I was sitting around talking to a few buddies on Sunday, just about 24 hours removed from the incredible sting of getting smacked around by Duke on our own home floor, when it became pretty apparent (to even the most novice of UofL basketball fans) that this particular loss was hard to swallow. Now, generally speaking, losing to a top-10 team at home or away is nothing too earth-shattering. But again, there were just too many head-scratching moments during Saturday’s loss, 63-52, at the hands of the Blue Devils. And I know it wasn’t just me or a few of my close friends that shared this exact same sentiment. In fact, even national writers and neutral observers could see the glaring deficiencies in Louisville’s game plan and execution. The most on-the-money assessment might have come from Grantland writer Mark Titus, who pretty much sums it all up perfectly right here.
The most frustrating thing about Louisville’s performance is that the Cards played right into Duke’s hands. You know why Duke went zone? Because the Blue Devils haven’t been able to keep anybody in front of them recently and Louisville can’t shoot. That Coach K never plays zone yet started the game in a 2-3 is an admission. It’s Coach K saying, “We are terrible at defense. Please don’t make us have to guard you. Please just chuck 3-pointers, let us rebound them, and let us go to the other end.” And instead of licking their chops at a struggling Duke defense playing an unfamiliar zone, Louisville simply responded with, “Whatever you say.”
Sucking at shooting is bad. Sucking at shooting and then convincing yourself that you’re really not that bad at shooting is how you get massacred on your home court. What did Arizona do against Utah when the Cats weren’t hitting 3s? They stopped shooting them and figured out an effective way to attack the defense. What did the Cardinals do when they weren’t hitting 3s? They kept shooting 3s! Louisville was 2-for-13 from behind the arc in the first half, yet the only non-jump-shot field goal it made in the first 18 minutes was Wayne Blackshear’s dunk. How does this happen? How does Louisville refuse to attack the paint when it has several penetrators and one of the best big men in college basketball? Where were the cutters? Why didn’t the ball move around, get dumped inside, get kicked out, go back inside, etc.? Where was any semblance of offensive creativity? I would say Louisville shot itself in the foot by playing into Duke’s hands, but even if the Cards tried to shoot themselves, they’d probably miss.
Ok, let’s start with the whole three-point shooting thing. I know, I know, the 2012 team figured it out, blah, blah, blah. I hate to break it to you, but this ain’t 2012. Louisville doesn’t have a first round NBA-caliber center to open things up on the outside and Kyle Kuric and Russ Smith aren’t walking through that door. Plus, during the Cards’ inexplicable run through the Big East Tournament and ultimately the Final Four, Peyton Siva, a true point guard who was playing at the top of his game and was breaking down defenders off the dribble, was fueling things and making the machine go. And while Chris Jones has certainly looked better lately and appears to be a more willing passer, he’s still a woeful 31% from the 3-point line and holds just a +1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio (3.7 assists vs 2.5 turnovers per contest). For comparison, during Louisville’s 12′ run, Siva shot 41% from the 3-point line and averaged 7.2 assists (over the 8-game span).
But forget the comparisons for a second. There’s no point in dwelling in revisionist history. The fact is, this team is settling for jump shots – and that is NOT debatable – instead of attacking the rim and exploiting what should be a clear speed advantage at the guard spots. I watched Duke get crushed (not just beat, crushed) by two mediocre ACC teams last week before coming into the Yum Center and smacking Louisville around. In their losses to North Carolina State and Miami, the Blue Devils played swiss cheese man-to-man defense and got carved up by quicker guards who were not scared to attack them in the lane and make plays off the bounce. NC State’s backcourt combo of Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner combined for 37 points and Miami’s guard trio of Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan and Manu Lecomte combined for an astonishing 61 points (they also shot a combined 21 free-throw attempts…..further proof that they attacked and got into the lane). Looking back to Saturday, how many times do you remember Chris Jones, Terry Rozier or Wayne Blackshear attacking the teeth of the Duke defense and making plays in the lane? The answer is, you can probably count the amount of times on one hand.
