LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has been grading on a curve this season. So while his team may be winning games by wide margins, a look at the final grades shows that the marks he has been giving his players haven't been so high.
A variety of factors -- a preseason exempt tournament, challenges created by the conference change and scheduling decisions by Pitino -- have led to a schedule that ranks among the 25 weakest in NCAA Division I through this point in the season, according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy.
That ranking didn't get any higher when Kareem Richardson's Missouri-Kansas City team visited the KFC Yum! Center Wednesday night. The Cardinals left with a 90-62 victory, but also with more mediocre marks from Pitino.
"I thought Chane Behanan was the only good player tonight," Pitino said after the game. "I thought everyone else was mediocre."
Pitino even told Bob Valvano on his postgame radio show by Nelligan Sports that he was disgusted enough with the team's first-half defense that he sent his players into the locker room to figure it out for themselves.
"I've been very frustrated," Pitino told Valvano. "I talked about distractions. I didn't even go in -- the first time in my life, I didn't go in the locker room at halftime. The first time in 35 years, I didn't go in the locker room, because I didn't want to yell at them. I wanted them to know how disappointed I was in their defense, and I said the yelling is over with. We're going to take some pride in what we do, and you're going to represent that uniform the way we have in the past decade, or obviously we're not going to be a very good basketball team."
The Pitino curve essentially tries to take strength of opponent out of the grade -- so it has to factor strength of opponent into evaluations. In other words, a double-figure scoring night against a UMKC might get you a lower offensive grade than single-digits against North Carolina, depending on what you did.
"We grade out, a lot of times, and this is where the competition doesn't come into play either way ... we grade out games offensively and defensively, rebounding wise at both ends to determine how we played. And sometimes you watch and you think it was really good based on shooting percentage or other numbers, and you watch and realize it was either better than you thought or not as good," Pitino said the day before U of L was to play UMKC. "We've been grading out anywhere from a C-minus to a D with our defense. (Southern Mississippi) it was like a C-plus."
Pitino hasn't backed away from the schedule issue so far this season. And he expects it will pick up in conference play. Connecticut, Cincinnati, Memphis and others in the league are good tests. But the non-conference slate outside of North Carolina and Kentucky isn't going to win any awards. A couple of times when asked about his team's strengths or weaknesses statistically (Pomeroy, for instance, ranks the Cards No. 2 nationally in defensive efficiency and No. 9 in offensive efficiency) Pitino said, "I don't think we've played a very good schedule to be honest with you."
One problem with scheduling for this season is that Pitino was reluctant to enter into home-and-home or two-game deals with opponents, because of some individual non-conference matchups in the works for next season (Jimmy V Classic, potential neutral-court opener against Minnesota, Big Ten-ACC challenge), and because of the significant leap in degree of difficulty the conference schedule will take a year from now. At the same time, U of L got three games in the Hall of Fame Tiopff Classic against lesser competition, and did not have any say in scheduling those.
"The tricky part is, obviously, when you're at the mercy of Atlantis, you know what you're going to get into," Pitino said Tuesday, referencing the Bahamas tournament the Cardinals played in last season. "The Hall of Fame Tournament, we did not know. We let them make the decision on who we were going to play. We just encountered a few teams who were a bit down. I don't have a concern with that. My concern is I'm not sure some of those statistics are very accurate. We may wind up good in those areas, but I'm not sure that's a good barometer. I know we play very hard, and I know we're very deep."
But he also knows there are some problems on defense. Two, in particular, concerned him on Wednesday. He's worried that the Cardinals are a poor ball containment team, and he's unhappy that he's not getting more blocked shots, particularly from Mangok Mathiang and Montrezl Harrell.
Some of the ball-containment issues are a result of new NCAA rules initiatives to clean up hand-checking.
"I think the new rules have taken away a lot of the pressure because everybody's afraid to hand-check and get beat," Pitino told Valvano. "We've done a good job with the back-court pressure. And I think what we need to do is really pressure on the wings hard and at the top really cover the middle. We're not gong to get away with what we used to do, because once he goes by, any little bump at all is a foul. So we've got to get better at that and I think we will."
But the Cards also struggled with the high pick-and-roll against UMKC. Pitino said the Kangaroos were 1-for-10 against U of L's full-court pressure (scored on one of 10 possessions), they went 3-for-11 against the 2-3 zone and 15-27 against U of L's man-to-man, which illustrates the Cards' containment problems.
In order to address that, the Cardinals will need to become a better rotation team on defense. In fact, Pitino said he wants his players assuming that the man guarding the ball is going to get beat, and to have their next rotation already in mind to help out.
"That's where we're not growing," Pitino said. "If somebody's on the wing, the other four guys need to say he's going to get beat now, how are we going to rotate?"
But Pitino said he's just as concerned with shot-blocking, or the lack thereof. The Cards had only three blocks against UMKC, and Harrell had none in 20 minutes.
"We're not getting enough in that area," he said.
Defensive leadership is a concern. Russ Smith and Luke Hancock are going to have trouble speaking to teammates about defense because their own has not been strong this season. Harrell has a ways to go in the shot-blocking department. The leadership, Pitino said, is going to have to come from the coaching staff.
Russ Smith did show leadership in another area on Wednesday, however. He told Pitino he felt he'd had a bad practice and wanted the coach to start Chris Jones in his place. He wanted to send the message that more is expected of everyone on the team -- even its preseason All-American. And he wanted to send the message that starting doesn't really matter, not to an All-American, not to the Final Four most outstanding player (Hancock).
"It was a very selfless thing to do, and I'm proud of him," Pitino said.
Don't expect Hancock to keep coming off the bench, however. Pitino said Wednesday he may turn to Wayne Blackshear less and less if he isn't going to produce more rebounding and on defense.
"Only because Wayne is playing minutes and getting no rebounds, no steals," Pitino said. "He just doesn't have the athleticism right now that he once had."
The Cardinals took 31 of their 70 shots from three-point range, and connected on 10 of them. Montrezl Harrell led five players in double-figures with 14 points. Behanan had 11 points and 11 rebounds in 19 minutes. Smith had 10 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and three steals.
The Cards return to action Saturday at 1 p.m. against Louisiana Lafayette in the KFC Yum! Center.
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