Louisville: An NCAA Lock????

cardsThe answer, if the Cardinals don’t win the AAC tourney, is maybe, maybe not.

While the Cardinal Nation is pumped over last night’s pummeling of Houston, perspective is in order. As of yet, Louisville has no quality wins. As in Zero. None.

The operative word here, of course is “yet.”

A W tomorrow at UConn will be a start. Returning the favor here would also help. A W later at Memphis State would be added evidence. A sweep of Cincy would seal the deal.

Which is to say, work is left to be done.

Here’s the entirety of Seth Greenberg’s take on the situation, which I have cut and pasted from ESPN.com Insider.

There’s no doubt that Louisville is one of the 68 best teams in college basketball, but after deducting automatic bids for the NCAA tournament, that number shrinks to 36. Do the Cardinals fall among that group? While they are a team with no bad losses, they also boast no wins against teams that will definitely be in the NCAA tournament. Not yet anyway. They only played one true road game in nonconference play, a loss to Kentucky, and one neutral court game, a loss to North Carolina. Simply, you can’t feel too good about that resume. Something has to change. And soon.

Louisville recently fell at home against Memphis, though it has a chance to avenge the defeat in March. Home and away contests against Cincinnati present the only other opportunities to beat a ranked opponent. It’s important for Louisville to at worst split its remaining games against squads that are expected to be in the field, including Southern Methodist (a bubble team).

The 2013-14 Cardinals, on paper, bear some resemblance to last season’s national champion. According to KenPom.com, Louisville is 28th in offensive efficiency (114.6 points per 100 possessions compared to 117.4 last season). The Cardinals are also 15th in defensive efficiency, allowing only 92.6 points per 100 possessions. Rick Pitino’s team ranks fifth in the nation for turnovers forced, as opponents cough the ball up on 25.1 percent of possessions. Steals make up 14.4 percent of those, oftentimes leading to easy scoring chances on the other end.

However those numbers may be deceiving.

Level of competition

Louisville’s numbers are a direct reflection of who it is playing. The Cardinals had padded their statistics at home and against inferior competition. A closer look at their losses reveals a very different picture. When they can’t physically and athletically dominate their opponent, they have struggled.

The Cardinals shot less than 40 percent from the field in each of their three losses to ranked opponents. Last season against ranked opponents, they made seven percent more of those attempts.

Former point guard Peyton Siva had a great understanding of what Pitino wanted. He was able to probe the defense and make the right pass at the right time. His penetration freed up center Gorgui Dieng on the baseline, created room-and-rhythm shots for Luke Hancock and also found Russ Smith in the open court.

Now Smith has to score, be a playmaker and initiate the offense. This weakens the Cardinals at two positions. First, it’s reflected in their turnovers. With Smith forced to do so much, the Cardinals are turning the ball over two more times per game against ranked opponents compared to 2012-13.

By last season’s end, Dieng developed into a competent low post option. He had a quick turnaround and did a good job in ball screens. His departure to the NBA, combined with the loss of Chane Behanan, leaves the Cardinals with essentially one baseline interior threat in Montrezl Harrell. This enables defenses to push up on Smith, as well as stay home on Hancock. It has greatly affected their shooting percentages against elite teams this season.

Smith is shooting 40.7 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from 3-point range against top 25 squads (compared to 45.5 and 37.5 percent when facing unranked teams). Hancock makes just 30.3 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from the perimeter against those same opponents (compared to 41.5 percent and 31 percent against unranked opponents).

The story is equally concerning on the other end of the floor. Defensive confidence is as important to a team as offensive confidence. When a team is confident defensively, it puts more pressure on the ball because players trust that their help will be there. They arrive earlier on ball screens because they know the defense behind them is alert and will see the roll. Defenses give early help because they know the next defender will assist. Without Dieng, Louisville is not as confident on that end.

Dieng’s absence affects their press, matchup zone and man-to-man defense. Having a rim protector made everyone more confident. This, combined with the new rules, has had an impact on the Cardinals against ranked teams. Louisville allows 13 more points per game against ranked opponents compared to last season.

Rebounding woes

The biggest concern, in particular, may be on the boards. Louisville has been outrebounded by five boards per game against top 25 teams this season and ranks 286th in defensive rebounding percentage. The Cardinals grab only 66.1 percent of available defensive rebounds and it’s even worse in conference play. The Cardinals allow American opponents to grab 40 percent of their own misses, the 10th worst rate in the conference.

The loss of Behanan and Dieng is the difference here. Harrell has improved as a defensive rebounder but he needs help. Looking at the Cardinals lineup, it’s hard to find a second rebounder. The move to playing Terry Rozier more will help, as he is an outstanding rebounder from the guard position. Wayne Blackshear Jr. must be more committed to hitting the glass if the Cards are to improve in this area.

Rick Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach. He understands the problems he must address. It will be interesting to see the adjustment he makes as his team gets into the meat of American Conference play. The reality is, if the Cardinals don’t win the conference tournament, Louisville will need to beat Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati at least once to earn an NCAA bid this season. The champs have some work ahead of them.

— Seedy K

2 thoughts on “Louisville: An NCAA Lock????

  1. This is exactly what happens when you schedule Archie Bell and the Drells for virtually all of your pre-conference games…you better tear the conference up or win the tourney because you have put yourself in a position where you can’t fall back on your resume. Jurich and Pitino will have nobody to blame but themselves. They scheduled automatic wins in December…those wins will not look impressive in March.

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