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Transfer portal and retention key for Louisville basketball, with or without Kenny Payne

It's not a good look for Kenny Payne's rebuilding process.

Of the more than 150 Division I men's basketball programs that appear on 247Sports' national recruiting leaderboard for the 2024 cycle, Louisville is one of 62 with a single commitment secured.

Eighteen of those programs hail from high-major conferences. Of that group, the Cardinals and Maryland are the only two whose pledges have not signed their National Letter of Intent.

It's not surprising when you consider the uncertainty surrounding Payne's job status as Year 2 at the helm of his alma mater nears its end. Entering the week, U of L (8-18, 3-12 ACC) had lost as many games by 20 or more points under his direction (12) as it had won.

If he gets a Year 3, Payne has already outlined his plan of attack when it comes to roster construction.

"When I look at my team, how many really good high school players can walk in here and demand starting time? Not many," he said in December, after losing to archrival Kentucky. "I will probably now have to go to the transfer portal and get a guy who's been in college three or four years to add to this. That's where we are.

"We have good players who are very young, and they're only going to get better," he added. "So the next step is bringing in transfer guys who can take this over the hump."

If he's let go, whoever is named his successor will likely take a similar approach.

The NCAA transfer portal opens for business March 18 and closes May 16. That's when Payne did the bulk of assembling a 2023 class that featured five four-star signees out of the high-school ranks and three sophomore transfers.

It finished the cycle ranked sixth on 247Sports, but three members have since either left the program (Trentyn Flowers, Koron Davis) or been deemed no longer medically cleared to compete moving forward (Dennis Evans). A fourth, Danilo Jovanovich, is averaging 1.1 points and 0.9 rebounds in 8.1 minutes per game.

Louisville Cardinals head coach Kenny Payne (with broad) draws play in the huddle against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the second half at the Petersen Events Center on Saturday. Pittsburgh won 86-59.
Louisville Cardinals head coach Kenny Payne (with broad) draws play in the huddle against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the second half at the Petersen Events Center on Saturday. Pittsburgh won 86-59.

In this new era of player movement, which could get more topsy-turvy depending on the outcome of a multi-state lawsuit seeking to eliminate restrictions on those who wish to transfer more than once, overhauling a roster is easier than ever.

Look at what Matt McMahon did when he took over for Will Wade at LSU or Hall of Famer Rick Pitino starting from scratch at St. John's.

More: Louisville basketball, without its PGs, suffers 30th double-digit loss under Kenny Payne

Of the top 50 teams on KenPom.com in terms of continuity, only 10 are from high-major conferences.

Louisville's lone 2024 commitment is TJ Robinson, who ranks among the top 25 point guards in the cycle on 247Sports. The Cards are also finalists for Karter Knox, a five-star wing whose oldest brother, Kevin, played for Payne during his time at Kentucky and with the New York Knicks. Last week, the marquee recruit signed an endorsement deal with Adidas.

Landing Knox would be a boon for Payne's rebuild. As the No. 18 prospect on 247Sports' class rankings, he is someone who should, as the coach said, "walk in here and demand starting time."

But he also needs veterans — proven "winning basketball players" at this level.

"We have to target guys who bring experience, who bring toughness," Payne said on Monday. "The portal will be vital."

Louisville Cardinals head coach Kenny Payne talks with guard Skyy Clark (55) during the first half against the Virginia Cavaliers at KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 27. Virginia defeated Louisville 69-52.
Louisville Cardinals head coach Kenny Payne talks with guard Skyy Clark (55) during the first half against the Virginia Cavaliers at KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 27. Virginia defeated Louisville 69-52.

Converting turnover into instant success is not guaranteed. After losing to Seton Hall on Sunday, Pitino called Year 1 with the Red Storm "the most unenjoyable experience of my lifetime."

Eric Musselman isn't having a fun fifth season at Arkansas, either.

Vying for a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16, Musselman went with a roster that includes 10 transfers and ranks 253rd on KenPom in continuity. It's par for the course. Since he took over the program in 2019, it has had an average continuity ranking of 251st.

The Razorbacks' 2023-24 campaign isn't going to plan. After starting at No. 14 in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll, they enter the week 12-13 overall, 3-9 in the SEC and 136th in the NET rankings.

Being able to retain talent is invaluable. Just ask Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard.

Last season, the Badgers had an NCAA Tournament appearance streak dating back to 2018 snapped. But Gard parlayed a run to the NIT semifinals into returning most of the team for his ninth go-around in Madison.

They skyrocketed from 127th to eighth in continuity, and from 237th to 46th in DI experience, on KenPom. And Gard hit on his lone transfer acquisition, sophomore guard AJ Storr from St. John's, who leads Wisconsin in scoring with 16.5 points per game.

The Badgers sit at 17-9 overall and are in a three-way tie for third in the Big Ten at 9-6 in conference play. Ranking 21st in the NET, they are a No. 4 seed in ESPN's latest March Madness projections.

Payne has enough pieces to pull off a similar bounce-back season — junior Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, redshirt sophomore Mike James, sophomore transfers Skyy Clark and Tre White and freshmen Kaleb Glenn, Ty-Laur Johnson and Kaleb Glenn, to name a few. Although that has left many wondering if the coach is the one holding them back.

Whether or not they'll leave if he does or if a new hire can convince them to stick around is another story for another day; but they've showcased enough ability to garner offers to play elsewhere — no matter who's in charge here.

Reach Louisville men's basketball reporter Brooks Holton at bholton@gannett.com and follow him on X at @brooksHolton.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville basketball: Transfer portal, retention key amid uncertainty