Tim Sullivan: Opening Win A Relief For Louisville's Kenny Payne, But Perhaps Only A Temporary Reprieve

Nov 7, 2023 at 10:35 am
Coach Kenny Payne watches the UofL vs. UMBC men's basketball game at the KFC Yum! Center on Nov. 6, 2023.
Coach Kenny Payne watches the UofL vs. UMBC men's basketball game at the KFC Yum! Center on Nov. 6, 2023. Photo by Carolyn Brown.

Before they returned to the court for the second half of their first game, the Louisville Cardinals came upon Peyton Siva, lurking in the hallway of the KFC Yum! Center.

“He said, ‘Play hard, like it’s your last game,” said UofL forward Mike James, recalling the plea of the point guard who twice led the Cardinals to the Final Four. “This second half is going to dictate the rest of your season. Whether you know it or not, this second half is going to dictate everything that happens in the rest of the season. So, I think the guys took it to heart.”

Down by eight points, still downtrodden from last season’s 4-28 faceplant and fresh from a dispiriting preseason loss to Kentucky Wesleyan, the Cardinals had reached the midway mark of their season opener in desperate need of new direction and, according to prevailing social media sentiment, a new coach.

They had no room to rationalize a false start. They would heed Siva or invite the invective of fans already sharpening their pitchforks. They would rally to beat UMBC – the University of Maryland, Baltimore County – 94-93, in a game that felt more like a temporary reprieve than a paradigm shift.

They should get better. There’s better talent than Kenny Payne coached last season and, in James, a player of high purpose and physicality. Whether the Cardinals can get good enough to prolong Payne’s tenure past the end of the season, however, is less certain.

Playing before an announced crowd of 11,010 Monday night in an arena built to twice that scale, what was long the most profitable program in college basketball has been hemorrhaging support since the unhappy end of the Rick Pitino era. The long shadow cast by an interminable NCAA investigation and its incalculable impact on recruiting proved too great an obstacle for Chris Mack and clearly compromised Payne’s first campaign.

Yet at a time when college teams can reinvent themselves almost overnight, thanks to a teeming transfer portal and the lure of name, image and likeness (NIL) dollars, reasonable explanations for empty seats ring increasingly hollow. Though contractual buyouts grow ever more expensive (and irresponsible), few schools hesitate to pull the plug if they can imagine better days and fuller stands with different coaches in charge.

Change is not always good, but it is change. Thus Kenny Payne is competing not only against his opponents, but against the expectations of a fan base accustomed to contending for championships.

“Obviously this is Louisville, right?” Payne said Monday night. “Kansas, Louisville, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina -- do not come to these schools if you cannot take pressure. You are amongst the best of the best. Obviously, this program has had a lot of things that have happened to go the wrong way. Our job, my job, their job is to fix it...

“They just assume here, we are going to win, and everything is bad because it is bad. But there is something else to it. We are cleaning it up and I am proud of that. I am proud of that because the type of kids we have in this program are the type of character kids that you guys should be proud of. As we go along, we are going to beat some teams, but we are going to lose some games. We are not going to go undefeated, but we are going to show through our character and work ethic that this program is headed in the right direction.”

This much may be true, but the pace of Payne’s progress thus far suggests a battleship being turned in a bathtub. Were it not for UMBC’s ponderous foul problems, which enabled James and UofL’s guards to drive toward the basket with growing impunity, Monday’s game could easily have ended gloomily. Had the Retrievers’ Khydarius Smith made the second of two free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining, the outcome would likely have been settled in overtime.

“I think in the first half, we have to come out with a lot more aggressiveness and attention to detail — locking dudes up and trying to get out in front of dudes in the first half and not having to fight from behind,” James said. “I think once we do that and go into the second half how we did, we will start to build bigger leads and get more comfortable wins.”

Time will tell. How much time Kenny Payne will be allowed is yet to be determined.