What is Wrong with Louisville?

Rick Pitino said one thing after his team’s Dec. 28 loss to Kentucky that could become a slogan for this year’s Louisville squad.

“I don’t panic too much early in the year,” Pitino said.

If there were a panic button in front of Louisville fans while watching losses to North Carolina and Kentucky and then seeing Chane Behanan’s career end this week, it would probably need new batteries.

Louisville opened the season with legitimate hopes to repeat as national champions. (It was my pick.) Star player Russ Smith was another year wiser. Behanan, a beast in the national title game, and tournament MOP Luke Hancock had great finishes to build off. Two very important pieces were gone, Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva, but in their place stepped a potential lottery pick, Montrezl Harrell, and the best junior-college prospect in the country, Chris Jones, who was also a more talented scorer than Siva.

Two months in, the product is far from finished, but Pitino does have reason for worry as Louisville begins the new year.

The Cardinals have looked far from elite against UNC and UK, and it’s fool’s gold to take away too much from the rest of the season.

The optimist would look at the Cardinals’ results and say they’ve shown the ability to be dominant. Ken Pomeroy’s system still has Louisville No. 1. But Pomeroy’s numbers also show that Louisville’s nonconference strength of schedule ranked 278th, and the Cardinals’ dominance against those weaker opponents hasn’t carried over when the competition stiffened.

The No. 1 worry for the Cardinals should be scoring in the half court. They had 60 half-court possessions against Kentucky and only came away with points on 20 of those possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required).

The way Louisville bounced back this week with an easy 90-65 win over Central Florida suggested improvement, but the half-court numbers weren’t much better. The Cards scored on 22 of their 57 half-court sets, per Synergy. The numbers from UNC were better—scoring 35 times in 76 half-court sets—but still not a model of efficiency.

Here’s the issue that was less of a problem the last few seasons: A majority of good teams are going to be able to force Louisville to play a half-court game.

The new rules have made it more difficult for Pitino’s full-court defense to force tempo and create transition opportunities for his team.

The Cardinals are forcing a turnover on 25.6 percent of their opponents’ possessions, down from 27.0 percent last year. That number is not bad—it ranks third in the country, per KenPom.com—but considering the competition in the nonconference, the Cards should have been feasting on weaker ball-handlers and blowing away last year’s totals.

Instead, the new rules have made it more difficult to create turnovers with pressure. Look at Smith, for example, who has 12 less steals through 14 games than he did last year.

North Carolina and Kentucky turned it over on only 16.9 percent of their possessions, forcing Louisville to run an increased number of half-court sets.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for Louisville’s half-court struggles in those games, but most would start with Smith and Jones. They combined to take 75 shots in the losses to UNC and UK, and a majority of possessions resulted in one of the two trying to create a shot for himself.

“I don’t think Russ played a particularly good game from a mental standpoint,” Pitino said of Smith after he went 7-of-20 with four turnovers against UK. “I think he took too many ill-advised quick shots and that hurts your defense when you do that.”

It’s not exactly fair to put all the blame on Smith and Jones, because Pitino and their teammates haven’t really given them many other options.

Pitino relies a lot on his guards to penetrate and create scoring opportunities. In its losses, Louisville has been putting too much pressure on Jones and Smith to do just that without the defense moving.

 

Written by Nick

Nick

Nick the Quick White is an avid fan of basketball and hip hop, and a contributing writer with WJS since 2013. Nick has interviewed rappers, ballers, rapper ballers, and baller rappers on the site and continues to preach that the NBA should have a team in Europe. Maybe because Nick currently lives outside London where to them Football is actually played with your feet, can you believe this fatuousness?

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