Despite grim season, Louisville basketball is on the rise

Feb 1, 2023; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; Louisville Cardinals forward Emmanuel Okorafor (34) dunks against Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets forward Javon Franklin (4) during the second half at KFC Yum! Center. Louisville defeated Georgia Tech 68-58. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 1, 2023; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; Louisville Cardinals forward Emmanuel Okorafor (34) dunks against Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets forward Javon Franklin (4) during the second half at KFC Yum! Center. Louisville defeated Georgia Tech 68-58. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports /

The Louisville basketball program has faced historic lows this season, now sitting with a 3-19 overall record and 1-10 within the ACC conference. Prior to last night’s victory over Georgia Tech, Louisville was winless in the ACC conference with an 0-10 record.

Now with only nine games left in the regular season, the offseason for Louisville basketball is approaching rather quickly. The idea that Louisville will have any kind of success in this year’s ACC Tournament is inconceivable at this point, but despite their historically bad season the future for the Cardinals is looking rather bright.

The hiring of Head Coach Kenny Payne was a hire that satisfied many alumni of the program and invigorated the fanbase at the time because of his ties to the city of Louisville and he played for one of the two legendary coaches in Louisville history up to this point. Not only did he have connections to the city and the program, but during his tenure as an assitant coach he was highly regarded as an impressive recruiter.

So, for all of these reasons, the Louisville fanbase was ecstatic. Then, the season started and the only win for their first eleven games was a 80-73 win over the Chaminade Silverswords in an exhibition matchup at home in the KFC Yum! Center.

The excitement in the fanbase began to dwindle very quickly and in the pre-game press conference for their matchup against Florida State on December 10, 2022, Head Coach Kenny Payne stirred up wild controversy when he uttered the following words:

"“I want true Louisville fans,” he said. “I want a fan that understands that the reality of the situation. I know it’s impossible. … I want the fan, the true Louisville fan, the ones that truly know, that’s a part of the process of building something special. It’s going through the hard days, or going through the hard times, and never wavering in how your support is for the university.”"

I believe his intent got lost somewhere in his delivery, because at the very beginning of his hire, he was very clear in that he could not do this alone. He needed all of us to help restore this program back to the esteemed status it once held. His intent was not to divide the fanbase, but rather to unify it.

The message of unification is one he has been preaching from the very start and it has not changed. In a recent interview with On3, Kenny Payne said,

"“I would say 75 percent of this is me pushing, fighting, scratching, clawing to get them to be competitive. To get them to work hard, practice, and play a certain way, play with energy and fight with energy. That can wear you out sometimes, but I’m not giving up…”"

This quote exemplifies his deep care for these players, this program, this fanbase, and this city. These are not the words of somebody who doesn’t care. Odds are if someone unfamiliar with the program or the city of Louisville said these words, then they would have resigned already. But, Kenny Payne is not giving up. And neither should we.

Emmanuel Okorafor, a recent midseason addition from the NBA Africa program in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been a much needed injection of energy into the program that seemed lifeless at times.

Even upon his arrival here, Kenny Payne was criticized for this addition because Louisville is in desperate need of another guard and Okorafor is a forward. But, he filled a void left by Brandon Huntley-Hatfield’s recent foot injury, which he suffered during the matchup with the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Now that Louisville has Okorafor and a good young core of Devin Ree, Mike James, Fabio Basili, Hercy Miller, and Kamari Lands; these are good building blocks for the future of the program. That is if Kenny Payne can retain all of these players following this season.

On top of that, there is no lingering IARP ruling over the program, no fear of not reaching the postseason, and a wide open market of transfer portal players that will be available beginning on March 13, 2023. Kenny Payne will have a full calendar year of being a Head Coach under his belt and his understanding of what he needs and what he already has will be better going into this coming March, as opposed to last year when he was coming in from the NBA ranks.

Even more icing on the cake is that he already has three more players coming in and ready to make an impact for the Cardinals. Proven JUCO scorer Koron Davis, who is also the cousin of Louisville defensive end Popeye Williams, Curtis Williams Jr., who is currently ranked as the best prospect coming out of Michigan, and Kaleb Glenn, who is currently ranked as the second best prospect coming out of Indiana.

Adding Okorafor into a mix with those three guys is already a whole new starting lineup almost already. And that’s without any additions from the transfer portal. So, the potential is definitively through the roof right now.

Plus, Kenny Payne also has a commitment for the Class of 2024 already in three-star New Jersey product TJ Robinson. And Louisville is reportedly in on five-star Trentyn Flowers, five-star Karter Knox, brother of Kevin Knox who Kenny Payne recruited to Kentucky, and five-star Carter Bryant.

The sky is the limit for the future of the Louisville Cardinals and while this season may not have been ideal, it was much needed according to freshman forward Kamari Lands.

These players are learning how to deal with adversity first-hand and will be able to battle it better next season. For example, their body language amidst defeat. Kenny Payne addressed this is in a separate On3 interview,

"“To a man, they all say no. But I said then you’re misinformed on what your body’s saying versus what your words are saying. There are times when we have players that you look at with the eye, and you see that they look like they’ve given up. But in their mind they don’t believe they look like that. Well that’s a problem. And we address that problem.”"

Communication is deeper than just the words you say, it’s also about what you are communicating through your body language and through your facial expressions. And Kenny Payne is recognizing this important idea in his players and verbalizing it.

This is commonly overlooked in today’s fast-paced, digital heavy society where technology is king and human interaction is suppressed. It’s very clear that Kenny Payne recognizes the problem, is seeking to address it, all while continually being blasted on social media and on the internet. He is a different breed from a different era and he can make a real impact on this Louisville basketball program in the future.