UL PITT Kenny Payne

Louisville coach Kenny Payne takes a deep breath during the Cardinals game against Pittsburgh in the KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 18, 2023.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The last time the University of Louisville had a basketball season this bad, there was a war on. The school wasn’t giving basketball scholarships. Enrollment had plummeted, especially among males.

That was the 1940-41 season. The Cardinals lost their first 10 games, after going 0-17 in the regular season the year before. Only two victories over Berea kept them from being winless. Maybe the current Cardinals, who fell 75-65 at Boston College on Wednesday night to drop to 2-18 on the season and 0-9 in the ACC, need to call up Berea.

Because after losing a 12-point lead against a Boston College team that came into the game with only three ACC wins itself, finding a better opportunity for a league win is difficult. The loss was Louisville's ninth straight. The program has won just 4 of its past 34 games, dating back to last season.

Yes the competition is better than it was back in 1941. But stop and think for a minute how different the circumstances are now from the last time the program found itself in this kind of a win-loss deficit.

Its coach, “Jolly” John Heldman was overworked. He would, in time, be a successful baseball coach at U of L, but in the 1940-41 season he was trying to do right by the basketball team and pulling double-duty. He’d only taken over the program because the previous coach, Laurie Apitz, couldn’t handle the workload of coaching both the football and basketball teams and being the athletics director. Heldman had coached the freshman hoops team to some impressive records. But it had only beaten high school competition.

 The newspaper headlines in those days were less about bad basketball than they were about developments in Europe, and preparations at home. One graphic in The Courier-Journal showed a series of proposed major highways to cross the state. With no interstate system, planners were beginning to think about how to move troops across the U.S. mainland should it face an invasion.

Basketball was clearly back-burner, and in fact, Heldman had some returning players the next year and managed to go 7-10 before the university fielded no team in 1942-43.

The only thing that saved Louisville basketball at that point was hiring away the coach from Valley High School. Bernard "Peck" Hickman had to take a pay cut to come to Louisville. But he wanted to be a college coach and thought that might be his only chance.

And the main reason – beyond being a really good coach – he was able to put Louisville back together quickly, was the Navy V-12 program, which basically allowed young men to be trained as officers through university courses. Hickman loaded up on Navy guys. They called his early teams the Sea Cards. They were tough and disciplined, and they won right away, and Hickman kept right on winning.

What the heck does any of this have to do with today?

Kenny Payne has a personnel problem. He can’t go get a bunch of military guys, but he does have a portal he can avail himself of, and he’s going to have to use it. He may need to draft some guys. The struggles of this season, the depths to which the program is sinking, mean his timetable is shorter than it might have otherwise been.

He needs wins, and if they don’t come during the playing season over the next 6 weeks or so, they’d better come pretty quickly, and convincingly, over the two months that follow in the way of transfers who can come and plug the holes.

This mess is not primarily of Payne’s making, understand. But this team’s inability to rally and beat even the worst teams on its schedule mean that the grace period he deserves – and he does deserve one, based on the talent he inherited and the state of the program when he arrived – is not going to be nearly as long as it might otherwise have been.

When Hickman took over, the program was so neglected that they didn’t even have enough uniforms for the team. His wife went to a local second-hand store, bought fabric with her own money and sewed uniforms herself. And that was coming off a 7-win season when the school offered no scholarships and had very few male students.

This program is a multi-million dollar enterprise. Kenny Payne is making $3.35 million this year. There are players making six figures in Name, Image and Likeness money. They live in a luxury dormitory, with their own game room, theater and pickle ball court, for goodness' sake.

The talent is not good. But it is better than these results. Maybe not much better, but better.

What's that? This was supposed to be a column about Wednesday's game. OK.

Louisville got off to a great start. It took a 12-point lead. With a week to prepare, it came out and executed, got and made good shots, limited turnovers, and put itself in position to take command. Then Payne went to his bench. And the turnovers started. And late in the half, Boston College took advantage of some Louisville miscues to cut its deficit to six.

It drew even early in the second half, got more active on the boards, Louisville got into foul trouble, turned the ball over more, and that was pretty much that. BC ended the game with a 14-6 run.

Louisville turned the ball over 19 times. It got 17 points from El Ellis, 16 from Jae’Lyn Withers, 15 from Mike James and 10 from Sydney Curry. But Boston College’s leading scorer, Quentin Post, scored 22 points. And late in the game, when Louisville needed to be tougher, it appeared to let go of the rope.

“They have something that I wish we had a little more of and that’s toughness,” Payne said after the game. “. . . The elephant in the room is the turnovers. You can’t describe some of them, when a guy runs to the wrong spot, then just panics and throws the ball, or just kicks it out of bounds or travels. Turnovers that are unnecessary, which leads to layups. You look at the stat sheet, and we did everything we needed to do to win the game, but we still didn’t, because of the elephant in the room, which is the turnovers.”

The Cardinals will stay on the road to travel to a noon Saturday matchup at another struggling ACC club, Notre Dame.

They didn’t book an elephant on their charter flight. But they are taking one to South Bend anyway, along with some dubious program distinctions. Fewest assists-per-game since the stat started being tracked in 1970. First sub-40 percent field goal percentage since 1960.

It's a heavy load and clearly is weighing on the players, coaches, and fan base of a proud program that still can’t quite fathom where it finds itself, on this end of a proud history.

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