A shattered TV screen in the Louisville locker room following the Cards’ 70-60 ACC Tournament loss Thursday afternoon to North Carolina perfectly symbolized the postgame mood of the team.
After going into halftime with a 37-32 lead, the wheels fell off for Louisville in the second half, as the Cards shot 22%, scored just 23 points, and only scored 3 points in the final 7:12 of the game. It was truly a tale of two halves for Louisville, who looked like the team who beat Ohio State, North Carolina, and Virginia in the first half and the team who lost to Kentucky, Duke, and Notre Dame in the second half.
A visibly and audibly frustrated Rick Pitino gave a short postgame press conference in which he answered two questions. The first question, perhaps poorly thought out by a young, still-learning student reporter, asked why Louisville had such trouble scoring against zone defenses. Pitino responded by calling the question “silly” and suggested that as a writer for the student newspaper, he should know by now why Louisville struggles against the zone.
Pitino answered the second (and final) question of the press conference in a more professional manner. He was asked what his options were regarding reinventing his approach so late in the season.
As he has done multiple times this season, he referred to his team as a poor outside shooting bunch. He also addressed the obvious weakness of the center position (4 combined points in the loss), saying he needs to make a change to generate more offense at the five spot. Then, in what could be perceived as an act of near-submission, he simply said what most Louisville fans were already thinking.
“Not a whole lot we can do except to do a better job of recruiting some shooters, because we are who we are right now,” he said. “We’re a pretty good basketball team, but we weren’t as good as (North Carolina) tonight, though.”
Key words: we are who we are. That is not exactly a glowing endorsement of his team’s NCAA Tournament chances. No one uses the phrase, “We are who we are” or “It is what it is” in a complimentary fashion. In essence, it is just the verbal translation of shrugging one’s shoulders.
Yet, while he has no short-term solution, his long-term solution of finding better shooters is an obvious one, but it could even be taken a step further. Find shooters, but also find offensively efficient centers.
According to Jeff Greer of the Courier-Journal, Louisville gets exactly 9.4% of its points from the center position, which ranks a whopping 350th out of 351 Division I teams. The Louisville center trio of Mangok Mathiang, Chinanu Onuaku, and Anas Mahmoud has been a liability this season, with none of the three averaging more than 3 points or 5 rebounds per game.
Since his success with Gorgui Dieng, Pitino has seemingly been targeting only foreign-born centers who possess a similar skill as Dieng. He wants to find more of him, but the only problem is that Dieng appears to be an exception to the rule rather than the norm. There is only one of him, and he was a special player for Louisville who also provided offense from the center position. Since he left, no center has filled the scoring void, and the position has been a liability at best. Unless Matz Stockman becomes a superstar in the next week, the Cards do not have any other options other than to go with what they have or play Harrell at the five and run with a smaller lineup.
While Louisville’s struggles with shooting and getting production from the center spot are glaring weaknesses, the problems go further down the bench, too.
A Louisville bench that has underperformed all season once again failed to provide cushion for the starting five in the program’s first ever ACC Tournament game. Five bench players combined for 4 points, 8 rebounds, and 1 assist. North Carolina’s bench, on the other hand, finished with 23 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Better shooters are needed, more offensively savvy centers are needed, but at this point in the year, not a lot can be done about that. Recruiting needs to improve, period, and it is not limited to any position.
Since 2011, Louisville has signed 17 players, and of that group, only 6 (give or take) can be classified as significant, impact players. Two of those impact players (Chane Behanan and Chris Jones) were dismissed from the team, and one, Montrezl Harrell, fell into Pitino’s lap at the last second.
Fans should not expect or demand Pitino to recruit like the team down the road, because whether or not they want to believe it, there is a lot of shadiness that goes into recruiting the caliber of athlete they receive commitments from. World Wide Wes, Nike, etc. all have a hand in that, and that will always go against Pitino. Yet, having just a 35% success rate with his recruits over the past four classes is something that should not happen, especially when pulling in classes ranked in the top 5-10 nationally.
Pitino has made mistakes this season. This year’s team was in need of multiple immediate impact players, and either he did not successfully recruit them, or he did and they are just bad fits for what he wants to do. He did not play his freshman during any tune-up games, and as a result, they still appear lost more often than not on the court. He has continuously forced his matchup zone defense down the team’s throat despite many of the player’s inability to fully grasp it, and this late in the season, he has still not figured out how to get his offense to run smoothly against a zone defense.
Finally, though, he sounded as if it finally dawned on him that he needs to do better recruiting. Although he was brief, he admitted he had to recruit better shooters and figure out how to produce points from the center. Whereas previously in the year, he would point fingers at his players, saying they needed to do this or that, they needed to be a “Louisville man,” he now sounds as if he realizes he did not build this season’s team into a contender. Now that he understands that, it is time to fix it.
Next year’s class appears (on paper at least) to be perfect Pitino-type of class. All appear to be humble, willing learners who can play at a high level. Three can contribute immediately, and the fourth, marksman Ryan McMahon, could not only be a good player for depth, but he will not scare off any high profile 2016 guards. Another prospect he is after, 2016 wing Maverick Rowan, also fits the mold of what Pitino is looking for in terms of fit and production.
Furthermore, even if he limited himself, he did a fine job coaching his way out of it on more than one occasion, proving to still be one of the game’s finest coaches. More times than not this season, Louisville had no more than three significant contributors per game (in any statistical category), and yet, he led his team to some significant wins and has never let them slip from the top 20. Had he a deeper, more talented team, who knows what could have been.
At this point in the season, though, he’s right. It is what it is, and not a lot more can be done. If the team has not clicked yet, chances are they probably won’t suddenly turn it on come tournament time (although, given Kentucky and UCONN last season, you never know).
There appears to be no happy ending awaiting the Cards, and the only thing Louisville fans can do now is hope for decent matchups come Selection Sunday. The best case scenario for this team appears at the moment to be Sweet 16, and while Louisville is not a program who celebrates winning two tournament games, there could be far worse ways to end the season.
The positive to take from this is that Pitino appears to fully understand he put the team in a tough situation this season and wants to fix it. And while the freshman class has been underwhelming this season, each has shown flashes of being impact players down the road, so with an offseason of conditioning and fine-tuning their games, there is no reason to think the players cannot improve in time for next season. Add in a talented group of incoming freshman who Pitino has gone out of his way to praise multiple times this season along with a potential grad transfer or two, and the outlook gets brighter.
At the very least, there should be far fewer shattered flatscreens in the near future.