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The Time Has Come for Louisville to Fire Kenny Payne.

Column: With the Cardinals' 2023-24 campaign now in the rear view mirror, the UofL administration needs to finally pull the trigger and remove Payne as the men's basketball head coach.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The tumultuous and frustrating 2023-24 season for the Louisville men's basketball program is, finally and mercifully, now officially in the books.

The Cardinals were able to keep pace with NC State on the offensive end of the floor but struggled immensely on defense, eventually culminating in a 94-85 loss to the Wolfpack in the first round of the ACC Tournament on Tuesday afternoon.

It was the same song and dance that we have been accustomed to over the last month-plus, and really over the entire season. Louisville ended their campaign on an eight-game losing streak, en route to finishing with a paltry overall record of just 8-24.

At this point in time, Kenny Payne's body of work through two seasons as the head coach of the Cardinals speaks for itself. Adding in the ghastly 4-28 season in his first year at the helm, Payne is 12-52 overall, including 5-35 in regular season ACC games, 1-28 in road/neutral site games and 0-19 in Quad 1 NET games. 33 of Payne's losses have come by double digits, and he has more losses by 20+ points - 14 - than he does wins.

Because of Payne's ineptitude as the head coach, the rumors and chatter surrounding his job status have been swirling for weeks now. Many thought that his dismissal could come following the Cardinals' loss to Kentucky this past December, but athletic director Josh Heird would remain in place at least through the new year. But over the last few days, the rumors and chatter that were present back then have once again reached a fever pitch.

Following Louisville's loss to Boston College this past Saturday in their regular season finale, there was speculation that Payne might not even make it to the ACC Tournament. WDRB's Rick Bozich reported after the loss to the Eagles that we should "expect a decision from athletic director Josh Heird on Payne’s future soon, perhaps as early as Sunday and certainly not long after U of L exits the ACC Tournament in Washington D.C. next week."

Following the Cardinals' loss to Arkansas State this past December, I wrote about how "enough was enough," and that Louisville needed to cut ties with Payne before further damage and embarrassment to the program was dealt.

Three months later, and my stance has not changed. With the season having just wrapped up, the time for Heird to reach a decision on Payne's future at Louisville is now here, and this isn't a decision that requires much deliberation or discourse. The administration must move on from Payne, and the move must happen now.

Through two full seasons, Payne has shown zero redeeming qualities as a head coach. The on-court product has been as bad as you could possibly expect from a high-major basketball program. We still have no idea what his offensive and defensive philosophies are, and his players show very little effort (despite Payne's near-constant clamoring for 'fight' in press conferences). 

Just how bad is the actual basketball? One TV analyst called a Louisville's pregame shoot-around the "worst I've ever witnessed," and a source told me last month that the Cardinals' actual practices are just as bad. It's no wonder why the game day product is so abysmal.

It's one thing to be awful, but it's another to show a complete lack of progress. The product that Payne is putting together on the floor on a weekly basis is much, much worse than anything Chris Mack did. Don't believe me? Well, as the saying goes: men lie, women lie, but stats don't.

Before Payne arrived, Louisville finished the 2021-22 season as the No. 127 team in college basketball according to KenPom. In year one under Payne, the Cardinals finished as the No. 284 team in the nation while dipping as low as No. 305. This season, they entered the ACC Tournament at No. 197.

Sure, by definition there was "improvement" from year one to year two in the fact that they doubled their win total and that their end-of-year KenPom rating jumped almost 100 spots. However, a deeper look at the stats show what our eyes have long suspected: Louisville has actually gotten worse as the year went on.

Louisville began year two under Kenny Payne with a KenPom adjusted efficiency margin of +3.91, and ended the regular season with an AdjEM of -3.07. Not only were a demonstrably worse team from the beginning of the year to the start, the Cardinals' -6.98 drop in AdjEM was the tenth-worst in the Power Six. Even the standard deviation of Louisville's "game scores" on BartTorvik show a downward trend.

However, as atrocious as the on-court component of the Kenny Payne era has been, the off-court happenings are arguably worse.

From day one, Payne has not shown an ounce of the leadership that is expected from a head coach. For starters, he has routinely thrown his own players under the bus, and not taken any sort of accountability for current state of the program.

Just fire up any pre- or post-game press conference, and you won't have to wait long until he starts to demand that his players need to show more fight, or he criticizes their basketball upbringing and/or work ethic. The Ty-Laur Johnson tights situation is a perfect example of this, or the fact that he has referenced the 2023-24 season as "year one" for himself, and year two for everyone else around the program.

