Kenny Payne held his first Red-White scrimmage of his Louisville Men’s Basketball Head coaching career on Saturday. It was a chance to watch the team operate and learn what style of offense and defense we can expect to see. Of course, it also presented an opportunity to see the players in a game setting to get a gauge what each may bring to the table in the 2022-2023 season. Below, I share my thoughts on what I witnessed on Sunday.
Watching the offense, the very first thing you take away is that there is an emphasis on passing. I found myself uttering the phrase, “nice pass,” a lot to CSZ’s Jeremy who watched with me. In fact, towards the end, I commented to him that I said that phrase more during this scrimmage than at any point in the last 4 years. This team will be predicated on passing, cutting, off-ball movement, and driving and kicking. I was pleasantly surprised at the interior passing as well. While it didn’t always go according to plan, the attempts to make interior passes that were there to make were nice to see.
The outside shooting was slightly better than expected. They aren’t going to win by out-shooting opponents from beyond the arc, but they are capable enough from there to win some games in that fashion if they have to. Is there a true knockdown shooter on this team in the mold of Ryan McMahon or Kyle Kuric? Probably not. However, over the course of the season, one could emerge. There are definitely guys that have that potential.
Turnovers could be the bugaboo. This team is still relatively young and they are learning an entirely new style. So, I expect that there will be some issues with turnovers and what appears to be sloppy play. I don’t think it will be sloppy due to laziness or ineptitude, however. I feel these errors will be more out of aggressiveness. This team will be trying to push the ball and push pace. So, there may be an ill-advised pass here or there, but it’s something that I hope will get better as the season progresses.
UofL is going to post up a lot of guys and the post up will be a bread-and-butter thing with this offense. There is so much size and there are mismatches to be had all over the court. Coach Payne is going to want to get guys Sydney Curry, Roosevelt Wheeler, and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield on the block and let them go to work. He’s also got players like Jae’lyn Withers and Kamari Lands that can easily post up on smaller guards and forwards and get easy buckets. Prepare for the post-up offense.
This is a man-to-man, ball pressure defense that will attempt to shoot passing lanes for steals and depend on good rotational help defense. Gone is the pack line that plays non-aggressively looking to force opponents to take challenged jumpers. This defense wants its defenders to be physical, especially on the primary ball handler. There were a few times you could hear coaches screaming, “ball pressure, ball pressure, pressure the ball!” You could almost call it a half court press. They want to create havoc and make the offense as uncomfortable as possible. Big guys will have to be on point with help defense as will wings. Playing this type of defense, a defender will inevitably get beat a time or two. Coach Payne definitely wants his bigs to go block and alter shots. That much is noticeable. There were also quite a few times a help defender would rotate from the wing to alter a layup attempt or even block a shot. I’d call this the “cry havoc” defense because it’s all about half court havoc.
There were some presses thrown in as well. It didn’t appear to be the Coach Crum or Coach Pitino style presses though. They were more token, at least in this instance. Still, the willingness to throw them into the scrimmage tells me that the press may be something UofL does utilize as more than just a token pressure. Possibly against outside competition we could see a more aggressive form. I think it does speak to the fact Coach Payne will use it throughout the season.
It appears the one weakness will be that guys will get beat off the dribble. This is especially true of our backups. It will be incumbent upon the defense as a whole to be crisp on rotations and incumbent upon bigs to be erasers. Coach Payne is definitely going to encourage shot blocking in a way the previous coach did not.
This team goes as far as El Ellis takes them. He is arguably the best player on the team. It was noticeable that the staff has been emphasizing Ellis becoming a true playmaking point guard. While he still had his share of incredible drives and finishes, Ellis was making a concerted effort to get his teammates easy, open shots. Whether he drove and dished to the corner, threw alley oops, or passed on screen and rolls for easy jumpers and layups, Ellis was a playmaking machine. He had 16 points and 7 assists. If Ellis averages right around these numbers all season, or even 14 and 5, UofL can make the tournament and get a win.
Sydney Curry picked up right where he left off. Curry was a beast down low for the Cards white team. He’s the other bellwether player for this team. If he’s dominant down in the paint, this team can be special. Curry had a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds and when he got position, he was scoring or getting fouled. I cannot see any scenario where UofL does not make sure Curry gets one touch in the paint on basically every possession. It would be an injustice for him not to. The Curry-Ellis regime will be what decides UofL’s season. If they thrive, this team should be good.
I think, just based on this scrimmage, Rose Wheeler is the clear back up to Sydney Curry. He had 8 points and 9 rebounds, along with an outstanding block on a Hercy Miller dunk attempt. This is excellent news as it shows Coach Payne’s and Coach Manning’s reputations as big man whisperers is bearing out so far. Obviously, game action will determine more, but Wheeler was very solid in his role in the scrimmage and has so much potential as a true post scorer.
