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ACC Preview #9 - Louisville Rising?

It sure looks like it

Syndication: The Courier-Journal
Louisville’s Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, left, and Mike James walk off the court as the Cards lose 70-69 at Tuesday night’s game at the Yum Center in downtown Louisville
Matt Stone/The Louisville Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Good news: Louisville has a chance to do something not many teams can ever do and double their wins from the previous season.

Bad news: the reason it’s not done often is because you have to have really sucked to do it.

More good news: the Cardinals should be significantly better and could quadruple or quintuple their wins.

Louisville used to brag that they had had at least 10 wins since the 1943-44 seasons which was true. But what’s more impressive is that they have only had four losing seasons since the war. That’s pretty amazing. During the same stretch, Duke and UNC have each had six.

Louisville has been a solid program for a very long time. And last year, in Kenny Payne’s first year, the wheels just fell off. Why?

It wasn’t entirely his fault.

A product of Louisville basketball himself, Payne is widely respected in the business. He got a lot of credit at Kentucky for helping John Calipari recruit and develop great players and great things were - and are - expected of him at Louisville.

But last year was an unmitigated disaster.

Louisville had gone through a messy divorce with Chris Mack the season before, firing him in January. Mike Pegues was the interim coach and Louisville was facing possible serious NCAA penalties. Payne was hired in March, which put him behind the eight ball in recruiting and the NCAA issues made that much more difficult.

So he had minimal opportunities to improve the roster.

Once the season started, the problems surfaced immediately with three agonizing, one point losses, first to cross-city Bellarmine, then Wright State and finally Appalachian State. Then when the tuneups were over and more serious games started, Louisville got absolutely hammered by, in order, Arkansas, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, Maryland, Miami and Florida State.

At that point, Louisville was 0-9. The Cards managed to win two straight, beating Western Kentucky and Florida A&M, before losing another 10 in a row.

Surprisingly, Louisville managed two ACC wins, the first over Georgia Tech and the second over Clemson. Several times during the season, Payne questioned the heart of his team and spoke longingly of having players who would represent Louisville the way he wanted them to.

By the time the season was over, people were wondering if Payne would be back.

Well, he is. It was a dreadful, dreary and depressing season, but Payne is back. A lot of guys aren’t though.

El Ellis, who was the only consistently effective Cardinal, is now a Razorback. Jae’Lyn Withers is a Tar Heel. Kamari Lands will play for Bobby Hurley at Arizona State. Sydney Curry is across town at Grand Canyon. Fabio Basili is at UT Arlington. Roosevelt Wheeler is back home in Richmond at VCU. Devin Ree is at Louisiana Tech.

We’re sure several of them were encouraged to move on and none, other than possibly Ellis, will be much missed.

Louisville does get 6-4 sophomore Mike James back, as well as 6-10 junior Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, 6-8 senior JJ Traynor, 6-3 junior Hercy Miller, 6-9 sophomore Emmanuel Okorafor and 6-3 senior Aidan McCool, who has possibly the coolest name in the ACC.

James is an athletic wing and he got more minutes last year than anyone other than the indispensable Ellis. He was also the only other double-figure scorer on the roster at 10.1 ppg. He also got 3.3 boards an outing.

He missed his freshman season after blowing out an Achilles in October 2021. He had some real moments last season, including a game against Wake Forest where he scored 24, hitting 5-9 on threes and 9-16 overall. He’s got potential and, amazingly, maintained a good and positive attitude last year during Basketball Armageddon.

Huntley-Hatfield was a 5-star recruit out of high school but didn’t get off the bench much at Tennessee. He was slowed last season by a foot injury so we didn’t really see his full game. He got back on the court in February but who knows? We’ll have to wait to see what he brings. That said, with months to rest and rehab, he’ll almost certainly be better.

Traynor was one of Payne’s primary targets for criticism last season, so much so that Payne said this: “If he saw me at night and he had a ski mask on he’d probably shoot me in the back of the head. It’s because I challenge him every single day. I’m hard on him, I demand nothing but the best.”


Traynor was up and down last season, but reports out of Louisville suggest he’s playing much better. Given last season, that might not sound like much, but it’s an improvement.

Miller, son of rapper Master P, was at the end of the rotation of an historically bad team. It’s hard to see his minutes improving much, particularly if the Cards show significant improvement. Trivia: Miller has nine siblings. Bonus trivia: Wikipedia lists Miller’s siblings as C-Murder, Silk the Shocker and Mundane Kevin Miller (okay, we added the Mundane).

Okorafor joined the team for the second semester and only played in five games but he showed a lot of potential. He’s been working all summer and the native of Senegal could really be a force this season. In Africa, he played against much older and physically more mature teams.

Clark brings in four intriguing transfers: Danilo Jovanovich, Tre White, Skyy Clark and Korean Davis. Yeah, let’s try that again: Koron Davis. Autocorrect is great when it works the way it’s supposed to.

You may remember that Clark originally committed to Kentucky before opting out and choosing Illinois and now Louisville. You may also remember that he announced at one point that he was stepping away from the game.

It looks like a guy who vacillates and is maybe a quitter. Right?


As it turns out, Clark was torn over his father’s health. His dad was really suffering from diabetes. Skyy basically took over his care and became, functionally, a fine nurse. His dad is much healthier now, largely due to his son’s efforts. How cool is that? We have a world of respect for that guy.

Jovanovich transferred up from Miami, where he fell behind after being injured. He’s reportedly a fine and versatile player and Louisville sounds thrilled to have landed him.

