- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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"Digging In" is our in-depth look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who scout and prep for these teams all season. Our final scout: Louisville.
How good is Louisville? Good enough to make opposing coaches downright conceptual.
That's not even my word. That's how Villanova assistant coach Billy Lange, who scouted the Cardinals for the Nova staff this season, described Thursday what he thought was the best approach to playing the Cardinals. We were talking about one specific aspect of Louisville's style -- in this case its amorphous matchup-zone defense -- and Lange was explaining that the Cardinals are so good on that end of the floor, and so able to switch defenses on a whim, that you can't really devise a game plan with sets and quick-hitters the way you can most normal defenses. You have to settle for giving your players broad concepts -- protect the ball, make the extra pass, penetrate and kick -- and hope they can get it from Point A to Point B without being micromanaged.
That was just the defense, but the more we talked, the more I thought this might be the underappreciated key to Louisville's tidal burst through the final two months of its season: It reduces opponents to guesswork. You can't really scheme against the Cardinals the way you can other teams, because they aren't like any other team.
Louisville's high ball screens aren't just effective; the Cardinals can attack at any angle, sometimes from one second to the next. You can play brilliant defense on Russ Smith and force him to shoot some freak-show 18-foot floater and, because it is Russ Smith, it is just as likely to go in. Its press and matchup zone defenses aren't just great, they're unpredictable, and the best way to attack them -- by beating Louisville across half court and using odd-man advantages to get easy shots in the press break -- is also the best way to play into coach Rick Pitino's hands.
(The more we talked, the more I was reminded of the scene in "The Dark Knight" when that accountant tries to blackmail Batman [awesome idea, by the way; HE'S BATMAN GUY], and I practically saw Pitino smile the Morgan Freeman smile: "Your opponent is a lightning-quick defensive behemoth that does its best scoring work off turnovers … and your plan is to play up-tempo against us? Good luck!")
"I really don't think you can overprepare," Lange said. "I think you have to get your guys in a mindset where you tell them, 'We're going to play together off of concepts and instincts.'
"If you get robotic against them, they're going to eat you alive," Lange said. "They're going to kick your [butt]. I mean they'll just straight-up kick your [butt]."
So: How does a coach prepare for the unprepare-able? While you decide whether or not that's actually a word (it's not), let's dig in.
When Louisville has the ball
1. Guard the high ball screen well -- or as well as possible. Louisville's best and most-used asset on the offensive end is its guards, Peyton Siva and Smith, and its go-to offensive play is the spread-floor high ball screen. Everyone moves to the perimeter, Gorgui Dieng comes up top, and Smith and Siva read the angles and attack the defense relentlessly. There are all the usual ball-screen decision-tree issues to worry about here -- do we hedge, do we play under, how much help do we give away from the ball -- but the biggest challenge, Lange said, is how unpredictable the angles become. "They get you really spread, what they do a great job of is Dieng will run out and adjust the angle of the screen at the last second," Lange said. "It's not predictable; you have a hard time deciding which way the ball is going to go." The key, Lange said, is for a team to be ready to react either way, and then make sure neither Smith or Siva sees daylight when he comes off that screen. "When they come off that angle, Siva can not see space, because if he feels that way he's much more aggressive coming off," he said. "Same with Smith."
The spread pick-and-roll stuff isn't actually at its best when the ball handler ends up taking a shot -- Louisville scored only 310 points when the pick-and-roll ball handler ended the 433 possessions in Synergy's database from this season -- but what it does do is create angles and matchup problems, and Siva especially loves to get a head full of steam and dump off to Chane Behanan for easy finishes on the baseline.
2. Don't let Russ get you down. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Louisville team is the distance Smith has traveled from last season. In March 2012, he was a lovable kook -- an oblivious goofball just as likely to hit a big shot as he was to make an inexplicable turnover. This season, Smith has morphed into a bona fide star and thoroughly underrated player-of-the-year candidate whose offensive attack has managed to become more lethal and consistent without losing any of that jittery je ne sais quoi that made it so hard to defend in the first place. It's a microcosm of Louisville's season: How do you prepare to guard a guy for whom everyone else's bad shot is merely Russ being Russ?
"There are two things you can try to do," Lange said. "The first is work really really hard to not let him catch the ball. The second is, when he does catch the ball, turn him into a contested 3-point jump-shooter. And if he makes his first couple of 3s, you don't panic and press up on him, because I still think he can shoot them out of games if he falls in love with the 3-point shot."
This is much easier said than done, of course, because Smith is so quick to get past defenders and so herky-jerky when he does. Plus he's lethal on the fast break -- he scored 1.171 points per trip on transition plays this season, which were his most frequent (28.5 percent) play type -- and can be perfectly well-defended and still make the kind of crazy Euro-step bank shots that had Duke defenders hanging their heads Sunday evening.
"When he gets a turnover and he's running the court in transition, you're not stopping that," Lange said.
3. Take care of the ball. This doesn't file neatly under "when Louisville has the ball," but it is impossible to untie the Cardinals' offensive output from their defense, which has forced more turnovers (71) in the 2013 NCAA tournament tournament than any other team. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Louisville has scored 72 transition points in its first four games, the second-most in the field. Of those 72 transition points, Louisville has scored 37 (51.4 percent) off turnovers in the tournament, more than any other team in the field. So: If you want to stop Louisville's offense from scoring, at least get a shot to the rim. It's no guarantee, but it's certainly better than the alternative.
Plus, saying "take care of the ball" against Louisville's defense in the below section would have been way too obvious. I mean, duh.
4. Oh, and block out. Just a quick bonus point of emphasis here: The Cardinals rebound their misses at a top-20 rate this season, as Dieng and Behanan (and even Montrezl Harrell) are absolute beasts over the top on the offensive glass. The good news for Wichita State is that the Shockers are arguably the best rebounding team left in the tournament, so this isn't a real matchup woe. But it is worth noting.
