What are reasonable expectations for the Kenny Payne era?
UofL is in need of a rapid turnaround after a disastrous season. What does the recent history of similar situations tell us?
In the 21 seasons that KenPom has rankings for teams, Louisville has been a fixture near the top. They have been a top-10 team in the final rankings in 9 seasons and a top-25 team in 15. But in the 2022 season the Cards plummeted to 127th as the Chris Mack era came to a close.
The Mack era was short (4 seasons) but was not a disaster the whole time. His first team finished 23rd in KenPom, and the cancellation of the 2020 tournament meant that the 9th ranked Cardinals didn’t get a chance to pursue postseason glory. They fell to 59th and the aforementioned 127th in the ensuing years, far below the usual standard in the Derby City.
Now Kenny Payne inherits the job and attempts to reverse the slide. Expectations for next season are all over the map from what I’ve seen, as the truth of the roster mess left over from last season collides with the inflexible desire of much of the fanbase to return to the NCAA Tournament quickly. But what expectations would acutally be fair/
There’s a fair amount of recent history that we can look to for precedent. In this article, I’ll look at major-conference teams that have changed coaches after a fall from grace and what kind of immediate results they produced and how.
It’s not uncommon for things to fall apart fast
Louisville went from 2 consecutive seasons in the KenPom top 25 to outside the top 100 within 2 years. That’s a steep collapse, but it’s not unheard of. I did some research and found 5 instances where a major conference program went from at least 2 seasons in the top 25 to outside the top 100 within 2 years, and then replaced the coach who oversaw the downfall. Each of this examples is a bit unique, and some don’t perfectly fit UofL’s pattern, but they offer an interesting template. Let’s look at each example and see how each program responded:
Oklahoma State, 2017: It may come as a surprise to some, but Travis Ford had a solid run as Oklahoma State basketball coach in the mid 2010’s. He took them to the NCAA Tournament every year from 2013-15, and they finished 24th in 2013 and 21st in 2014. In 2016 the Cowboys dropped to 98th (just outside our sub-100 criteria but close enough!) and Ford was out. Brad Underwood replaced him and took the Cowboys back to the NCAA Tournament as a 10 seed immediately. Underwood didn’t bring in any significant newcomers, with no freshmen in their top 5 scorers. He did benefit from getting guards Phil Forte and Jawun Evans for a full season after they combined for 25 games the year prior, but otherwise Underwood’s top players were the same ones as the year prior. He turned the 155th rated offense into #1, which overcame a blah defense. This wasn’t a huge surprise, as Underwood had presided over 3 years of top-60 offenses at low major Stephen F. Austin before taking the Oklahoma State job.
Missouri, 2018: Frank Haith had the Tigers flying high, ranked 7th in 2012’s KenPom (when they suffered a first round upset) and 25th in 2013. Haith left under an NCAA investigation, and Kim Anderson piloted the Tigers to 3 straight sub-100 finishes before being fired in 2017. The Tigers brought in Cuonzo Martin, who guided Missouri to a #40 finish and 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The season could have been even better, as star recruit Michael Porter played only 3 games. 2 freshmen were among their top 5 scorers, but Martin largely made the most of the roster in place. Per KenPom, they had a minutes continuity of 47% from the prior year, about the national average, and they were actually slightly more experienced than the average team. Martin improved the offense from the 230th best the year prior into the 58th best, and turned a poor defensive club into the 43rd best. His calling card had been defense, so the offensive surge was a nice surprise. Unfortunately for Martin, this has been the high point of his Mizzuo tenure and they have not returned the the NCAA Tournament since.
UConn, 2019: Kevin Ollie’s UConn tenure was WILD. After a step down from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference, he won the 2014 national title in his 2nd season. They returned to the tourney in 2016 and finished 26th in KenPom, but missed the tourney in 4 of his 6 years in Storrs. The 2018 season saw the Huskies fall off to 179th, and Ollie was fired under a cloud of various allegations. Dan Hurley took over from Rhode Island, and mostly made due with the roster on hand. No freshman averaged more than 4.4ppg or were among the top 4 scorers, and UConn had above-average experience and average continuity. The results weren’t great, as Hurley’s Huskies were 98th, and didn’t reach the top 25 until his 3rd season when Hurley finally had his roster in place. Similar to other teams on this list, the offense picked up quickly. One area where Hurley put his stamp on the team was defending the three point shot. The Huskies had been poor at this, but Hurley’s coaching tenure has been marked by allowing few 3 pt attempts to the opponents. His UConn teams have ranked 52nd or better every season in this stat.
