March 20, 2013

Beware the Cards of March

Dominant defense, deep bench lead Louisville to a No. 1 overall seed in NCAA tournament

Before examining the 75th NCAA basketball tournament, let’s take a look at Louisville — a clear top-tier school with a big chance to grab the 2013 NCAA crown — and a team with a style that is emblematic of today’s college game. Basketball teams still try to outscore one another, but there’s a terrific emphasis today on defense. And no team at the top is more absorbed with defense, and inflicting it on others, than Louisville. The Cardinals might experience an occasional drought in scoring, but they live and breathe defense and never let up.

It’s not that Louisville can’t score. In fact, the Cardinals led the Big East Conference in scoring this season. But 73 points per game is not a high average for a team that is 29-5. Or at least it wasn’t high in the past.

But Louisville and defensive-minded coach Rick Pitino don’t seem to care that they’re not setting scoring records. Not when the reward of being the best at enforcing lowscoringness (if that’s a word) on their victims is victories. Louisville has won 10-straight games in a late-season drive that lifted it to a share of the league championship, a second-straight Big East tournament title, and the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals open NCAA play Thursday in Lexington against the winner of a play-in game between North Carolina A&T and Liberty College.

The key victory in U of L’s recent run was a regular-season triumph at Syracuse in which Louisville scored just 58 points. But the Cardinals defense limited Syracuse to only 50. Boy, those are low numbers. Seventy years ago, Rhode Island University averaged 60 points a game. Fifty years ago, Wichita State and UCLA averaged 100 points. But times change.

The thought among many observers is that Louisville’s crackling defense serves it particularly well when stepping outside the bruising Big East for match-ups with teams that don’t see that kind of thing every day. Certainly it worked last year. After winning four games among the skyscrapers in New York City, Louisville stopped teams from North Carolina, New Mexico, Michigan and Florida en route to the Final Four in New Orleans — where the run ended against eventual national champion Kentucky, which steamrolled everybody. Most of those observers agree this Louisville team is better than a year ago, with a chance to win out through the Final Four, April 6 and 8 in Atlanta.

But is defense really the key factor in today’s college game? Or is it just a Big East phenomenon? Maybe other teams play things differently.

Maybe.

Earlier in the season, we watched a game with Chuck Nalevanko, a former U of L player and high school basketball coach, who often serves as a basketball expert for LEO Weekly — and a fellow who has been remarkably accurate in his NCAA tourney forecasts. It was a close game between North Carolina and Duke, won at the end by Duke.

“Now you see how those teams play?” asked Nalevanko. “There’s nobody holding the ball out there, those teams are up and down the court.”

Racehorse basketball, as fast as they could fly.

“But now look at the score,” said Nalevanko.

73-68.

And that’s a high one. The scoring sweet spot may even be lower.

They get your lunch, and they’re gone

The Cardinals’ high-octane defense starts with a full-court press fronted by lightning guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, who stick on guys like glue. They try every trick to take the ball away. Like pickpockets.

Actually, pickpockets is too mild a term. Siva and Smith are incessant, never letting up in their quest. And when they get your lunch, they’re gone — especially Smith, who streaks for the basket and doesn’t care how many guys try to stop him. He scored one-on-five against Pittsburgh. Siva generally has the good judgment to look for teammates, though his true calling is straight to the basket, too. Old-timers wonder whatever happened to the classic fast break? You know, get the ball to the middle, fill the lanes, bounce pass for a lay-up.

That’s your granny’s fast break.

Siva and Smith don’t have time for that. They’re gone.

But even when Louisville’s guards don’t steal the ball, they’re so disruptive of the way opponents get the ball up court that passes go awry. Go this way. Go that way. Overthrown or under thrown — and there, ranging in a wide sweep of the open court, is Chane Behanan, one of the finest full-court defensive players in basketball. Behanan, a sturdy 6-foot-6 oak, who was fifth in steals in the Big East (Siva was second, Smith 11th), is remarkably quick and seems to have an innate sense of where the ball is going to go — like a centerfielder in baseball, who’s just there to make the play.

The deep end of the Louisville press is manned by 6-10 Gorgui Dieng, who guards the basket like a Patriot missile, knocking down the Scud shots of invaders.

Trying not to sound like a cheerleader here, but the Louisville defense is all that. Teams know what’s coming and prepare for it, but that doesn’t mean they can handle it. And the pressure extends to Louisville’s half-court defense.

“Our guards just couldn’t do anything with their guards,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey after Louisville avenged a five-overtime loss earlier in the season with a solid domination of the Irish in the Yum! Center in both team’s final regular season game. “We’ve got good guards, but Siva and Smith, they just dominated us.”

Pitino only smiles. In other years, he would spend the entire season harping on the need for his players to buy into his all-out press. Now, when asked about the press, the coach just skips to his next topic of defense. “Now when we come out of the press we’ve got more than just the zone,” Pitino says. “The zone has been our primary, but now we can switch to other defenses as we need them.”

Finding more baskets

Louisville’s offense? That’s a different matter. When its defense produces a steal, when it wears down opponents in the second half, the Cardinals crack the scoring whip. But they’re not as potent in a settled-down half-court game. A little susceptible to dry spells. Keep in mind Louisville is not the only team with a strong defense. Others can inflict lowscoringness on the Cardinals.

The one thing Louisville hasn’t had is one of those three-point deadeyes. A long-range bomber who can stretch the defense away from the basket. Plus, when games are played in the 50s and 60s, three-point baskets can be game-changers.

But then along comes guard/forward Luke Hancock to swish a few threes. To start the season, Hancock shot plenty, but hardly any of them went in. His problem, it looked like, was he shot every shot differently.

