Louisville Basketball: Will Cardinals 'D' Still Dominate Without Gorgui Dieng?

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Louisville Basketball: Will Cardinals 'D' Still Dominate Without Gorgui Dieng?
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Pitino made it clear during a media chat on Tuesday that he’s still in celebratory mode. Moreover, he's already in love with his backcourt.

“I'll tell you now this is a very, very strong backcourt,” he told C.L. Brown of The Courier-Journal.

Replacing Gorgui Dieng, the best rim protector Pitino has ever coached, came up one time. And it was hardly the focus of the question or Pitino's thought process. 

"When you lose a Peyton Siva, you not only lose a great player but you lose a great attitude," Pitino said. "I don't know if we can replace that attitude of Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva, but I think we can replace the abilities of those athletes." 

This was one press conference in the middle of July, so there's no reason to bury Pitino for not talking more about how he's going to replace the big man, but it's something that could get glossed over in the argument of whether Louisville can repeat.

I believe.

I have the Cardinals as the preseason No. 1 team and a big reason why is they have the luxury of replacing Dieng with Montrezl Harrell, a potential lottery pick—DraftExpress.com has Harrell as the 10th pick in its 2014 mock draft.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Montrezl Harrell averaged 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds last season as a freshman.

Harrell is a great talent and he’s had a good summer. He averaged 10.6 points per game as a starter for the United States U-19 team at the FIBA World Championships over the last few weeks. Harrell’s progression in the post—and he showed some of that in Prague—could even make him a more productive offensive weapon than Dieng.

Defensively, Harrell has the gifts—length and athleticism—to be a similar type of presence as Dieng. However, it’s hard to argue that he can develop the instincts that Dieng possessed.

Will that matter to the Louisville coaching staff?

“You can overcome weakness in the frontcourt,” Pitino said on Tuesday. “But you can't overcome weakness in the backcourt to maintain the level you want to maintain.”

This speaks to the philosophy of how Pitino has built the Cardinals. Speed and backcourt depth, which the Cardinals have in spades, are what he values.

It’s no coincidence that the team that forced a higher percentage of turnovers than any of Pitino’s other Louisville squads is the one that won a title. But the argument could be made that what took Louisville’s defense from simply annoying and good to annoying and great was the back-line protection provided by Dieng.

Knowing Dieng was back there allowed Pitino to have his guards gamble relentlessly and the small sample size that we witnessed of Louisville without Dieng last season did provide a few reasons to worry.

Dieng missed seven games against nonconference opponents and numbers suggest that his ability to protect the rim was missed.

In those seven games, opponents made 47.9 percent of their twos, compared to 42.4 percent in the 33 games with Dieng. Three opponents during that stretch made better than 50 percent of their twos.

  • Duke: 19-35
  • Illinois State: 20-29
  • Memphis: 23-39

In the 33 games with Dieng, only four teams (Missouri, Syracuse, Colorado State and Michigan) topped the 50 percent mark inside the arc.

The Dieng-less percentages look even worse when you consider there were some weaklings on the schedule during that stretch. The Cards played one of college basketball’s patsies, UMKC, and also had blowouts against College of Charleston and Florida International.

Will Louisville's defense be as dominant without Gorgui Dieng?

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These are hardly numbers to take to the bank. It was, after all, during the first two months of the season, when a team is still figuring out its identity.

The Cardinals could also be an even better pressing team because Harrell’s athleticism allows him to defend out in space, but it takes much more in March than a defense that can create turnovers.

It’s worth remembering that Louisville’s press was not as devastating a weapon late in the tournament as it was throughout most of the season. The press still helped create pace and tire the opposition—Wichita State experienced this—but the ability to live off turnovers was taken away.

The Cards did not force more than 12 takeaways in any of their last four tourney games. Dieng blocked 13 shots in those contests.

How important is protecting the paint? Fifteen of the last 16 national champions have kept opponents’ two-point percentage below 45 percent.

It will be easier for Pitino to make tweaks to his defense knowing that he will not have Dieng than it was during the seven games when he wasn’t expecting to be without the big man.

Still, Harrell and company's ability to protect the paint will be something to keep an eye on as the Cards learn to play defense without the safety net that was Gorgui Dieng.

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