Kenny Payne's Road With UofL Basketball Likely Leads To A Dead End

Feb 28, 2024 at 11:19 am
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield fights for the ball at tipoff against UK at the KFC Yum! Center on Dec. 21, 2023.
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield fights for the ball at tipoff against UK at the KFC Yum! Center on Dec. 21, 2023. Photo by Chris Carter, Louisville Athletics.

Kenny Payne said he could see the gap closing, and in the strictest statistical sense, this much was true.

Kentucky beat Louisville by 23 points last year, but only by 19 Thursday night, 95-76. Should UofL maintain this rate of progress, which, granted, is a blur beside the movement of tectonic plates, the Cardinals could be competitive with their big blue rival by the end of the decade.

Or, more likely, the university administration will hit the reset button, replace Kenny Payne as head coach, and seek to revive its flatlining men’s basketball program on a more accelerated timetable. For despite Payne’s professed optimism, the endorsement of UK coach John Calipari and the undiminished affection of his best players, the fans who fund UofL’s athletics are still hard-pressed to see the vision he’s selling.

The KFC Yum! Center, an arena built to NBA standards without an NBA tenant to help defray its costs, had, according to attendance scans, been filled to less than a third of its capacity through the 24 home games of Payne’s tenure preceding Kentucky’s visit. This is the same UofL basketball program, remember, whose revenues said “blows everyone else out of the water” as recently as 2021.

Not all of this is Payne’s fault – he took the job amid a prolonged NCAA investigation and its ruinous recruiting ripples – but though that cloud has lifted, the product on the floor has shown only incremental improvement. Meanwhile, many thousands of empty seats reflect a growing and worrisome apathy from a previously fervent fan base.

You don’t have to follow the money very far to recognize this road likely leads to a dead end. That UofL athletic director Josh Heird has not yet dropped the axe is most easily read as a matter of timing. Firing a coach a few days before Christmas might seem tacky. Firing Payne before season’s end, presumably to install an interim replacement, might satisfy the bloodlust of boosters, but it would mean an $8 million buyout instead of the $6 million that would be due in April.

Unless Heird can convince his Villanova buddy Jay Wright to come out of retirement – contrary to all indications of Wright’s mindset – the potential benefit of a mid-season fresh start is harder to demonstrate than its tangible cost. The potential benefit of patience, Calipari said, could include a big payoff.

"He's got a really young team," Calipari said of his former assistant. "You've got to let him go do what he does. . . My guess is he’ll have this program within a year where everybody wants it. It’s just the growing pains are miserable. We went through it.”

Calipari’s bias is clear. Payne, he said, “is like my brother.” Still, personal regard rarely trumps results in competitive sports. “Nice guys,” quoth Leo Durocher, “finish last.”

For his part, Payne appears to recognize the urgency of the hour. He used his post-game platform Thursday to emphasize his interest in using the transfer portal to fill needs instead of relying on recruiting high school players as multi-year development projects.

Given Jeff Brohm’s success in attracting established players from other programs, and the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) dollars Louisville has been able to wield for football, Payne’s reputed recruiting prowess could conceivably come into play even now. Still, getting coveted players to commit to a clearly insecure coach entails a lengthy leap of faith.

“As the players, we’re still rocking with KP,” point guard Skyy Clark said Thursday.

“Forever,” forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield interjected.

“We have no control over what decisions are being made,” Clark continued. “We don’t have time to worry about that or focus on it. We have games coming up. We’re going into conference play, so that’s what we’re focused on, and we have to control what we can control.”

Clark said Payne was like a grandfather to him. Huntley-Hatfield called him “a second father.” Their comments about their coach were as touching as Payne’s handling of the Koron Davis fiasco was troubling. Still, a 19-point loss in a rivalry game remains hard to rationalize, almost as hard as seeing where the gap between Kentucky and Louisville has narrowed.