Louisville Basketball: What's the Matter with the Defending Champs?

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Louisville Basketball: What's the Matter with the Defending Champs?
USA Today

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.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

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. 

Take a look at what Smith sees when he decides to attack in one possession against Kentucky.

Screen shot of CBS telecast

The UK defense is set. No one is scrambling. Louisville had spent this possession passing it around the perimeter without making the defense work at all, and Smith forced a jumper that led to an Aaron Harrison run-out basket. 

This can work against weaker opponents because they've been unable to keep Louisville's guards in front of them. Kentucky was able to do so, however, explaining why Louisville's offense looked so out of sorts.

One solution, one would think, is to try to play more through the post. Last year's Cardinals did not go through the post very often, but it was at least an option. They had 157 possessions end with a post-up last year (nearly four per game), per Synergy. This year, Louisville has only gone to the post 19 times in 14 games.

Harrell has actually had some success—11 points on 11 post-ups—but if Pitino believed Harrell was a good option on the blocks, he would be going there more often.

Instead, Louisville's offense has been much more reliant on the drive-and-kick game. The Cardinals are attempting 37.4 percent of their shots from deep compared to 30.0 percent last year. That's not necessarily a bad thing—they're shooting 36.2 percent compared to 33.3 percent last season—but they're also not getting as many opportunities for easy baskets at the rim. That type of live-and-die-by-the-three approach is more risky in a single-elimination tournament.

This is where Siva has been missed. He was a pass-first point guard who often got Louisville's bigs involved. Out of pick-and-rolls, he passed more often than he took a shot.

Take a look at the assist distribution numbers for Louisville's primary ball-handlers last season compared to this season.

Louisville's Assist Distribution
At Rim 2-point Jumpers 3-pointers
Peyton Siva (2012-13) 46.5% 16.2% 37.3%
Russ Smith (2012-13) 57.8% 6.9% 35.3%
As a team (2012-13) 49.3% 15.1% 35.6%
Russ Smith (2013-14) 39.7% 4.8% 55.6%
Chris Jones (2013-14) 43.6% 7.7% 48.7%
Terry Rozier (2013-14) 60.7% 3.6% 35.7%
As a team (2013-14) 44.8% 5.5% 49.8%

Hoop-Math.com

Louisville is not getting as many easy shots at the rim without Siva, and this data suggests that Pitino might be better off playing Terry Rozier more at the point and using Jones as more of a combo guard like Smith. It is worth mentioning, however, that 57.1 percent of Rozier's assists have come in transition, so that could be why he's getting more assists at the rim. Smith also has fewer assists at the rim this season, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to conclude that this year's bigs just aren't as good at catching and finishing in traffic as last year's bigs.

To his credit, Smith is also playing smarter basketball this season. Outside of the losses, he's not forcing as many bad shots and his assist numbers are up—he's averaging 2.3 more dimes per game. But when Louisville has gotten in trouble, Smith has resorted to his old ways.

Pitino definitely has some adjustments to make and more reason to focus on half-court offense because of the rule changes and the competition improving.

Two games is not enough to judge a team entirely, but that's all Louisville's schedule has provided. Two years ago, Louisville finished the regular season with four losses in its final six games and ended up winning the Big East tournament and making a Final Four.

So Pitino, a legendary coach, has been a fixer before. He's not going to panic. But if he gets the Cardinals back to the Final Four playing offense how they're playing right now, I'll be amazed.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.

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