NCAA BK

Louisville defense built for March

Highlights: Louisville-Cincinnati
Highlights: Louisville-Cincinnati
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky.

The subtle greatness of Rick Pitino’s Louisville teams cannot always be seen in the stat sheets. On Monday, as Pitino won the 300th game of his 12 seasons in Louisville, this year’s team gave us a stellar example of the greatness of PitinoBall.

Despite being ranked eighth in the nation, the Cardinals aren’t exactly setting any nets on fire this season. They rank 31st in offensive efficiency — good enough. But they rank a paltry 109th in shooting percentage, 132nd in free-throw percentage, and 144th in effective field-goal percentage. These things matter. You need to make shots to make Final Fours.

But for Pitino’s teams, shooting the lights out just isn’t as important as you’d think.

In its 67-51 dismantling of Cincinnati on Monday night — the final Big Monday game before the Big East becomes something very different — Louisville shot the ball . . . well, the Cardinals shot the ball just fine. They made just short of half their shots, and made three of nine 3-point attempts.

This wasn’t what won them the game. Instead of looking at its offensive numbers, just look at one sequence about halfway through the first half where Louisville’s floor was filled with four bench guys. It showed why this team that went through a three-game skid in January is looking unbeatable in March.

With 10:21 left in the first half and Louisville up five, Cincinnati’s Titus Rubles was inbounding the ball under his own basket. Freshman forward Montrezl Harrell held out his long arms and jumped in front of him, and the rest of the Cardinals swarmed. Moments before a five-second violation, Cincinnati called a timeout. On the second attempt, Rubles tried to inbound the ball toward the lane, but the ball went off a Bearcat’s leg and out of bounds. The refs missed the call, so Rubles got a third attempt at inbounding the ball. The Louisville defense once again swarmed. Rubles tossed the ball toward half court, and backup guard Kevin Ware picked the pass off and started the transition game, where Russ Smith was fouled and then made two shots.

Eighteen seconds later, Cincinnati’s Cashmere Wright was inbounding the ball under his own basket and Louisville’s defense caused the Bearcats to burn yet another timeout. The look on Wright’s face was pained. That was the moment you knew: The relentless Louisville D was already in the Bearcats’ heads.

The game felt like it was already won.

“Defense wins games,” Pitino said afterward. “I think we all were really worried at the beginning of the year that we weren’t going to be a 3-point shooting team. I learned the most valuable lesson in my too-long coaching years is that, as long as you stop it, you don’t have to worry about not being a good three-point shooting team.”

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He repeated that point: “As long as you stop it.”

This is the grinding part of Pitino’s Louisville team that not only sticks out on the stat sheets. It also wins games, and wins championships. The Cardinals average a remarkable 10.7 steals per game, second in the nation behind only Virginia Commonwealth’s Havoc defense. They average one steal every 6.5 defensive possessions. They’re third in the nation in turnover margin, getting six more turnovers a game than they give away. They force 18.7 turnovers a game, and — here’s where Louisville’s subpar shooting matters a whole lot less — they score nearly a third of their points off those turnovers.

This is PitinoBall. This is Big East basketball. This is the type of basketball that gets you ranked No. 1 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is where the Cardinals currently stand on KenPom.com. And this is the type of basketball — the type that doesn’t rely on streaky shooting but instead on steady defense — that you can count on to take a team deep into March.

“There’s one common denominator in anything you do in terms of defense, and that’s conditioning,” Pitino said. “It starts with, you gotta be in great shape to play the style we play. Second thing is, you really gotta have great focus. It was as difficult as it was on our guys as it was on (Cincinnati) with one day of preparation. It’s not easy to take all those out-of-bounds plays and get five-second counts with one of day preparation. That takes incredible focus.”

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It’s about always putting pressure on the offense. It’s about getting deflections. It’s about a managed type of chaos that forces the opponent to make mistakes that don’t show up in the stat sheets, like Cincinnati’s five traveling violations in the first half. Those deflections get turnovers, but they also get inside your opponents’ heads. That’s what happened here. The Bearcats were tired of getting chased all over the floor, and shot only 29 percent in the second half, including 0 of 7 from three.

“What makes us stand out is just tiring our opponents out,” said sophomore forward Chane Behanan, who had four of Louisville’s 12 steals and many more hustle plays. “That’s how we play in practice every day.”

“We compete in practice,” said senior center Gorgui Dieng. “When you see us practicing, you think we don’t like each other.

“More than anybody in the country, if you don’t play defense, you’re not going to get in the game for us,” said junior swingman Luke Hancock.

It’s been a wild year in college hoops. Louisville is one of three possible 1- or 2-seeds in the tournament who’ve gone on three-game losing streaks. (The other two are Kansas and Michigan State.) The best shooting teams tend to have highs and lows, but the best defensive teams are the most consistent. Three of Louisville’s five losses were in one-possession games. Poll voters might have Louisville as only the eighth-best team in the country, but the RPI rankings have them as fifth, the KenPom rankings have them as third, and the Sagarin rankings have them as second.

But the way Louisville plays basketball — a style where all of the game flows from its defense — Pitino’s men might just be the No. 1 team around as we’re getting into March.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Cardinals, Cincinnati, Louisville

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