For a few fleeting seconds, college basketball’s most desperate team thought it could finally celebrate its first victory of the season. A swarm of Louisville players mobbed senior guard El Ellis in one corner of the floor as jubilant fans raised their arms in relief.
There was only one problem: Ellis didn’t get his game-winning shot off in time.
El Ellis shot at the buzzer waved off.pic.twitter.com/ei7hRGnSIX
— Jamie Shaw (@JamieShaw5) November 16, 2022
Referees correctly ruled that Ellis’ go-ahead layup came a fraction of a second late, dooming Louisville to a 61-60 loss to Appalachian State and to its third one-point defeat in the past seven days. The Cardinals, according to ESPN Stats & Info, are the only Division I team since at least the 1980-81 season to lose each of its first three games by a single point.
First, Louisville couldn’t complete a late comeback against Bellarmine. Next, the Cardinals failed to prevent one against Wright State. Then, on Tuesday night, Louisville trailed from the opening seconds until the final buzzer against Appalachian State and fell to 0-3 for the first time in nearly four decades.
“They looked like they were Louisville. We looked like we were App State,” first-year Louisville head coach Kenny Payne lamented during a brutally honest postgame news conference. “That cannot happen. There has to be some pride, some toughness about being at home and coming out and fighting to get wins. That’s what this program is built on.”
Could 0-3 Louisville start season 0-10?
The scary part for Louisville is that this was supposed to be the easy part of the schedule. The Cardinals will play nothing but power conference opponents for the next month.
A brutal stretch starts next Monday when Louisville opens the Maui Invitational against ninth-ranked Arkansas. Up next is either 10th-ranked Creighton or NCAA tournament-tested Texas Tech. The other side of the Maui draw includes Arizona, Ohio State, San Diego State and Cincinnati.
When the Cardinals return from Lahaina, they host Maryland before beginning ACC play against Miami and Florida State. Louisville won’t be favored to secure its first win until Dec. 14 against Western Kentucky, per KenPom, and Pomeroy himself admits his site favoring the Cardinals over the Hilltoppers is “definitely generous.”
Why has Payne’s return to his alma mater started so dreadfully? Why is once-proud Louisville in jeopardy of potentially lurching to an 0-10 start? The program’s decline began in the wake of a 24-win pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. The best players from that ACC runner-up squad moved on and looming NCAA sanctions made it difficult for former coach Chris Mack to recruit adequate replacements.
Mack left the program threadbare and without a double-digit scorer when he was fired midway through last year’s 19-loss season. Then Payne was unable to sufficiently restock the roster on the fly after Louisville hired him last March.
Former five-star recruit Brandon Huntley-Hatfield transferred from Tennessee and four-star recruit Kamari Lands honored his commitment to Louisville, but Payne did not bolster his thin backcourt with any transfers or late signees. He complained about negative recruiting hurting his recruiting efforts with the Louisville program facing the possibility of NCAA sanctions at the time.
The byproduct is a Louisville team that has made the wrong kind of history in Payne's debut season. The Cardinals dropped an exhibition game by 10 points to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. Since then, they’ve proven that result was no fluke with three straight home losses to mid-major foes.
Because Louisville doesn’t have a point guard, Ellis has been miscast in that role. The team’s top scoring threat has scored 29 points in both of the Cardinals’ past two games, but he has nearly twice as many turnovers as assists this season.
After Tuesday night’s loss, Payne singled out Louisville’s 18 turnovers and Appalachian State’s 20 points off those turnovers. Payne said he has been “preaching since Day 1” the importance of playing unselfishly, but the message hasn’t sunk in.
“The ball is not moving, we’re not driving and kicking, we’re not assisting our teammates,” Payne said.
Defense, Payne says, has to be Louisville’s hallmark this season, but the Cardinals have been only mediocre so far. Bellarmine’s old-school motion offense carved up Louisville for stretches of last Wednesday’s season opener. Wright State scored at the rim too easily three nights later. And only after spotting Appalachian State a 13-point halftime lead did Louisville lock in defensively on Tuesday.
Louisville still might have salvaged Payne’s first victory as a head coach had Ellis looked to attack the rim a few seconds sooner. Payne intimated that he felt his senior guard wasted too much time on the final possession.
“We could have gotten the same basket a fraction earlier, you understand what I’m saying?” Payne said.
There’s still time for Louisville to turn its season around, but Payne painted a bleak picture. He said that the Cardinals’ practice habits mirror the worst of what they’ve shown during the opening three games.
Said Payne, “We shouldn’t have three bad practices before a game, two bad practices before a game and hope we turn on the light switch.”