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ACC Preview #10 - Louisville

It’s going to be a fascinating season for the Cardinals

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics
BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 8: Assistant coach, Kenny Payne of the New York Knicks speaks Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics after the game on January 8, 2022 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 
Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The most interesting thing about Louisville this year is the coaching staff.

Kenny Payne takes over after a period of extraordinary instability. Rick Pitino was fired in 2017 and David Padgett was hired as an interim coach. Chris Mack was hired in 2018; he was fired last season and replaced by Mike Pegues as an interim. That’s five head coaches since 2017, which might be a record.

The Pitino era ended in a crescendo of scandals that involved strippers and escorts for recruits and being ensnared in the FBI investigation of Adidas and grass roots basketball.

And this followed Pitino’s extortion trial after his 15 seconds of glory with Karen Cypher after hours in an Italian restaurant.

Mack was hired from Cincinnati and he ran into Covid with all the typical issues coaches had at that time.

Unfortunately, he had his own scandal: when he tried to fire former assistant Dino Gaudio, Gaudio tried to extort him. These guys worked together at Cincinnati and Wake Forest. They were old friends.

Mack recorded the extortion attempt and released it, which opened a whole other can of worms. Among other things, Gaudio mentioned potential NCAA violations on the recording.

Mack was suspended for six games and then fired in January. Not surprisingly, Louisville had a poor season, finishing 13-19 and in 11th place in the ACC.

So on to the Kenny Payne era.

Payne played at Louisville and helped the Cardinals win the 1986 championship over Duke.

He spent a long time at Kentucky and was a valued assistant to John Calipari, helping to land some tremendous recruiting classes. Payne also spent two years with the New York Knicks before coming home to Louisville.

One of his first hires was Duke great Nolan Smith. Smith’s late father, Derek, was a Louisville teammate of Payne’s and his mother also went Louisville, as did his sister. Young Nolan spent a lot of time there growing up. Even from a distance, the ache of his father’s shocking death (of a heart attack on a cruise ship) seemed like an open wound. For Smith, going to Louisville is bound to be a profound homecoming. We believe he has referred to Payne as like an uncle as well. Clearly it’s a special situation.

Payne made another smart hire in Danny Manning. Manning was unbelievably good in college at Kansas, but his quiet and reserved nature didn’t work for him as a head coach. But as an assistant, who’s better to work with big men?

Louisville lost the three players who averaged the most minutes and they were all seniors: 5-11 Jarrod West, 6-3 Noah Locke (he’s at Seton Hall now) and 6-11 Malik Williams. None of them were phenomenal players and Williams was in and out of trouble because, apparently, his attitude was not great. It’s easy to understand though. He was recruited to Louisville by Pitino, we think, played for Padgett for one year, then Mack for two and change and then for Pegues. It doesn't excuse his poor behavior last year, but that can’t have been easy.

They also lost Samuell Willamson to transfer. He’s at SMU now. Dre Davis followed Locke to Seton Hall. Center Gabe Wiznitzer also left; he’s at Ohio. And Matt Cross, who transferred to Louisville from Miami, has gone home to UMass for his third school in three years.

The Cards return Sidney Curry, El Ellis, Jae’Lyn Withers, JJ Traynor and Roosevelt Wheeler

Curry is a 6-8/270 lb. senior with a nice mean streak. He’s big enough to impose himself inside and he’s fairly athletic given his size. He’s strong enough to use at center if Louisville goes that way. However, last season, he only played 13.7 minutes a game and it’s not a great sign if you can’t get minutes on a bad team. He’s also a terrible foul shooter, hitting just 48.9 percent from the line. He’ll benefit from Manning being there.

Durham native El Ellis, a 6-3 senior, had some trouble adjusting after transferring in as a JUCO, particularly with consistency and defense. Eventually, he settled down and became really good guard. Defense is still an ongoing concern, so we’ll be interested to see how that works out. Smith is potentially an excellent tutor for Ellis and Durham should help them bond.

We thought Withers, a 6-9 junior, would have made more progress. Instead, his scoring fell by almost 50 percent last season. That could be because of the coaching change or the team dynamics, which didn’t seem good, but his minutes, shooting percentage and rebounding all fell as well. We’ll be curious to see if he bounces back with new coaches. Of course they could decide to focus on the future and move him deeper on the bench.

Traynor didn’t play much last season but he gets a fresh start with Payne. At 6-8 and just 190, he’ll get pushed around a lot if he goes inside.