Davis is 6-7 and played point guard at Los Angeles Southwest JUCO and it’s possible that he could start there for Louisville. He averaged 23.8 ppg and 6.7 boards. He’s a really fascinating addition.

The 6-7 White made the PAC-12’s All-Freshman team last season. He was nearly a double-figure scorer, getting 9.0 ppg and also 5.1 boards. He can play forward or guard, so that’s a big help.

You know what’s not a big help?

Trentyn Flowers deciding to bail on Louisville in July to play Down Under in the ABL.

Flowers was an elite recruit who would have really helped. He would have almost certainly started and would have challenged for ACC Rookie of the Year.

He’s totally entitled to manage his life and career however he sees fit, but after his decision, he seemed somewhat confused that Payne was not returning his calls. It may not be the most professional thing for Payne to do, but a human reaction?

Of course.

On to the other freshmen.

Dennis Evans is a 7-1 center and he’s a very long 7-1 at that. Reportedly he has a 9-8 standing reach which is really imposing and a 7-7 wingspan. At just 210 lbs. he has work to do in the weight room, but he has the potential to be a superb defensive stopper. His glasses/goggles are going to draw a lot of attention.

Glenn is a 6-6 hometown kid. He started at famed Male High before transferring to La Lumiere. He actually committed when Mack was still coaching and Payne still thought he would be a good fit. From what we can gather of him, he reminds us very much of a Denny Crum type of player.

For those who don’t know, much like Mike Krzyzewski did at Duke, Crum built a program around highly versatile athletic players. It worked well enough to win two national championships in the 1980’s, including one with Payne in 1986 over Duke (trivia: the ACC has two coaches who won national championships as players. Easy money for Duke fans). Glenn should fit right in.

Curtis Williams is a 6-5 wing from Detroit. He has a solid shot and he can attack the basket, but he may also inject a bit of toughness into the Cardinal lineup. He also played football in high school and he’s not shy about being physical.

He should be a factor and we’re sure Payne will know how to use him.

Finally, there’s Ty-Laur Johnson, a 6-0 point guard out of Brooklyn.

According to this site, Johnson may or may not be eligible. He’s said to be very quick and a fearless penetrator. He originally committed to Penny Hardaway’s Memphis before finally choosing the ‘Ville.

Obviously the best case scenario for Louisville is for him to play this year and we could imagine a situation where he started and Clark or Davis played the other guard spot.

We could even see all three starting, but time will tell.

During his disastrous first season, Payne made it clear that he wants a better class of players.

He appears to have that.

Payne has three bigs, all of whom should be useful: Okorafor, Huntley-Hatfield and Evans. He has some bigg-ish players in Traynor and Jovanovich, and the latter is highly versatile. There are several excellent athletes between 6-5 and 6-7: Williams, James, Glenn, Davis and White. And there are two, possibly three guys who can handle point: Clark, Davis and Johnson.

Talent is indispensable, but last season, Payne frequently criticized his team’s toughness and lack of heart.

That shouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem this season. The Cards are going to be long and athletic and some of these guys are hardasses. Payne was clearly disgusted with his team’s effort at times last season. Louisville may have some issues this year - we don’t know enough to know what they are yet - but effort probably won’t be one of them. Our guess is that the wins will from from a pathetic four to somewhere closer to 16-20.

Finally, let’s look at the staff.

We don’t know much about assistant Josh Jamieson, but he was at Oregon for 15 years and did a lot of the background stuff - scheduling, traveling, budget and academics among other things. You can’t underestimate those things. They’re not glamorous but well done, they are huge tactical advantages.

So he sounds like a big help.

We do know quite a bit about his other assistants, Nolan Smith and Danny Manning.

Smith of course is a legend at Duke. Affectionately known as the People’s Champion, Smith, blessed with immense charisma, is a superb recruiter. We’re sure he learned a lot from Krzyzewski and Jon Scheyer too, and that counts things like a tightly organized practice. If he was paying attention at Duke, Smith learned a lot about time management. Again, not a skill you see as a fan, but invaluable.

We frequently mocked Manning at Wake Forest and Maryland - he’s not a natural fit as a head coach. But as an assistant?

He’s a great assistant.

He’s going to be a huge asset with Louisville’s developing big men. Are you kidding? Okorafor is likely to be vastly improved. Evans will greatly benefit too. Huntley-Hatfield may have the least long-term potential of the three bigs, but he’s big and strong and Manning can help him, too.

And for that matter, Payne has a superb reputation for developing young big men. Karl-Anthony Towns credits much of his NBA success to Payne and offered this extraordinary praise a few years ago: “KP is one of the best development coaches in the world. KP is the horse beneath the jockey driving Kentucky basketball.”

Anthony Davis said he couldn’t even do a post move when Payne started working with him.

Willie Cauley-Stein called him “the backbone” of Kentucky basketball.

Clearly, there’s a difference between being a great assistant and a great head coach. Bill Guthridge was one of the best assistants of all time but as UNC’s head coach...well, he retired before the decay began to show, but his personality was not well suited to the job. Same for Danny Manning.

Could it be the same for Payne?

Possibly. But after a year of, well, pain, he’s put together a very promising roster. Louisville is athletic, deep and far more talented than they were a year ago. Payne also appears to have brought in guys who will run through walls to win and a number of them - James, Jovanovich, Okorafor, White, Davis and Evans - have the potential to really make big leaps and possibly breakout seasons.

It’s impossible to know how things will work out until the season starts, but we’ll be very surprised if this team isn’t highly competitive.