
Rick Bozich, a sports reporter for Louisville’s WDRB, said that Saturday’s loss was “beyond rock bottom… Worse than any words or statistics or analysis can communicate. Unacceptably bad. Incompetently bad. Hauntingly bad.” There are still 11 games left in Louisville’s season. Fans are going to get a chance to see if it can get any worse.