LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- T.S. Eliot didn't know what he was talking about. January, not April, is the cruelest month, if you're the University of Louisville basketball team.
The Cardinals are 17-10 in January over the past four seasons, easily the worst winning percentage of any regular-season month. And in each of the past three Januarys, they've lost at least three games.
So Thursday's 73-67 setback to Memphis at home isn't exactly cause for panic. But the way the Cards have played in their past two games is cause for concern. And it's really on both ends of the court.
In their first game after the dismissal of Chane Behanan, they dished out 28 assists in a blowout win at Central Florida. In the two games since, they've had just 20 assists total.
No stat indicates the Cards' offensive effectiveness in a given game like assists. In their three losses, they've averaged 9.6 assists per game. In their wins, they've been at 16.3 per game.
Against better teams, their offense has for significant stretches disintegrated into a series of one-on-one moves, or a high pick-and-roll plays that come with little ball movement or reversal. And against more athletic opponents, defenders are better able to deal with that kind of straightforward offense.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino was unhappy with his team at both ends against Memphis, but noted specifically on offense players were breaking the offense to go one-on-one, and were resorting to the pick-and-roll too soon in sets. Two players who have to be more involved offensively are Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell. Both rank in the top 100 in offensive efficiency, but they rank fifth and sixth on the team in percentage of possessions in which they're used, according to Kenpom.com statistics.
"We've got to do little things well," Pitino told Bob Valvano on his Nelligan Sports postgame show Thursday. "We're dribbling into traffic. We need better spacing. You can't run pick-and-rolls until the end of your set. We're running them at the beginning. We paid attention in practice this week, unlike before the Rutgers game, but we're having a very hard time getting this game."
Defensively, Pitino has been scratching his head. Against Memphis, he cited crucial breakdowns of players being in the wrong defense. Once, Wayne Blackshear ran to the wrong side of a zone, and when Montrezl Harrell told him to get to his spot, he left a three-point shooter open. On another trip, Russ Smith simply ran away from an open three-point shooter.
Pitino said he hasn't overburdened his team with defensive schemes.
"We got confused a couple of times with the game on the line with what defense we're in," he said. "We didn't get confused one time last year. I don't know what's so difficult about it, but for some reason, we probably can't play as many defenses, although we only played two."
He noted that Chris Jones has been frustrated trying to pick things up, but that he's doing a good job as a first-year player. He's more frustrated with the team's lack of leadership on the court. It stems from a lack of defense, he said.
"To be a leader, you have to be a defensive player," he said. "Our senior guys (Russ Smith, Luke Hancock) are not playing great defense."
"It's the same story after every ranked team we play," sophomore Montrezl Harrell said. "We're getting killed on the defensive end. We have 15 guys on this team who can score. We've got to get together and start stopping people on the defensive end."
After the game, a reporter asked Pitino what the identity of this team is. He didn't have an answer. He said, "I don't know." With Valvano later, he said, "Our identity is that we want to outscore people. But I told them we can't do that. We're not good enough. We have to improve defensively."
The Cards have been outrebounded five straight games. They're giving up dribble penetration. They aren't stopping people at the rim. And yet, they have offensive ability.
On both ends, the solution is going to come in playing together.
Ball movement, ball reversals, moving the defense around, will create better opportunities to drive. Defensively, the team is still struggling with rotations, but has the ability to improve -- at least well enough to be competitive.
The rebounding issue is with guards. Even when the Cards block opponents off their offensive glass, guards often don't come back to get the ball. According to Kenpom.com statistics, one-third of the rebounds U of L allows come on the offensive end.
This Cardinals team is one that can't overpower teams with talent. It's going to have to draw on chemistry at least as much as last season's national championship team did, and maybe more.
"We outsmarted people on defense the last couple of years," Pitino told Valvano. "Unfortunately, that's been taken away from us. Our aces (Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng) have been taken out of the deck. But we're going to get better. We can improve a great deal. Now is no time to get down."
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