Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Struggles and Strides of a Rebuilding Louisville Basketball Team

HomeSports NewsThe Struggles and Strides of a Rebuilding Louisville Basketball Team

Louisville, Kentucky – The Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team finds itself in an unusual position this season. Accustomed to competing near the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and making deep runs in the NCAA tournament, the Cardinals now face a steep climb just to make the tournament field.

After several key players departed and an FBI investigation decimated the roster, first-year head coach Kenny Payne was left to pick up the pieces with one of the least experienced teams in college basketball. Not surprisingly, the Cards struggled mightily out of the gate, dropping non-conference games to the likes of Bellarmine, Wright State and Florida State.

As 2023 hit, however, a young Louisville squad showed signs of growth. An upset road win at Miami and a near comeback against N.C. State displayed the Cardinals’ resilience and hinted at their potential. While Louisville likely won’t contend for hardware this season, the team’s back-to-back gutsy performances indicate a corner may have been turned.

“I feel we’re getting better, I know we’re doing the right things for these young people,” said Payne after the loss to N.C. State. “But we need to make sure that they understand that little things matter and winning and losing comes down to a bunch of little things.”

Execution, Not Effort, Still a Problem

Against the Wolfpack, missed rotations on defense and poor decisions with the ball prevented Louisville from protecting a late lead. Twice the Cardinals seized momentum, only to have N.C. State immediately respond with a three-pointer.

“What Louisville lacks in execution, it makes up for with hustle,” wrote columnist C.L. Brown of the Louisville Courier Journal. “There’s no questioning the fight the team still has despite its struggles this season.”

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Indeed, the Cardinals furiously rallied from 11 points down in the final two minutes to get within a possession of N.C. State. The comeback attempt ultimately fell short, but demonstrated Louisville’s perseverance and penchant for dramatic finishes.

“I feel like we’re taking strides as a team,” said guard Mike James, who scored a team-high 20 points. “We really started to play better offensively, share the ball, knockdown shots and stuff so we’re just competing.”

Rapid Growth for Young Cardinals

While the results haven’t met expectations, Louisville’s crop of newcomers has provided optimism for the future. Three freshmen in particular – Mike James, Curtis Williams and Kaleb Glenn – have shown immense development over the past month.

James, a scoring guard from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has emerged as Louisville’s primary offensive weapon. He has tallied 20+ points in three straight contests, surpassing fellow freshman Skyy Clark as the team’s leading scorer. An athletic slasher with deep range, James will be called upon to generate points moving forward.

Meanwhile, Williams has found his outside shot after an ice cold start from behind the arc. The rangy wing has drilled four threes in three different games, giving Louisville a much-needed floor spacer. His 15-point effort against N.C. State was his fifth double-digit output in the past six games.

With veteran forward J.J. Traynor lost for the year due to injury, Louisville native Kaleb Glenn has been asked to play expanded minutes in the frontcourt. Though undersized at 6-foot-6, Glenn has provided rebounding and hustle plays in an expanded role. He grabbed five boards in six straight contests prior to the N.C. State game.

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“When you can make 3-pointers and you can get to the free throw line, it always gives you an opportunity to win,” said N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, noting Louisville’s improvement in those areas.

Johnson Providing Instant Offense

While the freshmen trio adapts on the fly, Ty-Laur Johnson has given Louisville quality guard play off the bench. The sophomore transfer from Tulsa brought much-needed experience to the Cardinal backcourt.

Johnson was instrumental in the comeback win at Miami, stealing the ball and scoring a critical late layup. He followed up with 14 points, five assists and just one turnover against N.C. State’s pressure defense. His ability to create offense and handle the ball under duress has proven invaluable.

In the first half versus the Wolfpack, Johnson dove on the floor to recover a loose ball and found Williams for a three-pointer, igniting the home crowd. The hustle play exemplified the effort this young squad brings, even if the results don’t always follow.

Lineup Consistency Still Needed

For Louisville to take the next step, Payne needs to settle on a firm rotation. Odd lineups, like the one trotted out to start the second half against N.C. State, have backfired. With so many inexperienced pieces still learning to mesh, cohesion and chemistry are crucial.

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Payne acknowledged after the loss that Louisville currently lacks the “wiggle room” to make multiple mistakes. To develop that resilience, a consistent rotation and defined roles are paramount. Players still adapting to the college game need time and opportunity to grow into those roles.

Though postseason expectations have been lowered, the campaign remains about establishing identity and culture. Payne maintains that doing right by the players is the top priority, with winning naturally following development.

“I feel like we’re taking strides as a team,” he reiterated. “We really started to play better offensively, share the ball, knockdown shots and stuff.”

Upcoming ACC Slate Looms Large

At 2-12 in conference play, Louisville has dug itself a hole in the ACC standings. With talented but beatable teams like Syracuse, Georgia Tech and Clemson ahead on the schedule, the Cardinals will have their chances down the stretch.

First comes a difficult road challenge at No. 7 North Carolina on Wednesday. Louisville will likely enter as heavy underdogs, but the veteran Tar Heels tend to play down to their competition. If the Cards can continue their upward trajectory, an upset isn’t out of the question.

Regardless of each final score, Cardinal fans hope to see sustained competitiveness and growth. Payne’s rebuilding efforts appear ahead of schedule, aided by the rapid development of freshmen. There will certainly be more bumps along the way, but this young Louisville squad has proven itself a fighter.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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