GREENSBORO, N.C. — The worst Louisville men’s basketball season ever is over.
Year 1 of the Kenny Payne era ended with a program-record 28th loss — the Cardinals’ 19th by double digits — to No. 10-seeded Boston College in the first round of the ACC Tournament on Tuesday evening at Greensboro Coliseum.
Payne has asked for patience at every step thus far on his quest to restore his alma mater to national prominence. His manta has been, “Win or learn,” rather than win or lose. So, when he addressed his players in the locker room after their season came to an end, he said he told the guys he “couldn’t care less” about the record that will forever be attached to their legacies at a program he holds so dear.
“I’m in charge of making sure that these young men are loved,” Payne said. “… Now, I have to take the next few days and gather my thoughts and see, ‘How do I do this in a way that I bring back Louisville to where it needs to be?'”
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No. 15-seeded U of L (4-28, 2-19 ACC) clawed its way back from a 10-point deficit to lead 34-31 at halftime. The game was tied at 45 apiece with 15:30 to play in regulation, but the Eagles (16-16, 10-11) outscored the Cardinals 35-17 the rest of the way en route to an 80-62 victory.
“They were the aggressor for most of the second half,” Payne said. “They put us on our heels and made us look bad, because they played with more fire, more toughness, more fight than we did.”
Louisville athletics director Josh Heird said in January, when the team was 2-16 and winless in ACC play, that he will support Payne in his rebuilding efforts 110% “until he does something that says, ‘Hey, I don’t think he should be our basketball coach.'”
“He hasn’t done one thing that has shown me that he shouldn’t be our basketball coach,” Heird said at the time. “Now, does that mean that any of us are satisfied with two wins? Absolutely not. Like I said, it is extremely frustrating. And I can assure you, it’s frustrating. I know it’s frustrating to Kenny. It’s frustrating to staff, and it’s frustrating to our student-athletes.”
When asked after the season-ending loss if he’s had any conversations with Heird during the stretch run of the year about his and the program’s future, the head coach said he hadn’t.
“I don’t know if there’s a reason to have a conversation with Josh Heird about my future,” Payne said. “I go to work every day. I love Josh. Josh says he loves me. There’s nothing to talk about. I’ve got a job to do.”
‘I don’t know what the future holds’
Payne’s job may soon get busier with the arrival of the offseason. On March 13, players can begin entering their names into the NCAA transfer portal. Some will likely be leaving Louisville after postseason debriefs with the coach.
“However that goes, I’m ready,” said JJ Traynor, a junior forward from Bardstown, Kentucky, with two years of eligibility remaining, whose father played at U of L from 1993-95.
After adding just two players — sophomore forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and walk-on guard Hercy Miller — and missing out on several others through the portal heading into Year 1, Payne needs to make a splash when it reopens. He described the qualities he’s looking for in potential acquisitions just days before the ACC Tournament.
“This is why teams try and get older players out of the portal and elsewhere,” Payne said after a loss to Virginia in the regular-season finale. “So that you have guys who can fight, guys who understand fighting and playing together and mental toughness.”
The player on Payne’s inaugural roster with the biggest decision to make, however, has said he isn’t considering the transfer portal. That would be El Ellis, who in what could have been his last game donning a Louisville uniform tied Boston College’s Makai Ashton-Langford with a game-high 16 points despite a 17-minute scoreless stretch to start the first half.
When Payne took Ellis out of the game with 34 seconds to play, the Durham, North Carolina, native yanked off his headband, pulled his jersey up toward his eyes and with his head hung low walked away from the court toward one of the tunnels inside Greensboro Coliseum before returning to congratulate the Eagles on their win.
“I don’t know what the future holds right now,” said Ellis, who plans to test the professional waters before deciding whether or not to use an extra year of eligibility, granted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for a final season at U of L. “I feel like I gave everything this season, and things just didn’t go as planned.”
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‘What is there to evaluate?’
Payne was also asked after the loss about his plans for evaluating his staff’s performance in Year 1, which ended with the Cardinals sitting at 292nd out of 363 Division I teams on statistician Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings.
His response: “What is there to evaluate?”
“I have one of the best staffs in college basketball,” Payne said. “I can tell you that they’re unique individuals that have had so much success in this game. I can’t believe you just asked that question, because you’re looking at guys who have accomplished more in their life as players — forget coaching. Their experience in life is why I hired them. They are great coaches, and they gave these kids love every day.
“I asked them to love the young men. That’s why I hired them,” he added. “To adopt their dreams, that’s why I hired them. Nothing else. They did their jobs. They did a great job. I love my staff.”
The players have said they’ve felt the love. Ellis specifically credited the staff with helping him reach “a different spirit, a different energy” while shouldering a heavy burden as the team’s floor general. Both Traynor and redshirt freshman Mike James showed signs of growth as the season of, “Win or learn” unfolded.
“The only people you really got are the people in this locker room,” Traynor said. “Everybody was talking about us this year and the season we had, but (I know) moving forward that we’re really a family, and we’re really all we got.”
There remains, however, a lot to learn.
“Every second, every minute matters — in practice, in film, weights — everything matters,” James said when asked for his biggest takeaway from the year. “Every second on the court matters; every possession on the court matters.
“Everything matters in college basketball. I just hope that we learn from that and we get better.”
Reach Louisville men’s basketball reporter Brooks Holton at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.