LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- They say defense wins championships. But somewhere along the way, you have to score some points.
The University of Louisville offense has been struggling. Maybe that's an understatement. The Cardinals have endured so many scoring droughts in the last two games that The Weather Channel is running a ticker item on them.
This overall offensive drought seemed to hit all of a sudden, in the second half of the Cards' home loss to Syracuse.
The first half of that game was one of the Cards' best offensive halves of the season. They shot 53.6 percent for the half against one of the nation's better defenses. In the second half it shot 29 percent, and has not warmed up since.
Starting with that half, U of L has shot 35.6 percent over its past five halves of basketball. It has scored 29 points per half. In the past two games combined, the team has dished out just 23 assists (to 30 turnovers), and Peyton Siva has 15 of those assists by himself (but only three of the turnovers).
Some of the answers are simple. Starting with the obvious, the Cards just aren't shooting it as well as they were earlier in the season. They're missing some makeable shots in Big East play, shots that were going down for much of the season. U of L shot 46.2 percent over its first 14 games and averaged 78.1 points per game. It has shot just 41.1 percent over the past six games and averaged just 65.5 in that stretch.
That's a pretty strong cold front.
Siva's outside shot isn't falling. He's 6 of 24 the past three games, 2 of 12 from three-point range. Chane Behanan is 6 of 18, and hasn't scored in double-digits in three games.
You get the picture. So why is it happening?
For U of L coach Rick Pitino, the issue has been less missing shots than shot selection. In fact, he was so perturbed with it that he sent his leading scorer, Russ Smith, to the bench for the start of the Georgetown game in the hope of getting better shot selection and more players involved early in the offense.
But a look at U of L's first-half offensive sets against Georgetown (I provided them here) shows that the results were mixed.
In fact, passing in the opening moments of that game was virtually non-existent. In its first 10 non-transition half-court offensive sets at Georgetown, U of L averaged 1.7 passes before taking a shot. On half of those possessions there was only one or no pass before a shot was attempted.
This is not what the offense is designed to do. U of L's offensive sets go deep, with three, four and five options. U of L begins about 40 percent of its half-court sets with a high ball screen for the point guard. (Five of its first 14 possessions against Georgetown began that way). But that's only the start of the offense. Off of that, the guard has the option of driving and dishing, shooting, or working the ball elsewhere and the set continues. But lately, the team has a tendency to break out of the set if nothing materializes from that.
When they run their sets, good things often happen.
The second possession of the second half is illustrative. The Cards worked the ball around the perimeter, looking to get inside post position for Gorgui Dieng. They tried dribble penetration and ball reversals to create a passing lane to the post, or an open three. When neither worked, Hancock passed to Siva on top, then cut down through the lane while Siva used a high ball screen to drive. As Siva cut down the right side of the lane, Hancock was completing his cut through the lane and looping around the defense to the right corner, where Siva flipped him the ball for an open three that he made.
In other words, when the ball was moving, the result was positive for U of L. Too often against Georgetown in the first half, it wasn't. Watch the possessions and you'll see gradual improvement, but not much, until the second half. When playing in front of Pitino and their own sideline in the second half, the Cardinals usually execute better on offense.
That was the case Saturday. Even though the Cardinals scored only 51 points and could not seem to buy a basket late, they got good looks in the second half, missed open looks from inside and out, and generally created enough scoring opportunities to win the game -- even though it couldn't knock them down.
Now that Big East teams are focused on not giving the Cardinals scoring opportunities through "live ball" turnovers and are blitzing Russ Smith to make him give up the ball, a few offensive mistakes that wouldn't have seemed like a big deal earlier in the season are becoming a big deal in closer conference games.
Pitino seems resigned to his team's shooting struggles, and says he may resort to more extreme defensive options to create offense.
"Our offense will get better, the better shots we take," Pitino said. "I thought early tonight we took good shots. I think Russ coming off the bench helps us immensely by the other guys not getting deflated by Russ' scoring. This younger generation gets deflated when they don't score.
"Our press is great, I think it's one of the best in the country . . . but the problem with us is we don't get it on enough because we shoot such a low percentage. If we could ever shoot, not great, just 45, 46 percent, we could do some serious damage. But we keep shooting 35 percent, (opponents) may be tired, but you give them a relief. I'm starting to think about pressing off misses, which I've never done in my life."
Siva, as he is in so many things, is a key. He needs to stay on the court for longer stretches, and needs a certain number of drives to the hoop built in to the offense. He's a 90 percent free-throw shooter (50 of 56) on the season and needs to get there more, rather than sending opponents there. He's gotten to the line only 13 times in seven Big East games. In the seven games this season when he's made multiple three-pointers, U of L's average victory margin is 21.4 points. Siva doesn't have to make threes for the Cards to be effective. Some of their best games of the season have been when he didn't make one. But when he does, the Cards' offense is at another level.
But Siva isn't alone in three-point struggles. One problem in conference play is that they just haven't fallen. Russ Smith is 8 of 30 from beyond the arc (.267). Siva is 6-22 (.273). Wayne Blackshear is 8-25 (.320). Only Luke Hancock (10 of 22, .455) is hitting them at a good clip.
"Some of this is just that shots aren't falling," Hancock said after Saturday's loss. "And some of it is that we just have to execute better, run the plays all the way to the end."
U of L also would do well to convert the close-in chances it gets. That has become tougher against bigger, more physical Big East defenses. Gorgui Dieng has struggled with his mid-range jumper since returning, but also has had some good looks from close-range not fall. He's shooting 47.3 percent in conference play, but is taking higher percentage shots than that.
Regardless, U of L's offensive problems, as stagnant as the offense looks at times, are not so difficult that they cannot be overcome. But if three of the team's four top scoring threats are going to slump at the same time, many teams would look worse offensively.
A bit more patience, a bit more passing, and a few more shots that usually fall finally finding their mark again would do wonders for this team's offense. Even absent those, expect to see the Cards push the break more off opponent misses to at least provide transition opportunities in the coming games.
A month ago, in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, U of L's defense ranked No. 2 nationally in efficiency and its offense was No. 9. That's a championship profile. Since then, the defense has remained at No. 2, but the offense has fallen to No. 20. That's still a great deal better than the Cards were a year ago, but it's going to have to pick up down the stretch for them to regain that championship form.
The Cards don't need a top-10 offense to do big things. They proved that last year. But they do need at least a moderately effective offense to allow their defense to do the things it can do.
One other thing to remember -- U of L just came through a string of tough opponents. Villanova has become an outstanding team at attacking zones -- just ask Syracuse. U of L hasn't beaten Georgetown since '09. The Cards lost a game to Syracuse that it should have won.
All that is fine if the Cards can pull out of their losing streak against Pittsburgh Monday night at the KFC Yum! Center. If they don't, expect the microscope from fans and media to ratchet up even more.