UNCASVILLE, Conn. (WDRB) -- It's all over but the ruthless dissection. North Carolina handed the University of Louisville basketball team its first loss of the 2013-14 season, its first loss since February, in fact, its first loss in 22 games. Now, we dig into ten things we can take away:
1. Russ Smith carried the Cardinals, but he also enabled some of their weaknesses. There are, in any game, key moments in which a game can tip one way or the other. One key moment for U of L came early, when it had the lead and momentum. Russ Smith, with hot shooting, had staked the Cards to a 19-10 lead that became 19-12 after a Brice Johnson dunk. On U of L's next trip, instead of looking inside, Smith took it himself and missed a three-pointer. In fact, after going up nine, U of L's next four possessions were a missed three by Smith, a turnover by Kevin Ware, a missed three by Ware and a turnover by Chris Jones. Without any interior player really touching the ball, UNC had trimmed its deficit to five and U of L did not keep up the pressure it built early.
Smith finished with a career-high 36 points. Many times, he was the go-to player late in the shot clock. After the game, Rick Pitino acknowledged that. But speaking with Bob Valvano on his postgame show produced by Nelligan Sports, Pitino also said this.
"You may think Russ played well," Pitino said. "Russ, look he bailed us out obviously, he had a good game. But he's not motivating the other guys to play hard, because they're not even seeing the ball. It's a double-edged sword a little bit. You've got to create some movement, you've got to go inside. And we're not getting anything out of our three, four and five. Wayne Blackshear gets one shot. Luke (Hancock) gets fouled a lot. Chane (Behanan) gets 3 shots. Mangok (Mathiang) gets one shot. It's all well and good, but that's the one thing Peyton Siva did, got everybody the ball. You can't blame Russ, because he kept us in the game. But it can take other guys out of the game."
Along these lines, Chris Jones went 8 of 18 from the field. He and Smith combined to take 42 of U of L's 67 shots. They had 19 of the team's 26 made field goals. Between them, they had three assists and the team finished with only eight. That's not how a U of L box score is supposed to look. Smith is a great scorer, and his scoring runs often lead to bigger runs for the Cardinals. But only if the defense is able to play off it, and if the offense expands out of it. It can't be the entire offense.
2. Right up front, a word of advice. If you don't listen to Pitino's postgame interviews with Valvano on the radio broadcasts, you're missing an important part of the game. Valvano brings a coach's expertise to the task of talking to Pitino, after both wins and losses. There's a trust it seems like the two men have, I think, and the interviews there are some of the most enlightening Pitino gives.
3. Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. They're in the NBA now, but let this single note serve as a remembrance for the things they brought which might not even have been fully appreciated at the time. With his team struggling like the Cardinals were in the second half Sunday and the ball in his hand, his first thought was "create." The first thought of Smith and Jones, at the moment, is still "score." That's not a bad thing in itself, but if you want to be a leader, it's not the only thing. Siva's unselfishness was contagious, and while he wasn't immune from his own silly mental mistakes, he was the presence that touched every player. Dieng, meanwhile, made his teammates better. Proof? Pitino said that "we're just not the same defensive team at the three, four and five spots." But consider this. They're the EXACT same personnel at the three and four spots. What's changed? Dieng is not behind them, protecting the rim, rotating on defense, calling out switches. He made people better.
4. The Cards must fire up the van. A year ago when Dieng went down and Stephan Van Treese was pressed into duty against Duke and All-American Mason Plumlee, he got himself up for the challenge, finished with eight points and eight rebounds and got enough done to give U of L a chance at winning, though it lost 76-71. That Van Treese was nowhere to be found on Sunday. He played 18 minutes and had two points and two rebounds -- and that included a tip-in at the buzzer. The Cardinals have to get more from that from the senior. He doesn't have to carry the team. He does have to play. Pitino has tried psychological measures, calling him out, talking him up. He needs to find the right recipe. He didn't sound hopeful, again with Valvano Sunday night, after Valvano asked him if it was a question of developing desire.
"I think we have the desire," Pitino said. "I think it's ability. There's a very substantial difference between Gorgui Dieng and Stephan Van Treese and Mangok Mathiang. They're journeymen-type basketball players. Now, they're still learning. But there's no reason that Stephan Van Treese should play that many minutes and come up with no steals, no blocks, no assists and two rebounds. So if he's trying -- and I have no reason to believe he's not, he's a great kid -- then it's just ability. And Mangok is just lost out there, because the game is foreign to him."
5. Eight assists, 14 turnovers. Pitino didn't want to blame his offense. Because the Cards missed so many point-blank shots (see Note No. 7), he felt like it created enough opportunities to win, even this game. But still there were too many what I would call straight-line drives. If you drive at a defender from your fixed position with the ball, you're risking a slap-down steal. But if you reverse the ball as an offense, move it sharply, even just around the perimeter, and then drive, you have moved the defense, shifted it, made it tougher for the defense to rotate and freed up your backside cutters for easy layps even if you are stopped on your drive to the basket. There was not enough patience or ball movement for the Cards. They don't have to run down the shot clock. But they were charging straight into the defense less than 10 seconds into the clock, when moving the ball around would've given them better paths to the same drives in many cases. Regardless, Pitino said, "We tried to outscore them and I think they were better at it."
