Kenny Payne Expects "Big Jump” For Cardinals With New Recruiting Class

Jul 31, 2023 at 1:06 pm
Kenny Payne.  Photo by Tim Sulivan.
Kenny Payne. Photo by Tim Sulivan.

Kenny Payne doesn’t do sound bites. He speaks in paragraphs rather than one-liners and, from all indications, directly from his heart. To watch the Louisville men’s basketball coach expound on the state of his program is to be reminded of a question first posed by the Peanuts strip’s Charlie Brown 60 years ago:

“How can we lose when we’re so sincere?”

Payne is sincerity personified, a man blessedly unburdened by pretense or guile. He may not succeed in restoring U of L to its traditional place in the college hoops hierarchy, yet in following a 4-28 faceplant with a Top 10 recruiting class, he has shown that sincerity sells. 

“You have to have faith in what you’re doing,” he told a roomful of reporters on July 28. “You’ve got to be about young people, not just about yourself, because if there’s a disconnect between a 17-18-19 year-old kid and a 56-year-old man, you’ll never be on the same page and they’ll never trust you.

“You can’t win without trust. They have to trust everything that comes out of my mouth. I’ve learned that this past year in some ways. I think, in some ways, I needed it.”

In Payne’s view, his 2022-23 team was not just bad, but “broken,” bereft of confidence and self-esteem, beaten down by the worst season in the school’s modern history and the “black cloud” of an interminable NCAA investigation since concluded. Having remade his roster with a cast of better and more intuitive athletes, he anticipates a “big jump” from rock bottom toward respectability. 

To illustrate the difference between then and now, Payne says a passing drill that took last year’s team three months to master was performed precisely in three days by the new cast of Cardinals. 

“I went from one extreme to another extreme,” he said. “The first extreme was I had to play guys that no matter what, (even) if they didn't buy in, they had to be on the court. You had nowhere else to go. Now I have guys — 13 or 14 of them — that are Division I players, that are pretty decent players. . .

“I like the fact that they are in the gym. Gym rats. Work ethic. Across the board, they all are unbelievable in the gym and focused. I like the fact that they listen and I'm constantly talking about the ability to listen and apply. I like the fact that they bring something different. I have a bunch of players that are versatile.”

Payne lost three regulars to the NCAA’s transfer portal — guard El Ellis and forwards Sydney Curry and Jae’Lyn Withers — and 56% of his team’s total minutes played. Given U of L’s record, of course, it’s logical to assume everyone was expendable. Given the newfound mobility of college athletes, (and the inducements available through NIL loot), it’s reasonable to think a bad team can get better overnight.

Point guard Skyy Clark and wing Tre White, formerly starters at Illinois and USC, ought to have an immediate impact. Holdover forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield returns with a more sculpted physique, having trimmed his body fat from double-digits to 8%. Mike James, the Cards’ second-leading scorer last season, has sharpened his skills to the point Payne says he’s comfortable playing him anywhere but center.

With a recruiting class 247Sports ranks No. 6 nationally, second only to Duke among Atlantic Coast Conference schools, better days beckon. Still to be determined, though, is whether Payne can show enough progress sufficiently soon to appease those fans who were calling for his head last spring.

“Listen, elephant in the room guys, I know we got to win games,” Payne said. “Every single time we take the floor, our job is to win games. But I am building a program. I am changing a culture. And in order to do that I got to first get them to understand the process of winning. That's more important, to be honest with you, than just saying, ‘Let's just win this game.’ If I bring nine new guys in this program and I only talk about wins and losses and not the process, how can I, in my mind, have sustained success?”

Payne is trying to take the long view in a business that demands rapid results. He is on the clock and under the gun, striving sincerely.

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