JJ Traynor is arguably a fan favorite and he has shown a propensity in games as being a very good 3-point shooter. He was off from beyond the arc on this day, but he was not silent. Traynor had a few highlight dunks on feeds from Ellis and was the fourth leading scorer in the scrimmage with 14 points. He also contributed 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. A solid effort in this red-white scrimmage. If he hit his open 3s like he had before, he would’ve been a 20-point scorer on the day.
While Curry and Ellis are the bellwethers, Kamari Lands is the guy that can make this UofL team not just a tournament team, but a team that could shock many and make a second weekend run. Lands has all the tools to be a superstar. He’s 6’8, handles the ball like a 6’3 guard, can score from anywhere on the floor, and has length to be a disruptive force on defense blocking shots and getting into passing lanes for steals. He finished with 16 points which put him tied for second on the team for the game. He also had 4 rebounds and 2 steals. Coach Payne said he needs Lands to play like a sophomore. If he does, this team can turn some heads and Lands could be a potential one-and-done prospect.
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield is a player I expected to see more out of yesterday because he has every physical tool and skill. However, he didn’t have his best game. He scored 8 points, but only added 3 rebounds. He’s a guy that should be averaging 6-8 rebounds because he’s tall, long, and athletic. There were glimpses of the star he can be throughout the scrimmage. I think he’s a guy by February we could see him hitting his stride and being a monster for the Cards. He’s just got to find his niche and get his rhythm.
First off, Fabio Basili looks like a high major D-I player. He’s definitely got all the athletic and skill tools you would want in a point guard at the high major level. It’s a bit shocking no one really picked up on this guy. He scored 11 points, grabbed 9 (9!) boards, and had 4 assists. That’s a hell of a line. However, he’s definitely a freshman. He still needs to develop physically as he had issues finishing through some contact. Mentally, he had an issue telegraphing his passes and sometimes just had normal freshman mistakes that led to 5 turnovers. To my surprise, I think he will play some minutes this year. However, he’s not the back up point guard to El Ellis. Basili will be a really really good player down the line. The talent is definitely there. He’s a reclassified freshman though. So, it’s understandable he is going to need time to grow and acclimate to life at a high major college basketball level. However, I think he should. There’s nothing I saw yesterday that tells me he’s going to be a fail to reach his potential. If anything, I came away pleasantly surprised at how comfortable he looked considering all the factors I mentioned above.
To me, just based on this scrimmage, Hercy Miller is your backup point guard. Miller scored 7 points on only 4 shots. He chipped in 5 rebounds and 1 assist. He did have 4 turnovers which is not ideal. During most of the scrimmage he played off the ball. I just thought he looked like a more solid and reliable option to Basili. The numbers wouldn’t seem to support this, but Basili did play 5 more minutes. I think that tells me Coach Payne wants to get Basili more of a chance to get acclimated and grow. To me, Miller is just a very solid option. The great thing is, I could be totally wrong and Basili is the backup to start the season. There’s still a lot of practices and a couple of exhibitions before the opener. However, I think that Miller’s edge in experience, along with his edge physically, will lead him to be the backup to begin the season. As the season progresses, I could easily see things change.
Of all the newcomers, Devin Ree has the farthest to go. He just looks most like a freshman of all the freshmen. What I do like about Ree is that I believe he will be a great shooter for this program. Of all the players I saw take shots, he’s arguably got the best stroke. I think he will get spot minutes for his freshman season and I look for him to be a major contributor next season.
I’m not going to mention all the walk ons. However, I did want to single out Zan Payne, the coach’s son. In 16 minutes, he scored 8 points, grabbed 1 rebound, had 1 assist, and got 2 steals. To me, he was the standout of all the walk ons. He looked like he would be the first called upon in a pinch.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the full team as Jae’lyn Withers and Mike James didn’t play for undisclosed reasons.
Overall, I think this team is a potential tournament team. I like the style as there is more player movement and passing on offense. It’s not stagnant set plays, but very free flowing. The shooting isn’t great, but it’s not horrid. It’s average. However, the interior offensive play should be some of the best in the country. Defensively, I expect this team to pressure the ball and passing lanes and look to get steals that lead to fast-breaks. I truly believe this team will actually cash in on fast-break opportunities unlike teams of the recent past. Keep in mind, my assessment is based both on what I saw and the potential I think can be reached. It also doesn’t take into account what Withers and James will bring to the team. Their additions could easily push this team from potential tournament team to lock tournament team with a potential to reach the second weekend. Regardless, I don’t think this team will be boring. We may pull our hair out with some turnovers and drives we get beat on, but I think we will be fun to watch. Other teams will recognize quickly this isn’t last year’s Louisville team and they are going to actually have to bring it to beat us.