One other thing to note about Duke: defensively, they are giving up 64 points per game (125th in the nation) and average just 3.8 blocks per game (144th in the nation). Furthermore, in league play (aside from the game against Louisville), the Devils are giving up 73.8 points per game (nearly 10 points more, per game). Hell, even Pitt and Boston College scored more against Duke (62 and 65, respectively) than did the Cards. So basically, despite having such an “intimidating presence” in the middle (Jahlil Okafor), the Blue Devils give up a lot of points and aren’t particularly adept at recovering or rotating in order to get blocks around the rim. All of this, in turn, should mean that the recipe for how to play and beat them is ripe for the picking, assuming you have adequate talent. Yet, somehow, inexplicably, it was Duke coach Mike Kryzewski that out-coached Rick Pitino and laid out the perfect game plan, despite the fact that his team NEVER plays zone.
And while some blame should certainly fall on Pitino’s shoulders for recruiting purposes (why is it that, aside from Gorgui Dieng, Louisville absolutely cannot recruit an NBA-caliber center?) and game execution, at the end of the day, players make plays and are the ones out there on the basketball court. I have a feeling that Pitino shouted at his players, likely ad nauseam, to attack the teeth of Duke’s zone and try to get into the lane in order to make higher percentage shots. And perhaps that speaks to the players being a bit uncoachable. Or maybe the chemistry is off? After all, one of the team’s two year captains supposedly gave up his duties a few weeks back after reportedly barking at his teammates incessantly in practice. To that point (and this will be the last time I play the comparison game), when Louisville made their title run in 2013, the locker room was mostly a harmonious place where the players hung out on and off the floor and no egos persisted. Everything translated onto the floor. Can we really say that’s currently the case with this group of players? Potential chemistry issues aside, let’s get back to the Duke game, which still still remains remarkably difficult to understand.
So what have we learned so far about Duke’s defense? Well, to recap, they give up a lot of points, never play zone, yet were somehow able to miraculously pull it off against the Cards and they don’t necessarily protect the rim well despite having an All-American at the five spot. All of that and Louisville managed to score just 52 points and continued to pull the trigger from behind the three-point line, despite being an absolutely awful shooting team from long distance (29% on the season, to be exact). In fact, for the entire game, UofL shot 29% (18-61) as a whole and only hit 4-25 from beyond the arc (a whopping 16%). If you watched the game, the Blue Devil defenders were practically daring the Louisville guards to shoot three’s. Their zone was pretty terrible, the more I think about it, because Jones, Rozier and Blackshear were getting any shot they wanted all day. Problem is, all they wanted were three’s. Watch the game again, you’ll pull your hair out at the amount of wide-open three’s they missed. And when this team isn’t hitting their shots, that translates to the defensive end and they aren’t able to dictate the pace of the game and speed up their opponents. Duke often walked the ball up with little or no pressure because Louisville simply couldn’t buy a bucket. Like very few other teams in the nation, offense has a direct impact on defense for the Cards, and without one, the other is rendered fairly useless.
In the end, Louisville collected its third loss, which in itself is nothing terrible, but it’s the manner in which it happened that’s proving to be a tough pill to swallow. This Duke team has provided an easily decipherable blueprint on how to beat them on repeated occasions, and they came into our house bruised and battered from a rough week in the ACC. Yet Louisville let em’ off the hook. They were who we thought they were, and we let em’ off the hook (Jesus, I know that was corny, but it seemed like a pretty damn appropriate time to use it). Maybe the two teams will meet again in the conference tournament this March, and if they do, Louisville better have the game tape engrained in their head to the point that they rarely even give a sniff to the three-point line. I’m not a doom-and-gloom fan and I know that Pitino and his players can still figure things out, however, in order to do so, they’ll need to start realizing where their strengths are sooner than later.