LOUISVILLE, Ky.—It took almost 30 minutes, but Louisville's press finally started making waves.
Traps turned into turnovers. Sure shooting turned shaky. Ragin' Cajuns became nervous, unsure Cajuns.
And like they did against Oral Roberts and Western Kentucky, the Cardinals created a lead in a game where the frontrunner changed six times and made it large enough that Louisiana-Lafayette couldn't recover.
Louisville went on to win 84-69. For that, Cardinals fans can thank simplicity.
Because of simplicity, Louisville—known for its red and black—may soon start putting more emphasis on white if coach Rick Pitino has his way.
Since Pitino has returned to his signature 40 minutes of pressure with his “black” and “white” presses, the difference in Louisville's play has been day and night.
“We're making progress, not just because we're winning, but because we're coming together as a team on the defensive end,” senior guard Edgar Sosa said. “I don't think that any night or any game scoring is going to be our problem. Our problem is going to be defense.”
Fresh off back-to-back home losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina, Pitino was ready to put the holes in his “22 press,” a variation of the 2-2-1, behind this season's Cardinals. Since then, Louisville has reeled off three dominating wins in three high-intensity games.
The Cardinals forced a season-high 25 turnovers on WKU and followed by coaxing Louisiana-Lafayette into 18.
In turn, Louisville scored 18 points off turnovers and tallied eight on the fast break. The Cardinals dominated the paint, outscoring the Ragin' Cajuns 44-10—half of those on second-chance points.
Although Louisville might not be all the way back to its Top 25 form, Pitino ball is, much in part to the black and white, full-court presses that feature man-to-man attacks.
The white press lends itself to inbounds denial, whereas the black traps the initial ball handler in hopes that an errant pass will follow. The the goal of the black and white is to form an immediate trap—wherever convenient—and force a turnover.
It's that simple. Trap anywhere. Trap everywhere.
But as Louisville learned Wednesday night, the design has flaws against teams with quick, sharp-shooting guards. Lafayette went 12-of-28 from deep and Chris Gradnigo scored 23 points, prompting Pitino to change back to the 22 press with about seven minutes left.
“We just made so many poor rotations off our press by running after the ball,” Pitino said. “I think that was due to the speed and quickness of (Louisiana-Lafayette).
“Tonight was a team where pressure didn't bother.”
Senior guard Jerry Smith said the man-to-man presses are effective overall, but don't work as well against certain teams. That was the case with the Ragin' Cajuns.
“With that team, they had a really, really quick guard that was just able to clear everybody out and just take it 1-on-1,” Smith said. “Some teams are going to be able to break it. That's why you've got to have guys step up and do different things to still give you a victory.”
That's no reason to think the black and white presses won't become a fixture in the Cardinals' arsenal.
Smith and sophomore Kyle Kuric said the team hasn't practiced the 22 press and will continue to use it the black and white, creating a throwback to the Pitino that carved a niche into college basketball with presses he said were as unrelenting as a mother-in-law.
Pitino never lost his knack for pressure defense throughout an unsuccessful stint in the NBA, but since coming to to Louisville in 2001, he's gone more zone than man in the full court and half court—making the Cardinals prone to controlling tempo rather than forcing turnovers.
With the change came some frustrations, but not Louisville's third NCAA Title and first since 1986.
Inevitably, a comparison to Pitino's days at Kentucky—where he went 219-50 in eight seasons, went to three Final Fours in five years, and won the 1996 National Championship—has been ongoing since Louisville visited the Final Four in 2005.
The black and white presses—which Pitino said he hasn't used often since 1997—could be what the Cardinals need to push them over the top.
But times have changed.
It turns out Pitino hasn't—not enough to forget about the secret weapons behind his first NCAA Title.
Not red and black, but black and white.