CRAWFORD | Pitino says he'll scrap matchup zone, change defense - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Pitino says he'll scrap matchup zone, change defense on eve of postseason

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The matchup zone has served the University of Louisville basketball program well. Played by coach Rick Pitino's past several basketball teams, it has confounded opponents into low shooting percentages and wreaked havoc by morphing from zone to man-to-man in an instant, and at times back again, all within the same possession.

But this week, the final week of the regular season, Pitino says he has decided to lay it to rest. This season, it has proved confusing as much to his own team as opponents. Based on communication and a rigid reliance on the scouting report, it's not an easy system to learn, and has produced fewer deflections than at any time during his tenure as Cardinals coach.

And deflections, as anyone who has watched Pitino's teams knows, are the lifeblood of the attack. They are what lit the fuse on the “boom” runs of the past three years. And right now, they are missing. Heading into Saturday's 6:30 p.m. season-finale against No. 2-ranked Virginia, Pitino says he is trying something new, and simpler than the zone the team has been trying to perfect all season.

“I've made up my mind, I'm throwing up my hands, and even though it's late in the year I'm dramatically changing our system,” he said. “I've only got a couple of days to do it, but when Chris Jones left a big part of our defense left. Our matchup zone the last four years has confused people on what to run, how to execute, how to handle the changes. And this team, with Chris out, just doesn't play it well because it's based on communication, on knowing the other team's offense, when to change on the fly, and this team doesn't grasp it. So we're going to go away from it and do what coaches call 'dumb it down' quite a bit going into the tournament. We're going to change dramatically and I think it would help us in the long run.”

Such late-season “tweaks” don't come if things are going well. But Pitino has watched his defense struggle and falter against opponents for several weeks. And he has to have noted that when the guesswork was taken out of things and he sent his team out in its “five” man-to-man pressure at the highest level, it has fared much better.

Freshman Shaqquan Aaron speculated that a change might be coming after the Cards' won at Georgia Tech. Turns out, he was right.

“Usually when we go man-to-man five, we seem to play better and faster,” Aaron said. “Maybe we need to make an adjustment. In our two (2-3 zone defense) we play, it's tough, the rotations, you've really got to pay attention, and sometimes in a game you're thinking more about where you need to be instead of focusing on guarding the man. But in the man-to-man you know you're guarding your man. But they're both effective defenses. You just have to pay attention. There's teams that just can't score on our two. It's just a matter of paying attention and learning.”

Pitino said he wasn't worried about revealing the change before a big game because Virginia will run its offense regardless of what defense U of L is playing. He noted the Cavaliers ran their man-to-man offense against U of L's zone when the teams met in Charlottesville, a 52-47 loss on Feb. 7.

The whole question brings up another one that was posed to me via email just today from reader Buddy Thompson, who wanted to talk about Pitino's evolution on both offense and defense. He noted that the coach has moved from a free-flowing, drive-pass-and-kick offense at UK to one based more on pick-and-rolls and high screens at U of L. And he noted that Pitino went from a nearly-exclusive zone defense in the half-court at UK to now a zone at U of L.

They're interesting questions, but I would answer that the change in style has been based more on conference and competition than a change in Pitino's philosophy.

In the SEC, which was dominated in those days by Nolan Richardson's “40 Minutes of Hell,” running, pressing, high-scoring basketball was the preferred mode of play. There were few teams that were going to lock you down in the half-court defensively. As well, his UK teams were some of the best athletically in the country, with players whose length and ability made man-to-man a much better choice. When you're better at every possession, why not play straight up?

At U of L, Pitino took his first hard turn toward zone in 2005, when the lack of a traditional big man and the need to preserve a very short bench led him to play a 2-3 zone. That team rarely put on an all-out full-court press, but went to the Final Four on the strength of having three of the school's career leaders in three-point field goals, and three of the school's top-five ever in career free-throw percentage. When he needed defensive pressure, Pitino turned to a specialist in Brandon Jenkins to turn up the heat.

Once in the Big East, the style of game changed. It was a league built predominantly on bruising defenses and offenses built around surviving the black-and-blue games the conference produced. You had to be strong with the ball, keep the ball out of the paint on offense, and be ready to win close games. In reality, though, Pitino has won at U of L with a wide variety of offensive approaches. The 2005 team had no point guard but largely ran through a point forward in Francisco Garcia. David Padgett facilitated the offense in the high post. Gorgui Dieng at times did the same during the championship season, though in the second half of the 2013 title game Pitino gave the offense to Russ Smith and told him to run it. A year later, Smith was the creator and leader of the offense. 

The zone Pitino built, which is a bit of a hybrid defense and sometimes was a zone in appearance only, helped confuse opponents, and was a big part of the Cardinals winning an NCAA championship in 2013. Pitino had players who knew how to run it, who responded instinctively when the ball went below the free-throw line to match up, and who could quickly recover to a zone look if the ball went back out.

Gorgui Dieng, at center, was an ideal communicator in the zone, and was a talented help defender if opponents did get penetration.

Smith and Siva, though undersized, were so good at pressuring the basketball and creating deflections that the zone was that much more potent, because offenses could never settle in.

Simply put, Pitino doesn't have that kind of experience or skill set on this season's team. And he hasn't been able to develop it, particularly now without Jones, who was his best on-ball defender.

One other factor has come into play now that the Cardinals have again changed conferences. They're playing teams who are more difficult to turn over. Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Miami and Pittsburgh all are among the top 50 most efficient offensive teams in the nation. U of L is turning over opponents on 22 percent of their possessions this season, no team in the ACC averages that high a turnover percentage, and teams like Notre Dame and Virginia turn it over less than 15 percent of the time.

I asked Pitino how much playing better offensive teams figured into his team's deflection deficiency this season, but he wasn't quite ready to sign on.

“I'm not sure they're better than the top Big East teams we played (offensively), you'd have to look at that,”  he said. “I think deflections, when you're playing against Virginia, you're probably right. They're so well-schooled and well-disciplined at moving the ball — and Notre Dame as well. But we've played against some of the best teams in the country (in the past) and gotten 35 or 40 deflections. We averaged 36 deflections for the championship year. And in the Final Four year we averaged 32-33. This is the lowest I've had since I've been here. And, part of the reason maybe is that the scoring is coming down. Maybe the possessions are coming down. You know, that's the next hurdle for college basketball right now, how do we get more scoring in this game?”

For now, Pitino's next hurdle is streamlining his defense so that it still can be effective, while allowing his young players to catch on. Specifically, freshman point guard Quentin Snider has struggled defensively, and was beaten off the dribble repeatedly by Notre Dame, which obviously made that part of its game plan. Pitino said he doesn't blame Snider, because he has been thrust into a position he shouldn't have been expected to take. But he added that the players around Snider are going to have to pick it up in order to allow him to stay in the game, because he can be an asset offensively.

Virginia is not the ideal team to try out a new look against. But Pitino apparently is ready to roll the dice as his team heads into the postseason.

“I told the players after the (Notre Dame) game, 'I'm going to make these changes because I want to help you stop thinking out there, because obviously if you're thinking and not reacting, you're not going to get a lot of deflections,'” Pitino said. “But I told them, 'The earth is going to shake if you don't start getting your 35 deflections. So I'm going to help you in one sense, but I expect the job to be done.'”

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