On the road again

Louisville sharpens sophisticated defenses for another NCAA run

Rick Pitino
Courtesy of UofL Athletics.
Former U of L coach Rick Pitino during a game in 2014.

After an electrifying run to the NCAA national championship last season, winning 16 straight games while vowing not to cut down the nets of any lesser championships along the path to their ultimate goal …

And after the Louisville Cardinals overcame the gruesome shock of Kevin Ware breaking his leg in the Midwest Regional championship against Duke, then coming from behind in both of its Final Four victories to take down the school’s first NCAA championship in 23 years — before a NCAA record crowd of 74,326 in the Georgia Dome …

Well, after all of that edge-of-your-seat tension and well-earned triumph, Louisville fans finally got to let out a long-held breath and say: “Whew! Now, wasn’t that something!”

So when a new season rolled around, happily satisfied fans (who could blame them?) seemed to be still basking in the glow. Easing into seats at the KFC Yum! Center, maybe catch a T-shirt shot out of a cannon.

Not that they weren’t interested, but maybe willing to take a year off from the basketball wars. Put in a transition season with a temporary league between leaving the Big East and joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. Maybe catch a breath.

But not the players.

Somebody forgot to tell Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and their mates that they had done all they needed to do. College basketball players don’t see the world through the arc of a season-ticket lifetime. For players, it’s all right now! Dropping into the Louisville locker room, one sensed a quiet fire still smoldering in players from the championship team. And newcomers like Chris Jones and Terry Rozier saw no reason to let up now that their time had arrived. Outwardly, nobody was making a lot of noise about it — it’s a quiet team — but inside, Louisville seemed to be beating a heartbeat that thumped, “Go, man, go!”

And, by and by, they have.

The Cardinals always had plenty of chemistry and camaraderie, and a sterling work ethic. Coach Rick Pitino calls his men “throwback people.” But the various pieces didn’t jell as a basketball team until they began to master the mechanics of Pitino’s complex team defenses.

CBS analyst Greg Anthony noticed Louisville moving more quickly during a Saturday afternoon victory over Cincinnati in February. “Stretching out,” as he called it. “You see the Louisville defenders reaching their hands out beyond what Cincinnati is used to,” Anthony explained. “Making Cincinnati passers lean out to make a pass, and then stretch just a little beyond what they’re comfortable with to catch the passes.”

All that is nothing new in college basketball. Veteran fans will recall Denny Crum’s teams shucked the old maxim that a defender must stay between his man and the goal. They played the passing lanes, long arms extended, making everything a reach for opponents.

Pitino is a big believer in scouting. So when his team knows what an opponent is going to do, and can fly in their footwork to thwart that, they can make defensive stops. And stops change the game.

Louisville had all those skills sharpened to cut up Connecticut 81-48 in the final game of the regular season.

“The way we executed our zone today is a perfect example of what we need to do,” says Montrezl Harrell, after Louisville held Connecticut to 29-percent shooting. “We took them out of their three-point shots. They were confused half the time on what we were running, and we just caused a lot of havoc on defense. That’s the type of defense we need to play going into our conference tournament and the NCAA.”

Would you listen to that! Here’s Montrezl Harrell — a guy who threw down 84 dunks this season, and growled after 83 of them, who smashed Pervis Ellison’s old record of 59 dunks in a year — and he’s talking about his team’s sophisticated, tippy-toe defense?

“That’s because our defense is what makes us,” Harrell explains. “We cause that much havoc, we make stops and we get out on the break, and that’s what really causes it. We’re really an up-and-down team. We want to get out and run. We don’t want to play a half-court game, we want to run!”

And there’s no doubt Louisville CAN run. Pitino says his stats show Louisville scores on better than 90 percent of its fast breaks.

Nobody is better on the fast break than All-American candidate Russ Smith, who dribbles with his fingertips, with his head up, and darts every which way. When Smith gets loose one-on-one against an opponent, he nearly always scores. But it’s even more fun when he’s one-on-two and gives ’em a little fake and they run into each other. At one-on-three, you start to feel sorry for the defenders. And yes, Smith has cashed in going one-on-four! Russ against the world. It’s amazing. But understandable, too, how he does it. Smith isn’t just wiggly. He can always pop a shot off his fingertips that falls as softly through the net as anything you’ll ever hope to see. When Smith scored 42 against Houston last week, he became the first U of L player to top 40 points in 46 years. That’s something! Smith now ranks third now behind Wes Unseld (45) and Bud Olsen (44).

Plus, Russ Smith has succeeded graduated guard Peyton Siva as the front man for the Cardinals. He’s a natural, on and off the court. Great on TV and personable talking with the press. It’s a big thing for a basketball team to have a guy like that.

Louisville isn’t perfect. For one thing, its defense will probably never be as good as the 2013 team. And it has real trouble with tall teams. North Carolina and Kentucky played OVER Louisville. This Louisville team misses graduated Gorgui Dieng and dismissed Chane Behanan. Not just around the basket, but up and down the court. Opponents could absolutely not go over Louisville last year. Sometimes they can now.

Louisville’s other problem has been suddenly losing its poise in the final minutes of losses to Memphis and Cincinnati. “I knew we were in trouble when we went up by seven and our guys acted like junior high kids,” Pitino seethed after a sudden loss at Memphis that looked like a win. That’s where Louisville misses its “glue guy,” Peyton Siva.

On the other hand, the NCAA tournament scatters teams across the landscape, and it is arguably more difficult for teams to play Louisville than for Louisville to play them. Schools in your own league learn about you. (Like the way Louisville played Syracuse so many times it finally learned how to beat them.) In the tourney, however, teams from “over the mountain” generally have a big shock coming. Especially if the Cardinals mind their man-to-man, then snap into the zone for the kill.

It’s a funny thing about Pitino’s match-up zone defense. Most teams play zone to rest their players for offense. Keep them out of foul trouble. Kind of a lazy man’s D, as opposed to a manly mano a mano man-to-man. But Pitino’s match-up zone is a hard-work defense, full of sophistication and timing. A real weapon.

“We don’t turn the ball over very much, and if we can play that stifling defense, we are a tough team,” says Pitino. “We haven’t always played like that, but we are reaching that point where we have been playing 90-100-percent man this season, then (against Connecticut), we went all zone, which I thought we played awesome.”

Here’s a tournament forecast for Louisville, 29-5, opening NCAA play Thursday at 9:50 p.m. in Orlando against Manhattan (29-7): The farther away from Louisville an opponent is located geographically, the less chance that team has to win. The ones nearby are the most dangerous: Michigan State, North Carolina, Kentucky.

Louisville will not lose a game it is favored to win, but is unlikely to win more than maybe one game when it is the underdog.