CRAWFORD | For U of L, new rules bring challenge, opportunity - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | For U of L, new defensive rules bring challenge, opportunity

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- New rules are coming to college basketball, and depending on whom you listen to, that's either a good or bad thing for the University of Louisville.

Plenty of people will tell you the latter. Here's their reasoning: The Cardinals build their offense from defense. They hack, slap in the open court, press and steal their way to nearly one-third of their scoring. They foul so often that, the reasoning goes, officials can't call them all.

Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy, who got to see the Cardinals first-hand in a 26-point NCAA Tournament loss in Lexington last March, said during Mountain West Media Day, "Louisville isn't going to have a team if we stick to this because they're going to all foul out in the first half, and I love the way they play. If you're going to call touch fouls, it'll be over in the first 10 minutes. (Rick) Pitino will have to play. It really is crazy."

He may not be the only one who thinks that way. But Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, not surprisingly, isn't one of them. Whatever price his team pays on defense, and he says his guards will have to adjust to the quicker whistle like everyone else, he expects to make up for on offense. And that's a forgotten part, in some ways, of Louisville's run.

For most of last season, the Cardinals got whatever they got because they were the toughest defensive team in the nation. But in the postseason, they were the nation's most efficient offensive team.

They averaged 79.5 points per game in NCAA Tournament play. After generating nearly one-third of their offense off opponent turnovers during the season, they created just 15 percent of their scoring off turnovers in the NCAA Tournament's final three games.

Pitino, in fact, was one of the coaches lobbying the loudest for the rule changes that are taking effect this season.

The two main points of emphasis are freedom of movement, and a change in the charge-block interpretation. Officials will automatically whistle a two-hand check or leaving one hand on an opponent. They won't allow a defensive player to put a forearm on an opponent or impede their progress through the lane. On block-charge calls, the defensive player must now be set before the offensive player begins his forward motion -- not just when the offensive player leaves the court, as has been the case. Will officials see that split-second difference? Probably not, but the rule change means that fewer charges will be call. In questions of a bang-bang decision, the message is clear: Preference goes to the offensive player.

Veteran official Curtis Shaw, who now is supervisor of officials for the Big 12 Conference, did a good job at its recent media day of explaining how officials will handle it.

"If you continually jab at a player, it's an automatic foul," Shaw said. "We'll let a player close out. We'll let them touch them and measure up.  But when they keep measuring up, we're going to call a foul. If you stick your hand on them and leave it on them or stick your forearm on them and leave it on them, it's an automatic foul.  If you ever put two hands out on a player, it's an automatic foul."

"I think we're just really going back to the rules of basketball. Let's go back to playing an athletic game, not a physical game."

Pitino said the key for everyone will be the season's first ten games. He said coaches and players and fans all will grumble. There will be processions to the free-throw line. Players will foul out. But at the end, he expects a cleaner, more offensive-oriented game.

"The first month they're going to set a standard with hand-checking," Pitino said. "They're going to get more scoring in the game. … They want freedom of movement, they want more offense. The same thing we had in the NBA 15 years ago. When I coached the Knicks we were 116.8 points per game and we were third in the league in scoring.

"The only thing that adds scoring is to stop fouling. Defenses have been much more aggressive than offenses because they've been allowed to push guys in the back on offense or hand-check on defense. So these rules will hurt everyone's defense. What you'll see now is much more zone. You'll see 30 to 40 percent more zone. What hurts us, is if we do foul more than other teams it's in the backcourt, not in the frontcourt. So we've got to get our hands very, very active, but in our plane, not in the offensive player's. The depth hurts. It hurts with Chane (Behanan suspended) right now, but we do have good depth in the backcourt."

When U of L has the ball, however, it's a different story. Pitino used the word "unguardable" to describe Russ Smith working against the new defensive rules, and Smith is far from the only Cardinal with an ability to create his own shot or get to the rim.

The block-charge change being what it is, it puts a premium on shot-blocking in post defense. Pitino said that the coaching staff is working overtime to get redshirt freshman Mangok Mathiang ready to play, because he has the ability to be a good shot-blocker in the middle.

"We told him, 'You are better than Gorgui (Dieng) as a freshman, except that we're replacing Gorgui as a junior,'" Pitino said. "We're really trying to rush his progress, overloading him with fundamentals, really and he's responding very well. He's making great strides every day."

Mathiang isn't likely to be the offensive facilitator that Dieng was, but could be a big help defensively.

With Behanan now looking as if he'll return at some point -- though no date has been set -- the Cards can figure on another body in the frontcourt to add to its depth there.

"With these new rules, having a deep bench is essential," Pitino said. "With a deep bench, you can withstand the first two fouls."

The Cardinals haven't fouled a great deal during their three intrasquad scrimmages, but they also haven't pressed full-court much, either. When the ball, and the whistles, go live in the season's first exhibition Tuesday night against Kentucky Wesleyan, it's likely to be a revelation to the players as to how much adjustment will be required.

At least, Pitino said, he feels he's in at least as good a position to benefit from the changes as to be penalized by them.

"This is a good scoring team," he said. "And once we press, we'll generate more runs. There's going to be more fouling, but everyone will adjust."


WDRB Sports journalist Eric Crawford is a 22-year veteran of covering sports in the region and recently was voted the LEO's Readers' Choice Award for Best Local Columnist. He co-authored Rick Pitino's new book, The One-Day Contract, and chronicled the University of Louisville's 2013 National Championship season in an electronic book, The Run. You can follow Eric on Twitter by clicking here, or on Facebook here.

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