Russ Smith said he agrees with Rick Pitino -- defense, not offense, wins championships.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – There is no escaping last season for the University of Louisville basketball team.
Not in their locker room, where a large picture of their White House visit hangs outside the door and the wallpaper in a center dressing stall features the 2013 NCAA championship trophy.
Not in the post-game news conferences, where their coach, Rick Pitino, often explains what the team lost when Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng walked out the door.
Not in the post-game analysis, where people wonder if Mangok Mathiang is truly the full-season answer in the middle and whether Luke Hancock and Chane Behanan will start blazing the way they blazed last March.
And certainly not in the constant discussion about whether this team guards in the same unsettling and unrelenting way that the 2013 champions defended.
The players expect it. Understand it. Agree with it. Beyonce will perform in their arena Thursday, followed by Justin Timberlake on Sunday. But when the Cards meet Western Kentucky next Saturday, defense is the first number on the playlist that their coach will be double-checking.
"Offense can win you games, but we all know what wins you championships," guard Russ Smith said. "You have to get stops. Last year we got stops."
Louisville defeated Louisiana-Lafayette, 113-74, at the KFC Yum! Center Saturday afternoon. That's not a score highlighted by stops. The Cards did it in front of 20,141 spectators, including 15 NBA scouts. The pro guys were in town because the visitors have two guys that NBA teams believe might be prospects.
Those two players, Shawn Long and Elfrid Payton, performed well. But the Cardinals overwhelmed the Rajun Cajuns with their depth in the second half, outscoring them 59-27 and forcing them to miss nearly 78 percent of their shots.
That reads like reasonably tenacious defense. That was not exactly the way Pitino saw it. He sees a team that is winning with its offense, superior numbers and advantage in talent. The coach has warned, several times, that Louisville better upgrade its defense to survive when the schedule finally flips to teams like Kentucky, Connecticut and Memphis.
"We're trying just to be average defensively, just average," Pitino said. "If we can be average, it will turn into good."
Interesting. According to Ken Pomeroy's advanced analytics, Louisville is the only team in the nation that ranks in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency.
Louisville won eight of its first nine games last season, losing to Duke. This team is also 8-1, stumbling against North Carolina. Some quick comparative nine-game numbers:
A year ago, the Cards were averaging 77 points per game, while giving up 53.1. This team is scoring 86.7 per game, allowing 60.3. The offensive field goal percentage has jumped from 44.9 to 46.7. This team has scored at least 84 six times in the first nine. Last season's team did it twice.
A better offensive team?
"Potentially," senior Luke Hancock said. "I think we've got a lot of weapons. We're shooting the ball a little better. We're making free throws. We could be better. I don't think we're tremendously better. But I think we're better."
Is this a better offensive team or a team taking advantage of the new rules that have made it prudent for guys like Smith, Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear to go directly to the rim?
"I would say a little bit of both," said Blackshear, after scoring 15 points. "We have a lot of shooters now. We have Chris who can get into the lane and Russ and Terry. It kind of spreads it out."
Then there is the other end of the court. Louisville's offensive numbers are better. So are the offensive numbers of the Cards' opponents.
Opponents made 38.2 percent of their shots over the first nine game against the NCAA champs. The number this season is 40.5.
But on defense, the factor that makes Pitino pace, last season's team showed its ability to suffocate an opponent early in the year, limiting six of its first nine opponents to 54 or less. This team has done that four times. A year ago, the Cards were plus-9 on the boards. This team is plus-7.
Small differences. But consistent. Better on offense. Not quite there on defense.
Pitino wants better. He'll demand better. This isn't one of those moments when the coach is merely sending a message through his news conference sound bites. Ask the players.
"There's a lot of reads in the zone that some of the new guys, we've got to pick up on," Hancock said. "There's a lot of work in the zone we've got to get better at."
"At the end of the day, Coach P is very consistent with what he does," Smith said. "And it's defense. Even if our offensive attack is better than our defense, he will still stress how important defense is. He'll never, ever be satisfied with offense winning the game."