LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In years past, Louisville was a program that was used to being a national contender on a year-in and year-out basis.
Between their 21 All-Americans, 10 Final Four appearances and three national championships, the Cardinals are one of the most successful programs in the history of Division I men's college basketball.
But as many UofL fans know, the program has been sitting on extremely rocky ground for over a half decade. Between the two high-profile scandals are the tail end of Rick Pitino's tenure, his firing in 2017, the unsuccessful Chris Mack era, Louisville hasn't been relevant on the national stage in quite some time. To put things in perspective, the Cards have just one NCAA Tournament win in the past seven years.
Couple with potentially looming NCAA punishments stemming from the Brian Bowen scandal, and Louisville also has an uncertain immediate future. It won't be easy to guide the Cardinals back to relevancy, but if there's a coach who can do it, it's likely Kenny Payne.
Payne is a Louisville alum and former player, who was a 1,000-point scorer and a member of the Cardinals' 1986 championship team. Once his playing days were done, he made a name for himself as one of the top assistant coaches in the game during his decade at Kentucky.
As Payne heads into his very first season as a head coach, there are a lot of questions surrounding the team, ranging from the style of play to the actual roster makeup itself. One such question, is what exactly should year one expectations of the Kenny Payne era be?
Speaking at the KFC Yum! Center earlier this week as part of a Q&A with roughly 2,000 season ticket holders, Payne himself answered this question. In his first year, he's not so much concerned about reaching a certain win mark, but re-establishing the culture of winning that Louisville is used to.
"I'm trying to build championship culture," he said. "There is no number that says - 20 wins. I don't care if it's 15 wins. I will do this fighting. I want you to fight for your life, it's bigger than basketball. So, I'm not putting a number on that."
Further elaborating on what precisely "championship culture" means to him, Payne said that he wants the players on the floor carry the same amount of pride in their program that the fans in the stands do. He wants them to fight tooth-and-nail, and not leave any ounce of effort on the court.
"Do they really understand the magnitude of what this program means? It's hard for young people to really understand that," Payne said. "I want a program where they fully get it. That people love them. There's a responsibility when you step on this court, when all you people sit here, to go out and give 115 percent. 99 to 100 is not good enough."
Of course, it also helps to have a championship-caliber staff. Between Payne, and the three assistant coaches on his bench, the Cardinals have five national championships worth of experience as both players and coaches. All four coaches are already working to set an early standard as the summer months progress.
"There's a high level of expectations every single day," assistant coach Nolan Smith said. "There's a lot of champions sitting over there. A lot of guys that've coached high level players, and players that've done it at the highest level.
"So every single day, that's what we are. That's what the city deserves, that's what our players deserve, and that's what they're gonna get. So when they walk in the gym every single day, and they step on that court, they're being coached by the best."
Given that Louisville currently only has nine players on their roster, and just six returners from their 2022-23 squad that went 13-19, winning a national championship in year one of the Kenny Payne era seems highly unlikely. But that's not to say that Payne and his staff isn't sowing the seeds for potential future national champions.
"This will not be a choice between winning and losing," he said. "Winning and losing isn't a basketball game, it's your life that you're fighting for. Go and show me how important that they feel about their lives. That's what I'm looking for (in year one)."
(Photo of Kenny Payne, Denny Crum, former Louisville players: Pat McDonogh - Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK)
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