6. The zone must be rebuilt. U of L would not have won a national championship without its ability to absolutely flummox opposing offenses last March and April. It was darn near a basketball version of a Jedi Mind Trick. It probably reached its zenith against Duke in the regional finals when the Cardinals morphed into one defense if Seth Curry got the ball and another if it went to someone else. The Duke players -- many of whom were taking classes above the 100 level -- couldn't figure out what they were doing, even after the game. Siva, of course, was at the point of that. This team has elements of that same defense back. But try it and have a single breakdown and you might as well just give the opponent a back-door layup and move on. "We tried to play zone tonight, but it's foreign to some of our guys. Chris Jones is a good guy, and he's learning it. We'll just have to keep going over it and it's very early in the year for a lot of these young guys playing major minutes."
7. Layups. You miss 18 against Hartford at home and everybody laughs and shakes their heads. You miss a dozen in a nine-point loss to North Carolina and it's not funny anymore. An official shot chart wasn't provided. But the unofficial count is conservative. Behanan, Chris Jones, Hancock, even Russ Smith missed point blank shots, some of which hung on the rim and rolled off. In some cases, it was bad luck. In others, shooters weren't even looking at the rim when the ball left their hands. Those shots could be the difference between winning and losing against good teams for the Cardinals. This wasn't something that began against North Carolina. It's been an issue even in the Cards' wins. It's time to fix it.
8. The press didn't work against North Carolina, but it will against many teams. U of L generates a great deal off its press, both in terms of inducing fatigue and turnovers that it converts to points. It did neither against North Carolina. In fact, I thought the press played into the Tar Heels' hands. It allowed them to get into a full-court, running situation, their strength, rather than having to stop and run a half-court offense. Now, Pitino countered with the fact that U of L couldn't stop UNC in the half-court either, but I'd say that their percentages in that kind of matchup were probably a little better than seeing UNC sprint down the court and dunk. The Tar Heels did a great job of making long inbounds or outlet passes. They also structured their press break so that once one of the guards had beaten the pressure, they had numbers going the other way. Don't discount how U of L's style and pressure played to the strengths of a North Carolina team that had been struggling. In some ways, letting the Tar Heels get out and run was pouring gasoline on a flame.
9. Wayne Blackshear. I hate to give a guy his own numbered item, but Blackshear drew Pitino's wrath several times during the game, and afterward. Blackshear played 17 minutes and had 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 0 assists and four fouls. To be fair, he attempted only one shot. That's a matter Pitino is going to take up with his guards. But on the subject of Blackshear checking out of the game mentally, perhaps, along with others, Pitino said, "You may not get the ball and you may not score, but there's no excuse not to rebound. . . . I gotta be honest with you. Wayne has to learn to do more things than just spot up and shoot. He's not Luke Hancock, he's got to drive more, he's got to play more defense, he's got to block more shots, he's got to rebound. We're going to start running a few more things or him on curls and see if that gets him into it a little bit." For U of L to be anything like the team it wants to be, Blackshear has to have a big season. A Larry O'Bannon type of season.
10. Silver lining. There's no point in coming down too hard on a November loss. So, in the words of Gale Snoats in the film, "Raising Arizona," I say that I'd rather light a candle than curse your darkness. There were lots of contributing factors to this loss, not least of which was that the Cards had played one of the 20 lowest-rated schedules in college basketball coming into the game. There was a bit of an adjustment period. One bright spot was free-throw shooting. The Cards made 21 of 25. Another was rebounding. They didn't get obliterated on the offensive glass (perhaps because UNC made such a high percentage of its first shots, but be that as it may.) Regardless, Pitino's final note on the game was optimistic, so we will give him the last word. From his discussion with Valvano:
"We've got guys who have the mentality that they want to outscore people because they're just better. And tonight we had a long winning streak leave because we didn't defend. We got what we deserved tonight because we haven't been a good defensive team. . . . I do think we're going to get a lot better. Tonight was a great, great thing for this basketball team. They didn't deserve this win, because they didn't play hard enough at the defense end. And I think they'll realize tomorrow that defense has got to become a priority. It was an excellent teaching point for them to get humbled like this. When you win a championship, only mature people stay humble. You have so many people telling you how great you are. I told our guys, when we had our first game, the championship is finished. Humility has got to come back, and focus and realizations of why we won. Now, there are some reasons. We've had some problems and major distractions, from suspensions to an Achilles' to not practicing, just a lot of that I hate more than anything bad in life. As a basketball coach, I hate distractions, and we've had too many to be able to teach. But I think this is a good teaching point. I think we're going to be a pretty good basketball team. We've really got to improve at the five spot. And I think Montrezl has to be humbled as well. That fifth foul, he's driving, he has two open guys, or go around the defender, that's not the time to be Michael Jordan. That's a lack of humility right there. So every single one of us, it's just normal, I'm an old man, I'm 61 years old, you move on, but for young guys it's tougher when you win, and you have to get back to reality and remember back why you won it."