After latest loss, Kenny Payne asks Louisville basketball players 'Have you given up?'

Maybe the answer didn’t matter.

Maybe the story was that Louisville men's basketball coach Kenny Payne had even asked the question.

Maryland had routed his Louisville men’s basketball team 79-54 on Wednesday at the KFC Yum! Center, and after the latest in a string of sloppy losses, Payne gave his players a chance to come clean.

“We did not compete. We did not fight. We didn’t meet their intensity,” Payne said. “At times, it looked like we gave up. I asked the guys if that was the case: ‘Have you given up?’”

For the record, the Cardinals insisted they haven’t — “We told him no,” guard El Ellis said — but no matter what he was told, it’s notable that Payne asked.

Louisville is 0-7 under its first-year coach. The Cards’ past four losses have come by a combined 102 points. Entering Wednesday’s games, college basketball analytics site KenPom.com ranked U of L the 185th-best team in Division I basketball. Only winless California, ranked 213th at KenPom.com, is keeping the Cardinals from the lowest ranking among power-conference teams.

The Cards have looked overmatched against quality opponents. Maryland, ranked No. 22 in this week’s Associated Press poll, is Louisville’s third ranked opponent to date, joining Arkansas and Texas Tech. Louisville has lost those games by an average of 27.6 points.

But perhaps more alarming than the talent gap is an apparent effort discrepancy.

Payne hardly is the only one to notice it.

Fans who lingered until the end of Wednesday’s blowout voiced their appreciation for freshman reserve guard Fabio Basili, who gave an all-out effort in scoring six points in eight minutes. And for the energy of fellow freshman Devin Ree, who played 12 minutes and scored five points, making one of Louisville’s four 3-pointers in the game.

U of L's Fabio Basili (11) scrambles for a loose ball against a Maryland defender during their game at the Yum Center in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 29, 2022.
U of L's Fabio Basili (11) scrambles for a loose ball against a Maryland defender during their game at the Yum Center in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 29, 2022.

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Their playing time came long after the game was decided. But the contrast between those newcomers and the Cards’ starters was dramatic.

It doesn’t mean Payne is going to shake up his lineup.

But he needs the guys who ended the game on the bench to draw some lessons from the players on the court.

“I want them to see what confident basketball players do, regardless of whether they’re better than you or not; it doesn’t matter,” Payne said. “When you step on the floor, you play with confidence, you play with great energy, you play with determination. Defensively you play with a desperateness. We’ve got to have more guys as a group that play that way.”

It’s not a great sign that this is still an issue.

Louisville lost its first three games of the season by one point each, all against teams with theoretically lesser talent. Two of those three opponents are ranked lower than Louisville at KenPom.com: No. 238 Bellarmine and No. 208 Appalachian State.

If that didn’t spark the Cards, it seems reasonable that three blowout losses at the Maui Invitational would’ve.

Effort alone probably wouldn’t have been enough against Maryland, but the Cards’ absence of ardor seems at least to be affecting the margins.

Louisville has struggled to take a punch, allowing opponents’ runs to extend into game-breakers. That happened again against the Terrapins.

Maryland made its first five 3-pointers after halftime, effectively putting the game away before the first media timeout of the second half.

That wasn’t the only time Louisville’s effort waned.

On one first-half defensive sequence, Ellis sidestepped Terps guard Jahmir Young as Young sprinted to the basket, a breakdown in what ESPN2 analyst Robbie Hummel called on the broadcast “elementary transition defense.” On the ensuing inbound, Ellis traveled to avoid a Maryland defender.

U of L head coach Kenny Payne calls a play against Maryland during their game at the Yum Center in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 29, 2022.
U of L head coach Kenny Payne calls a play against Maryland during their game at the Yum Center in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 29, 2022.

Trapped along the baseline on one offensive possession, Louisville forward Jae’Lyn Withers tried to force his way through a double team to force up a difficult shot that misfired.

And after one Ellis miss from 3-point range, Maryland got a runout that led to a wide-open corner 3-pointer at the other end.

There were more examples than that, plays where Louisville coupled mistakes with a lack of hustle.

Payne can deal with some execution errors. They’re inevitable.

But given the winless start, Louisville can’t afford to compound its roster shortcomings with lackadaisical defense and nonchalant offensive effort. The Cards don’t screen hard. They don’t move the ball efficiently on offense or stop it at the other end.

“We can’t manufacture enough points for a bad offense,” Payne said. “We have to get stops.”

And stops start with consistent effort. Defense is about more than trying hard, but that’s the minimum essential.

“Got to be desperate,” Basili said. “Can't let the other team be more desperate than us. That's really it. Who's the most desperate team out there on the court?”

But Louisville looks to lack desperation.

And that’s probably why Payne was moved to ask his team if it’s given in.

The Louisville coach said he “wasn't hoping for any kind of response” to that question. He “just wanted the truth.”

His players say they haven’t quit on him, and Payne isn’t giving up on them.

But Louisville will have to show far more resolve than it has to climb out of the hole it’s dug.

"They need to have success and it needs to come in the form of a (win),” Payne said. "But nobody, any opponent that we play, is not going to feel sorry for us and give us a W. They are going to come in here and try beat our head in by 30 or 40, and we have to have pride and understand what it is. We got dropped off in the jungle and we have to make it out. That’s what it is, survival of the fittest.”

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville basketball: Kenny Payne asks players 'Have you given up?'