Wheeler is a 6-11/240 sophomore and, like Curry, should benefit from Manning’s coaching and knowledge of the game.

Louisville brings in four transfers. The first is probably irrelevant in a basketball sense but not to the coach: Payne’s son, Alexander, is a 6-5 grad student who transferred from Kentucky. We’d be surprised if he became a serious player in his last year, but stranger things have happened.

Aidan McCool comes over from Maryland. He’s a 6-3 junior. Since he only played in three games for Maryland last year, we wouldn’t expect too much. Seems like a practice player.

Payne might get a lot out of Brandon Huntley-Hatfield though. A 6-10/250 sophomore, he was in the rotation for Tennessee, getting 12.5 mpg, starting 13 times. He could be a major factor for Louisville.

For what it’s worth, he’s Alex Poythress’s cousin.

Remember Hercy Miller? A 6-3 guard and the son of rapper Master P, Miller got a lot of attention after he committed to Tennessee State and a lot of NIL money apparently as well. He was starting for Tennessee State and had some moments, but he was injured. Presumably Louisville can count on a few celebrity appearances from Hercy’s father Percy.

Payne brings in a credible freshman class, and considering that he was hired on March 18th and had been out of the recruiting scene for two years, it’s really pretty good.

He can’t take credit for redshirt Mike James (6-5/215) who was a Mack recruit. James had an Achilles injury and sat out last year’s nightmare of a season. Reportedly he impressed in practice prior to his October injury.

Devin Ree (6-8/180), like his new coach, hails from Mississippi. He had originally committed to LSU before that program imploded when Will Wade got a big-ass offer to resign. Just kidding - he was fired.

Ree is generally seen as a Top 100 recruit. He transferred to Oak Hill and shot 44 percent on threes. His productivity fell way off there - scoring dropped from 23.2 to 11.2 - but he had many talented teammates at Oak Hill, including Christian Reeves and Caleb Foster, so no major surprise there.

Fabio Basili (6-4/175) was a high school teammates of James’s at Oak Ridge. He wasn’t a ranked recruit but Louisville needs depth and obviously Payne felt like he was good enough to pursue. Jury’s out for now though. We’ll have to see what he can do. Even if he is just a good practice player, well, you need those too.

Kamari Lands (6-8/220) is the most well regarded recruit in the class. He averaged 33.4 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.5 steals per game and shot well at 55 percent. You can’t say for sure that he’ll start, but he seems likely to contribute.

Recruiting is a funny business because on the one hand, a guy like Lands can throw up impressive numbers but a year later, a guy like Basili can blow by him. We’re not saying he will, but it happens. David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, among others, came to college with little to no reputation. Some guys mature quickly and peak early, while others catch up later. Such is the nature of teenagers.

So what would constitute a successful first season for Payne? It might not be fair to judge him by his record because Louisville had a traumatic season last year. There’s no other way to put it. It’s a proud program and they did some hard core losing, going 2-12 down the stretch. It just seemed like one of those seasons where people were glad to be done with it and couldn’t wait to do something else for a while when it was over.

And keep in mind that while there was immense pressure to hire Payne, and he’s very highly regarded as an assistant, primarily for his outstanding work as a recruiter for Kentucky, he has no head coaching experience. Some guys do well in the big chair and some don’t.

On the other hand, he knows the school well obviously and has a lot of experience. That doesn’t automatically translate into a winning record, but it might because Payne has some interesting pieces to work with. Between Ellis, Huntley-Hatterfield, Withers, Lands and James, he has some guys who might step up.

To us, what matters most is this. Louisville is a hot mess. The scandals under Pitino were staggering. Strippers, escorts and extortion? Bribery and the FBI? Even Tark’s UNLV, avaricious and ambitious as it was, didn’t manage all of that. Pitino’s choir boy act lost its charm a long time ago. The reality is that he’s a vicious, snarling competitor who would sell his mother to get an edge.

Toss in Dino Gaudio’s extortion attempt against Mack and the various potential NCAA issues that came from that, his mid-season departure and the pervasive sense of gloom that enveloped the program and Payne has a lot of work to do.

Fans hope he wins right away of course, but the main thing is this: re-establishing an honorable culture for Louisville. It’s not exactly a blue blood, but it is a program with a long and proud history. Think about it: Wes Unseld. Denny Crum. Pervis Ellison. Milt Wagner. National championships.

If he wishes to extend that - and we’re sure that he does - he has to do it the right way. It’s hard to even imagine the costs of another major scandal at Louisville.