For the third time in four games the Louisville offense has been slowed to a near grinding halt, but even with the shooting and scoring troubles the Cards (22-7, 10-6) still pick up a critical home win against the lowly Pittsburgh Panthers. The Panthers (15-14, 4-12) lose their 5th straight overall and continue on their downward spiral. While both teams have had their share of injuries this year, it’s still a bit of a mystery as to how Jamie Dixon hasn’t gotten through to this team. The talent that earned them a top-15 preseason ranking is all still there, but their lack of interior firepower and offensive production will likely cost them a bid to any type of postseason play. A pretty unfathomable scenario given the high expectations and consistency of the program year in and year out. For Louisville, it was their 8th win in their last 10 games and even as the offense continues to sputter, the defense remains outstanding as they once again baffle a Big East opponent. Pitt shot just 41% from the floor (21-51 fg’s) and the Cards held them to just 12% on 1-8 shooting from the three point line. Rick Pitino’s outfit also caused 18 turnovers and held their 13th opponent to under 60 points.
So while the defense continues to be the calling-card for Louisville, the offense must be addressed at this point. I continue to believe that the lack of offensive continuity and consistency will ultimately be the downfall for this team come tournament time. Defense will keep you in every game, no question. For that reason alone the Cards can play with any team in the nation and if they’re hitting from the outside, they can also beat any team in the nation. The problem is, at some point you’re going to come up against a team that’s red-hot and that you have little familiarity with. Couple that with the fact that you could see an opponent like this after a quick turn-around in the Tournament (Thurs-Sat or Fri-Sun match-ups) and the odds are suddenly stacked against you. Now, I know that some of these 50-something games are going to happen in Big East play when you’re facing teams that know your system inside and out. It’s not just happening in Louisville. Look around the conference on any given night, and the high 50’s or lower 60’s are pretty common scores. That said, the problems for UofL lay a bit deeper than that.
In his post game press conference yesterday, Pitino eluded to the fact that the team needs to get out on the break more and push the tempo. He blamed a lot of the stagnant offense on the fact that his team walked the ball up the floor and never tried to push the tempo. The slowed down pace gave Pitt a chance to set up their halfcourt defense. Pitino talked about the team pushing the ball up with a sense of urgency which could help confuse the opponents and not give them time to set their defense. I think he’s absolutely right in everything he said, but there’s also more at play here. Once in the halfcourt, this team is incredibly limited in what they can do. They still refuse to go into the post as a primary option (granted Gorgui Dieng had an off-night yesterday) and teams have found that playing tough, physical man-to-man seems to give them trouble. By shading Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric (as Cincinnati did) you limit the outside shooting production and then the offense is relegated to the Peyton Siva dribble show, which is a crapshoot at best when it comes to ultimate results. I thought Russ Smith was fearless yesterday when he started attacking and his 11 straight points were the difference in the game. But he still takes the team out of their offense and his decision-making baffles the fans, his teammates and especially the coaching staff. I just worry that this team is severely limited from the offensive side and it’s fairly obvious how much they rely on the three-ball. When they drop, you can beat anyone. When they don’t (as was the case Thursday), you can lose to anyone. Live by the three, die by the three.
One other thing that continues to concern me is the free-throw shooting. This team is feast or famine when it comes to the charity stripe, and they’ll come across another situation soon in which the game will be won or lost in that fashion. They were 18-28 yesterday (64%) which isn’t horrible, but many of the misses came on the front end of 1-and-1’s which obviously took away scoring opportunities in a game in which scoring was hard to come by. Credit Siva and Chane Behanan for both bouncing back and making 4 straight to ice the game, but if some of those earlier freebies go down, then they’re not even in that situation at all. The Cards still haven’t recorded a win against a top-tier Big East opponent as all 10 of their conference wins have come against teams with a .500 league record or worse. They’ll have two opportunities to change that this week as they host South Florida in the home finale on Wednesday night, and then at Syracuse for the season closer on Saturday. I still love the heart of this team and it’s quite clear that they’re gonna be a tough out for anybody once the Madness begins. But I still remain only cautiously optimistic as the offensive limitations are something you just can’t overlook.
* Photo courtesy of the Courier Journal