BOZICH | Louisville beats Kentucky Wesleyan but offensive questions remain
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – With 59.1 seconds left in an exhibition game, you expect Rick Pitino to be encouraging walk-ons into the game. Or maybe sitting back and sharing a post-game observation with assistant coach Ralph Willard.
Something without stress driving the conversation.
With 59.1 seconds to play against Kentucky Wesleyan Monday night at the KFC Yum! Center, Pitino had another task:
He waved four veterans to the scorer’s bench because the Panthers had chopped all but six points off the U of L lead. A game the Cardinals led by 18 less than four minutes earlier was now a two-possession game. It appeared stressful.
“A little bit,” David Levitch said. “A little bit. Just a tad.”
And the man in the middle of the huddle was perturbed?
“I wouldn’t say he was very happy,” Levitch said.
Pitino had a very basic reason for ordering Trey Lewis, Damion Lee, Chinanu Onuaku and Mangok Mathiang to close out the final 59.1.
“We had to win the game there,” Pitino said. “I don’t like doing that, but we had to win the game because you could lose your confidence going into that.”
Louisville won the game, 77-68, against Kentucky Wesleyan. We’ll discover if the Cardinals’ confidence survived intact when they open the regular season here Friday night against Samford – or when they play Hartford and dangerous North Florida next week. A 3-0 start is no guarantee.
The players were under no illusion that they had satisfied their head coach Monday night. Not shooting the basketball. Not understanding his complex defensive demands. Not in closing out a game with authority. The Panthers led by six with less than eight minutes to play in the first half.
Irritation during an exhibition game is not a bad thing. It gives a coach another reason to drive his team in practice. Finding motivational material will not be a challenge for Pitino this week.
“We did definitely take a step back (from the exhibition win over Bellarmine) and have to revisit a couple of things when we get back into practice,” Lee said. “We have to go back to understanding and listening to concepts and realizing what our strengths are.”
If the Cards had any temptation to believe they were primed to cruise control their way through their first four games, all at home, those thoughts were likely flushed by their overall performance against Wesleyan.
Lee led Louisville with 19 points, but needed 17 shots to get there. He took seven three-point field goal attempts and missed six. Chinanu Onuaku had 11. Nobody else was in double figures. Quentin Snider, the sophomore guard, was the only Card to make a pair of three-point field goals.
Louisville has building blocks. This team has depth and more size than most teams. It is inexperienced depth, but Pitino can use his bench to create energy – and to motivate guys who are not delivering.
The players said Pitino was not thrilled with their defensive effort. They did not attain several pre-game goals, especially deflections. But Wesleyan made only 36 percent of its field-goal attempts and turned the ball over 15 times.
This is what sounded an alarm: The 2016 Cardinals looked similar to the 2015 Cardinals shooting the basketball – shaky, inconsistent, and hesitant. They made only six of 21 three-point shots. Their overall field goal percentage was less than 42 percent.
Two guys – Lee and Snider – accounted for 19 of Louisville’s 34 overall missed field goals as well as nine of the missed 15 three-pointers.
Both can shoot better. Both must shoot better. Louisville made less than 31 percent of its three-point shots last season, the worst performance by a Louisville team since the rule was adopted before the 1986-87 season.
“I know that I personally short-armed a lot of shots,” said Lee. “I pulled the string on a lot of them. That just goes to getting back in the gym, going back to the fundamentals of good form shooting, getting back to the basics.
“I think for everyone else we have to be more confident in each other. Push each other to be better.”
“I think once everybody starts to adapt to each other and guys start making the extra pass we’ll become a better shooting team,” Levitch said.
Louisville averaged 1.04 points per possession. That number is also reminiscent of last season when the Cards averaged 1.03 points per possession.
For comparison, Duke averaged 1.18 points per possession while winning the national title last season. The Cards registered 1.09 ppp during their 2013 NCAA title run.
Pitino did not dwell on Louisville’s shooting struggles after the game. He did say the primary thing he learned from the victory is this team will need to create offense from its defense with a pressing style.
“We really didn’t get any offense going until we started pressing, which is a good indicator to me of what we have to do going into the Samford game,” he said.
“I’m learning about this basketball team and what we need to work on. This is an inexperienced basketball team that learned a lot from these two exhibition games.”
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