CRAWFORD | It shouldn’t be this bad: Notre Dame gets up 30, blasts Louisville, 76-62 | Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Sitting in a situation where I have no idea what to say, or how to start a column, I’m always reminded of the words of Ernest Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence that you know. .”

So, following Louisville’s 76-62 loss at Notre Dame on Saturday, here goes:

It should not be this bad.

Nobody thought the University of Louisville men’s basketball team would win the ACC this season, or take the nation by storm. Nobody had pegged it as a Top 25 team. Those who paid attention and realized that it was little more than the remnants of last season’s team (which finished 13-19 and lost 15 of its final 18 games) knew it could be a difficult season.

But not this difficult. Not in a million years.

Against a Notre Dame team that was 1-9 in the ACC, Louisville fell behind by 30 points early in the second half. Thirty.

The Cardinals are in the middle of the easiest stretch of conference games since the program competed in the American Athletic Conference. The last time they played four sub-100-ranked league opponents, they went 4-0 and won by an average of 28.3 points. They’ve scored more than 70 points only three times all season. Their record is now 2-19, and 0-11 in the ACC.

Did I mention, Louisville was down 30? To Notre Dame? The Irish did whatever they wanted. And I mean anything. They played the entire first half without a single turnover. They took the ball to the rim with impunity. They fired open 3-pointers joyfully.

Cardinals coach Kenny Payne turned to a newcomer, Emmanuel Okorafor, who 10 days ago was not even in the program. The product of the NBA’s Africa Academy contributed eight points, five rebounds, a blocked shot and much needed energy in 18 minutes. Why the team lacked energy in what objectively could be called a winnable conference game is anyone’s guess. And nobody has a good guess.

“We played with a little bit of — a lot of — lack of energy, which is disappointing. We played with a lack of pride for what Louisville is. I’m very upset about that. I want more. I want guys to not feel like it’s okay to let guys just constantly beat you one on one and constantly drive you to spots, constantly move the ball and have no respect for you,” Payne said. “When you step on the court, it’s bigger than basketball It’s not YMCA league or a summer league or something like this. You are playing and people are watching you. What is the evaluation of what you’re giving them what they see from you.”

On Saturday, like most of this season, that evaluation is not good. Some players have moments. The team shows moments. But those moments only serve to create more questions about the longer stretches that lack energy, or effort, or structure.

For Payne, to be sitting with two wins on the eve of February, is a stinging disappointment in a job he waited much of his adult life to get. It’s a bitter disappointment. But he is shelving that frustration to try to keep his players engaged. Sometimes he questions whether they are, as he did after Saturday’s loss, when he asked them point-blank.

“I’m not a guy to keep elephants in the room,” Payne said. “For me, if I smell it, if I think it, if I hear about it, I’m bringing it up. And after the game, I asked them, ‘Is this too much? Do you feel like you’ve let go? ‘ To a man they all say no. But I said, ‘Then you’re misinformed on what your body’s saying versus what your words are saying.’ There are times when we have players that you look at them with the eye and you see that they look like they’ve given up, but in their mind they don’t believe they look like that. Well, that’s a problem. And we address that problem. So, am I saying that they’ve given up? No, I don’t believe they’ve given up. I just think this is hard. I think that for some of these guys this is new. Instead of just playing basketball, we are trying to get you to play winning basketball. . . . There’s a lot to this and we have guys that are still struggling to grasp it. I love them though. I love them and I want them to get it and I’m not letting go. If they have a tendency or if there’s a thought of giving up, then this will become torture because we’re going to practice a certain way and I’m going to demand that you play a certain way.”

Some of that is why in the second half Payne turned to a lineup unlike any he’s used all season. For starters, it was led by Okorafor, who has been practicing for less than a week and doesn’t even know all the plays.

Payne worked him into practice, and the players instantly liked him. Okorafor was all for playing as soon as possible. And he came into Saturday’s game and made a difference. His final stat line – 8 points, 5 rebounds and a block, along with a couple of turnovers for moving screen calls – don’t tell the whole story. He did bring energy that the team lacked.

“You could feel his presence right away,” Payne said. “We could feel his energy right away. He stands out because he brings a certain kind of physicality and a certain kind of energy that we lacked.”

And Payne badly wanted energy. That’s why after falling behind by 30, he cleared the bench, putting in Fabio Basili, Hercy Miller, Kamari Lands, Jae’lyn Withers around Okorafor. Leading scorer El Ellis was on the bench. Second-leading scorer Mike James was on the bench. The group on the court helped Louisville cut a 30-point deficit back to 14. But could get no closer.

“I can’t just leave you out there if you don’t have the energy, you don’t have the pop, you’re not talking,” Payne said. “A guy is driving at you and the opponent is laughing or smiling. There was a point early in the second half and I looked at their team — they’re not sweating. They’re not sweating. How is that possible? It looks easy to them. That’s a problem for me.”

It’s a bigger problem than he may realize. This is not a case of fans “jumping off the Titanic,” as Payne phrased it before the season.

Even worse, it’s a case of fans with perfectly reasonable questions about a perfectly disastrous situation. And they’re checking out. In large numbers. It’s one thing if Jeff Walz, coach of Louisville’s women’s team, is struggling to get a group of players with a handful of McDonald’s All-American’s to listen. He’s coming off a Final Four trip. He has established himself as one of the top coaches in America. He has some room to try to get things right.

A first-year coach, even one with far less talent (although this team has some talent, and certainly better talent than its results indicate), has far less room.

Payne, I’ll keep saying, did not create this mess. But he is a part of it now, because this team is underperforming. It is less than the sum of its parts, and part of being a coach is that, if your team isn’t as good as it could be, that’s on you.

He knows this. And it wears on him. Not that he’ll have any sympathy.

“It’s very hard,” Payne said. “You know, you have to have faith. You have to know that you can get through anything that’s put in front of you. To be honest with you, as a coach, there are days that I feel like I’m dragging. More days than not. You know, I will say 75 percent of this is me, pushing, fighting and scratching and clawing to get them to be competitive, to get them to play and work hard and practice and play a certain way and play with energy. . . . That can wear you out at times. But I’m not giving up and I let them know — I’m really honest — that I couldn’t care less about anything else other than you doing this the right way. And every day that you’re in this program. I’m going to coach you a certain way. It’s non-negotiable. It’s not going to be a choice about what I need from you. The energy and the fight, I’ve got to have. And you’ve got to be man enough to give it to me or you sit.”

One true sentence, Papa Hemingway said.

It should not be this bad.

We’ll see what kind of sentence the next game brings.

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