Trademark set: Spread-court, adjusted-angle ball screen. "He's a great offensive coach, and they run plenty of other stuff," Lange said of Pitino and the Cardinals. "They run guys off back screens with shooters, they run some double-screen stuff almost à la Allen Iverson. But that screen action is just really tough to defend, and when Dieng is popping and making those 15-footers, it's almost impossible."
When Louisville is on defense
1. Inbound the ball well against the press. This seems pretty basic, right? Louisville scores, so you take the ball out of the rim and throw it in to a guard, and then you try to bring it up the floor. Great. Easy. Except, you know, the exact opposite of that.
When Louisville is pressing, as it has on 49.8 percent of its defensive possessions in the tournament, how you inbound the ball might be the most important aspect of surviving pressure defense that swarms and smothers even the best ball handlers in the backcourt. This is not the kind of thing I would have thought of, which is probably (among myriad other reasons) why I don't get paid to coach basketball, but you could tell Lange had thought about it -- a lot.
"How are you inbounding the ball?" Lange said. "Are you inbounding it with your four or your five, or with a guard? Whatever you do, you can't do the same thing over and over, because they get accustomed to what you're doing and they start closing it down.
"The most important thing, however you decide to do it, is that you're catching it on the move," he said. "If you catch it with your back to half court and your chest to the baseline, you're already in trouble. You have to catch moving forward so you can get them chasing you right away."
2. If you beat the pressure, attack. Congratulations! You've managed to make it past half court against Louisville's pressure defense! It's OK to take a brief moment to enjoy your accomplishment. Maybe write a self-congratulatory Facebook post. And then make an utterly crucial decision: Do you pull the ball back out and work your offense in the half court? Or do you attack?
The former option is the most conventional route. As I wrote above, when you're playing a team that likes to force turnovers and scoop long rebounds and score in transition, it would follow that your best bet is to slow the game down, work for a good shot in the half court, and try to keep the turnovers to an absolute minimum.
But the most conventional route is not always the best, particularly when you're a 10-point underdog (as Wichita State is) and you have a guard (Malcolm Armstead in particular) who is comfortable getting at the rim in 5–on-4s and 4-on-3s. And honestly, it might be the best strategy for everybody. Lange explains:
"Here's the thing: If you break the press and pull it back out, you are forcing yourself to play against two very good defenses," he said. "First you're playing against the press, and then you're playing against the matchup zone. Whereas if you can get them scrambling and chasing out of the press trap, and you have advantages, I think you've got to try to attack because you have a better chance to get a really good shot that you might not be able to get in the half court."
The numbers back this up: On the 16.8 percent of its defensive possessions when Louisville has allowed opponents to play in transition, those opponents are scoring 0.913 points per trip. In the half court, that number plummets to 0.706. It may seem anathema to try to get into a jumbled back-and-forth game with a team with Russ Smith and Peyton Siva in the backcourt, but it's probably your best shot.
3. Play conceptually in the half court. Pitino, being Pitino, won't just let you race across half court and get layups more than a few times before he decides to switch things up; whether you like it or not (I'm guessing not), you are going to have to play against Louisville's devastating matchup zone. Bummer, huh?
If you watch Louisville often, you can't help but notice how diverse its defensive approach can be. The Cardinals move and shift their zone from side to side to overplay a team's best scorer; they run good shooters off the 3-point arc and rely on Dieng's shot-blocking on the back line to force uncomfortable midrange shots; they spring any number of traps and sieges, which Pitino dials up from the sideline almost on command. (By the way: Watching Pitino coach this defense is one of the true joys in college hoops right now; it frequently looks as though he is telekinetically willing players into possession-specific positions, accompanied by a fittingly wide-eyed glare.) Point is, they're not good the way Syracuse is good -- where you know what you're facing and can scheme for it and just have to hope your shots go down. Louisville's half-court defense is good in a profoundly more frustrating way, because it can't be planned for.
"You will never see consistency from possession to possession in what they do," Lange said. "So if you go into it like, 'I watched them play against Marquette and they did this, so we're going to run a certain set against them' -- that's crazy. Don't do that.
"Have a couple of things your players can get into real quickly, run your set, and then if you don't have it, you've got to play conceptually," Lange said. "I don't think you can go into it robotic and programmed, like you're going to run your stuff. Because it just doesn't work."
Defensive style: Trapping press, token press, half-court matchup zone.
Takeaway: I have a pet theory -- that the best college basketball coaches set the terms of the game most advantageous to their teams, and then funnel all of their year-long recruiting, development and strategy into making sure they're setting the agenda each and every time they take the floor.
It is not easy to do this without, you know, possessing the basketball. But I don't think there's a better way to describe what Louisville (and Syracuse, for that matter) does to opposing offenses. They force you to play them, and never the other way around.
And then there is the other issue: Even if you handle all of the pressure and take care of the ball and get good shots and hang with Louisville for 20, 25, 30, 35 minutes … all it takes is one or two possessions -- a long rebound here, a turnover in the backcourt there -- for them to speed you up, get you rattled, and mercilessly bury you.
"Three points goes to nine for them faster than any team in the country," Lange said. "If they were a more consistent 3-point shooting team, they would have obliterated college basketball this year. Just obliterated it. They're on another level the way they're playing right now.
"You can't play the clock against them, you can't get cute. You just have to play it all the way to the end, stay focused, and hope you have a chance late."
And this is why Louisville is the overwhelming favorite to win the 2013 national title: After all is said and done, the best strategy against the Cardinals is "do your best and hope things go well."
There is no more ringing endorsement than that.