CRAWFORD | Uh oh. Defensive-minded Cards now clicking on offense, too
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Everybody's talking about the University of Louisville defense, and they should be. It's tenacious, relentless, whatever adjectives you want to use.
It's also been that way most of the season.
You want the real reason U of L is hitting the gas pedal in this postseason? Look at the other end of the court.
Suddenly, the Cardinals can shoot and score with relative ease. They've won eight straight games by double-digits, all against NCAA Tournament qualifying teams. And on Saturday night, they smoked a Colorado State team that actually played pretty well. They ran off to an 82-56 victory against a team that shot 48 percent from the field.
Turnovers were a big part of it. But the Cards shot 56 percent themselves, made 15 of 18 free-throws, hit 5 of 9 from three-point range and enough mid-range jumpers to have won most of the five games they lost during the regular season.
"We keep getting better," U of L coach Rick Pitino said after the game. "That's what you want from a basketball team. Improve. Tonight our offense was just as brilliant."
Do this math. U of L has allowed 58 points a game this season, and about 56 in the postseason. The Cards gave up 56 to Colorado State, were below their steals average and turnovers forced average.
But they're averaging 76.4 points per game in the postseason. They're shooting 39 percent from three-point range -- seven percentage points better than during the regular season -- and 49 percent from the field, four percentage points better.
And Russ Smith has been unconscious. Always a volume shooter, he's become a far more efficient offensive player, shooting 52 percent from the field and 39 percent from three.
"Russ is dialed in right now, he's making great decisions in all phases," said his backcourt mate, Peyton Siva.
He's not the only one. Luke Hancock is knocking down shots and Kevin Ware and Wayne Blackshear are beginning to heat up.
"There's a lot of weapons," Siva said. "And when we're making shots, it just makes the press that much tougher because we can get into it more, and because you get a lead and your offense puts even more pressure on the other team's offense to try to make something happen to keep up."
The Cards have won plenty of games this season when they couldn't find consistent offense. When they do find it, they're at another level.
"This was the best we've played at both ends of the floor," Pitino said. ". . . Tonight we focused very hard on their defense and how we can score. Like on pick-and-rolls, they go under. So we set every pick-and-roll a good body on the low side and then rolled so we could get a foul line jump shot. We ran our offense to get a back-screen pick-and-roll. We did a lot of great things on offense. Our guys are really focused, and if you're really focused, you have a chance of winning with what you have."
Pitino has been talking for a couple of weeks about how Smith has improved his attention to scouting and how other teams are going to play him. Now, Pitino said, that attention is paying off on offense for a team that already plays devastating defense.
"If you ask me what's been the biggest improvement in this team in the second half of the season, it's how much they pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of their opposition," Pitino said. ". . . We've always been an amazing team physically, but tonight focusing in on the game plan and responding to the mental challenge of, 'Can you get 10 steals against a team that averages 10 turnovers a game, and can you out rebound them?' . . . Brilliant performance by our guys."
Oh, and they also play defense.
One thing that particularly pleased Pitino was a facet of defense that doesn't get headlines. The press and steals are great, but in the half-court, the Cardinals did a great job of containment. In some ways, it's a testament to how well they played that Colorado State executed as well offensively as it did (when it wasn't turning it over) and still lost by 26.
"We did a great job tonight of getting them to the baseline and containing them and what we call closing down the window," Pitino said. "It took their offensive rebounding out of play. . . . I thought we were great in all phases."
Colorado State Larry Eustachy raved about U of L's defense. Then he looked at the box score.
"It seemed like they got every rebound and it seemed like they made every shot, and they shot it well, but you look at all their box scores and this game is close and all of a sudden it's 26," he said. "The stats don't really indicate just how well-prepared and detailed this team that we just lost to is."
The Cardinals now get six days to prepare for an Oregon team that has the highest percentage of turnovers to total possessions of any team left in the NCAA field. Rick Pitino is 10-0 in the Sweet 16, with an average victory margin of 19.7 points (21.4 points in four wins at U of L).
If they keep scoring at their present clip, the defense might have to share some headlines.
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