UCLA, 2020: Steve Alford took UCLA to the NCAA Tournament 4 times in 6 years and had the Bruins in the top 25 in 2014 and 2017. His tenure came to an end with a disappointing 2019 as UCLA dropped to 102nd in the KenPom ratings. Mick Cronin came in and improved things somewhat in Year 1, at 78 in the KenPom ratings and projected as an NCAA bubble team (pre-COVID). They were an odd combination of above-averaged continuity (54% per KenPom, 122nd in the country) but little experience (297th in the country per KenPom due to 2 freshman and 2 sophomores in their top 5). Once again, the offense showed quicker improvement than the defense. Cronin’s Bruins reached greater heights in year 2, as they made a stunning Final Four run despite an 11 seed. Cronin has melded solid recruits with impact transfers and has the Bruins consistently in the top 25 again.
Iowa State, 2022: This may seem quite surprising, but Iowa State had a very good run under Steve Prohm. He had the Cyclones in the KenPom top 20 3 times in 6 seasons, with NCAA Tournament appearances in 2016, 2017, and 2019. The 2021 Cyclones fell to 171st and Prohm was replaced by TJ Otzelberger. Otzelberger started 12-0 and took Iowa State back to the NCAA Tournament as an 11 seed in his first season. This was accomplished with very low roster continuity (340th in the country) and an influx of transfers and freshmen. None of the top 5 scorers were on the team the previous season, with transfer Izaiah Brockington and freshman Tyrese Hunter being the most notable additions. Uniquely among teams on this list, the Cyclone turnaround was almost entirely on defense; they were 5th in 2022 after being 135th the year prior. Otzelberger did not have a history of coaching terrific defenses prior to this season, so that was very unpredictable. We’ll see how the rest of his tenure works out, especially with Hunter transferring out and Brockington graduating.
So what patterns can we spot, and what might be meaningful for Kenny Payne?
NCAA appearances usually come quickly
The most important thing to note is that 3 of the 5 coaches took their team to the NCAA Tournament in the first year, and Cronin might have made it 4 of 5 if not for COVID. Each team was in the NCAA Tournament by the 3rd year, and the only one that took that long (UConn) had a specter of possible NCAA sanctions related to the previous regime. In each case, once the new coach brought in recruits (or transfers), they got back to the NCAA Tournament. Most of the coaches had to coach a holdover roster in their first season, but had much more success than their predecessor. This may indicate that the culture refresh and a new voice can get more out of the roster than the prevoius season would indicate.
The transfer portal may be a game changer in this area, and Otzelberger’s success at Iowa State shows the power of this. His team had by far the most turnover of any of these 5, and this may become the norm with high-major coaching changes. However, Louisville does not appear to be bringing in many new faces next season. They currently have only 1 transfer projected to play any impactful minutes (Brandon Huntley-Hatfield) and have just 2 freshmen, 1 of whom was signed by the previous staff. It appears that season 1 of the Payne era is going to feature many of Chris Mack’s players.
A surprising source of improvement…offensive boards?
Many of the new coaches brought key parts of their philosophy into their new roles, and built success on that. This isn’t something we can evaluate with Payne, as he has never been a head coach. All 5 coaches in our examplesabove had coached in D-1 before and had track records. There was 1 area where most of our teams showed common improvement, however. In every single case I listed above, the team showed massive improvement in offensive rebounding compared to the year before. Every team improved at least 74 spots in the national rankings for offensive rebounding. In several cases, this was the largest source of offensive improvement. It would be odd for 5 different coaches to all decide to emphasize this, and the coaches did not have a shared history of coaching strong offensive rebounding teams. What’s more, the personnel did not change significantly in many of these cases. Sometimes it was big men who improved their offensive rebounding, but more frequently it was guards and wings who went from nearly invisible on the offensive boards to competent.
This may bode well for Kenny Payne for 3 reasons. First, Louisville was very bad in this eras last season and has room to improve. They finished 197th in offensive rebound rate per KenPom; with typical improvement they may be in the top 100. Second, the roster Payne has assembled should have some potential in this area. While there aren’t many guards, there sure is a lot of length. With a plethora of 6’6” to 6’8” wings, Louisville should have the size to corral some offensive rebounds. Lastly, Kenny Payne’s most recent college coaching stop was at a school that tends to prioritize offensive rebounding. Kentucky has never been outside the top 100 in offensive rebounding under John Calipari, and in the top 12 7 times in 13 seasons. Kenny Payne had a front row seat for much of this, so it stands to reason that he might follow that playbook.
Given the recent history of coaches in a similar position to Kenny Payne, it seems reasonable to think that Louisville could contend for an NCAA Tournament bid by year 2 at the latest. If they are to surprise this season and sneak into the field, offensive improvement from returnees and a huge jump in offensive rebounding could reasonably be expected to be the catalysts. Last season’s results don’t offer a lot of optimism, but the recent history of similar changes show that improvement can come quickly.