Now Hancock, a junior transfer in his first season at Louisville and coming off serious shoulder surgeries, has found his stroke. It’s almost a set shot, with just a little lift off the floor to power some juice through the shot — flicking the ball off his fingertips. A huge factor for Louisville, if he can keep it up.

“I feel great,” Hancock says. “My shoulder’s getting better, but it’s really on the passes. As we’ve gotten into a rhythm on offense, people are sinking in and kind of playing Gorgui, and then when Peyton drives, the defense is going to try to stop him — and he and Russ are just doing a great job of passing the ball. Kevin Ware, also.”

Ware, a 6-2 sophomore guard who seems taller, probably because he’s so sleekly built, has also come into his own. Ware flies with the ball and is quick on defense — able to go vertically, as well as horizontally. Lately he’s hit some threes and alley-oop dunks.

But a recent Ware defensive gem was even more remarkable. A Notre Dame big man got loose and was just about to lay the ball into the basket when Ware suddenly swooped in from nowhere to swat the thing off the glass.

“I felt like it was the ESPN No. 1 play of the weekend,” says Ware, enjoying the chance to brag, then laughing. “I just feel like I’m a great ‘chase down’ type of guy, and when I see the opportunity, I take it, trying not to foul. LeBron James is my favorite player, and I’ve watched him chase down guys and block their shots from behind for years. I did it in high school, chase down those guys, and now I’m coming back to it.”

When whistled for a foul on the swat away (replays showed a clean block), Ware strode away smiling, shaking some kind of shoulder shake — and what in the world was that?

“That’s Tyrone Biggums,” he says, chuckling again. “That’s a character (comic) Dave Chappelle has, Tyrone Biggums. That’s how Tyrone would take it.”

Ware is too young, of course, to remember that the chase down, as he calls it, was a staple of Denny Crum-coached Louisville teams of yore.

A volume shooter and a backwards passer

Louisville continues to ride the scoring of Russ Smith, the team’s leading scorer (18 points per game) and the only Cardinal not sworn to take only good shots. But that’s good. Somebody’s got to shoot a lot to score a lot, and Smith seems to hit about as many difficult shots as easy ones. He’s what you might call a “volume shooter,” with a volume scoring business. Every team needs one.

But the big news for Louisville is Gorgui Dieng’s jump shot — a shot the junior center is just now turning loose on opponents.

“It’s the real deal,” says our expert Nalevanko. “He has such a soft shot, and it looks like his confidence is just exploding. He can shoot that 15-footer, or go around his man to the basket.”

Previously, the junior from Senegal confined himself mostly to dunks and close-in turnaround shots. But now, as he matures into top college form, slated as a probable first-round NBA draft pick, Dieng is showing his range.

“And that makes a whale of a difference,” adds Nalevanko. “Not only does it give Louisville another scorer that it needs, but he drags his defender away from the basket. Gorgui’s a terrific passer, too, and if that big guy comes out to guard him, he can slip the ball down low to Chane Behanan — and I’d hate to have to wrestle Behanan the whole game down low.”

Or Montrezl Harrell.

With the Cardinals falling further behind Syracuse in the Big East final, Pitino called Harrell off the bench. The 6-8 freshman forward responded with an electrifying 20 points to blow up Syracuse and Madison Square Garden as Louisville roared from 16 points behind to win the Big East tournament 78-61. Many of Harrell’s baskets came off sharp passes from Dieng, who totaled eight assists. Dieng even showed off a new pass in which he passes the ball backwards. Not behind the back. A backwards pass. And it’s got some mustard on it.

Nalevanko is also looking for just a bit more scoring from forward/guard Wayne Blackshear. “I saw Wayne play in high school, and he was just phenomenal,” Nalevanko says. “He had that look in his eyes that the game belonged to him.” Blackshear hasn’t caught fire shooting, but he has been rebounding, as has reserve center Stephen Van Treese, who seems to feel that all missed shots belong to him.

Again, not to be a cheerleader, but Louisville seems to be finding new positives every game, gathering momentum, while hopefully not forgetting that defense is what sets them apart.

“We have to be all in,” Luke Hancock says. “We have our eyes on the championship for sure. We’re confident. Not cocky, but confident. We feel like if we prepare the right way, we can beat anybody.”

Tournament Picks

Now for predictions …

The advice here is stick to the top-tier teams in making out your tourney brackets. When the season began, the top-14 ranked teams were all past NCAA champions, and 10 had won two or more titles. Most of those teams are still right there, and one of them will win it. Not a Cinderella.

We’ll rank Louisville and Duke 1-2 at the top, even though both are in the Midwest Regional. Saint Louis has a nice story, but Oklahoma State will whip the Billikins and fly up to Naptown to play Louisville in the first game of the regional. Very stiff test for the Cards.

Duke, Memphis, Creighton and Michigan State are, fortunately, all on the opposite side of Midwest bracket, and only one can play Louisville. Whew! A bad bunch to deal with.

Indiana does not stand out overall, but stands out in the East Regional. Kansas has North Carolina to beat in the South. Tab Ohio State or New Mexico out West.

We’ve always liked Gonzaga, but this isn’t its best team. In games we’ve seen, opponents have allowed the Zags to pass the ball around easily. But there are teams in the tourney that won’t let them do that — starting with Pittsburgh and Wisconsin, right in Gonzaga’s path.

Bracket-busters? Mid-majors who could? Always love Butler, which was our Tourney Pick in this space in 2010. That’s the year they were 50-1, but nipped by Duke. Butler is not as good this season, but did beat Indiana. Memphis might win some games. Nalevanko likes Saint Louis. Says they’re legit.

Ones NOT to fall in love with include Michigan and Georgetown, who seem to find ways to bow out. We’ll let South Dakota State welcome the Wolverines to Deadwood the first day. 

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