Even until the very end, not only did he continue to paint his own players as the scapegoats, he once again placed blame on the coaches that came before him for the situation he is currently in.

"What I inherited was broken," Payne said following Louisville's loss to Boston College last Saturday. "More than I could ever tell you. It was broken. It wasn't just basketball. It was broken. Beyond broken."

It's a slightly different tune than just five games into year one of his tenure, when he stated that there is "no black cloud," and that "you determine the black cloud.” But I digress.

There's no doubt that Payne was dealt a tough hand when he accepted the position back in March of 2022. Any attempt to try and dismiss this matter of fact is simply being disingenuous. However, it's undeniable at this juncture that Payne has taken the situation and single-handedly made it worse.

But wait, there's more! The entire saga surrounding Koron Davis was severely botched from the jump. You had assistant coach Nolan Smith interviewing for an NBA G-League coaching job just over two months before the start of this season. Incoming five-star Class of 2023 signee Trentyn Flowers actually decided to jump ship just before the start of the preseason. Payne scoffed at the notion of potentially shaking up his coaching staff when his first season ended. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

Additionally, the one thing that we thought Louisville would benefit from with Payne's hiring - elite recruiting - has floundered over the last several months. Sure, Payne and his staff were able to bring in quality high school and transfer talent for the 2023-24 team, but recruiting in the Class of 2024 has absolutely flopped.

Every single top target of Louisville's in this cycle has spurned them. Karter Knox, Carter Bryant, Jalen Shelley, Billy Richmond, Kon Knueppel, Jamari Phillips, Isaiah Elohim and others all committed elsewhere. The only verbal commitment that the Cardinals have in this class is from point guard T.J.Robinson, and he is a fringe three star prospect who didn't even sign during the Early Signing Period. In fact, Louisville is the only Power Six program without a signee in the Class of 2024.

Not only has recruiting taken a nose dive, from the outside looking in, Payne has appeared to use it as means to unethically try and strong arm Louisville into giving him a third year.

When the chatter regarding his job status was thrust into hyperdrive following the Arkansas State loss in December, just two days later, it was announced that five-star prospect Karter Knox would be visiting. Last month, it was reported that Knox - as well as 2025 five-star Joson Sanon - would strongly consider going to Louisville if Payne was given a third year.

Finally, when rumors started to pick back up late last month, Knox announced that he would be committing "within the next 14 days." This timeline vaguely coincided with the end of the regular season, fueling speculation that Payne could be using Knox as a last-minute bargaining chip to return as head coach next season. Knox announced shortly after Louisville's loss to Boston College that he had committed to Kentucky.

Back in December when Heird told WDRB's Eric Crawford that Payne would remain the coach through the calendar year, Heird mentioned that Payne needed to make some "deposits in the bank" in order to create some positive momentum and give him a reason as to why Payne should return for next season.

If the recent crowds at the KFC Yum! Center are any indicator, any sort of momentum being generated is heading in the complete opposite direction. According to a FOIA request from ESPN Louisville, the total number of tickets scanned for their penultimate regular season game against Virginia Tech last Tuesday was just 4,302. This was the lowest-attended game not only of the season, but in Payne's two years as head coach.

Maybe if Payne made an effort to connect to the community even just once during his time here, he would have more people in his corner or in the stands. Especially since his hiring meant so much to so many people, such as Louisville's Black community and the disillusioned Crum-era fans. However, once again, I digress.

I said it back in December, and I'll say it again now: There are zero signs that things are going to get better so long as Kenny Payne remains the head coach. Even with an almost entirely new roster, one that - on paper - was much more talented, Louisville looked nearly as bad as they did went the Cardinals went 4-28 in his first season. Just about anything and everything surrounding this program ever since Payne took over has been nothing short of a colossal failure.

Now that the season is officially in the rear view mirror, Heird and the Louisville administration cannot afford to prolong the inevitable any longer, They must make a move on a guy who doesn't even deserve to be the coach for the rest of the week, much less another season.

Sure, there's not a universal frontrunner amongst fans and the media as to who should take the Louisville job like there has been for the past three hires. From Scott Drew to Nate Oats and Jerome Tang to Mick Cronin, multiple coaches have been tied to Louisville in one form or another for months now. The long and short of it is that no matter who Louisville would choose, they would be an instant and massive upgrade to the man currently sitting in the lead chair.

I suspect that we will know sooner rather than later as to what Heird's official decision is. But for the sake of the program and its short- and long-term future, Payne must be removed expeditiously.

(Photo of Kenny Payne: Jamie Rhodes - USA TODAY Sports)

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