CRAWFORD | Louisville will look to sweat the small stuff against - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville will look to sweat the small stuff against Pittsburgh

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — You’re not going to enjoy this column. I’m telling you right now, it might put you to sleep. Go ahead, in fact, and grab some caffeine. Hit the coffee shops. Grab some Mountain Dew (code red, since we’re talking about University of Louisville basketball).

If you’re looking for the answer to sharper play from the Cardinals than they displayed in Sunday’s 66-62 loss at Clemson, and for that matter, the key to being competitive in games like Thursday’s 9 p.m. ESPN showdown with Pittsburgh, it’s time to get out the magnifying glass and look at the little stuff.

ESPN doesn’t show highlights of players time and again making strong blitzes or hedges against high ball screens and then sprinting to recover. It’s rare that you see video of a player sliding over to take a charge. They don’t show the Top 10 Deflections of the Day on Sportscenter.

But having conquered the challenges of team chemistry, attitude and willingness to play together, the Cardinals now are going to have to sweat this small stuff if they expect to take the step up in play that is required to win even regular ACC games, much less those against elite teams.

Excited yet?

“I told them yesterday in our meeting, there’s three E’s that make up a great basketball team,” Pitino said. “There’s enthusiasm, there’s effort, and it all leads to execution. We’ve got great effort, great enthusiasm, but we don’t have great execution. And unless you trust each other, and pass the ball more, you’re not going to have great execution. And that’s something we continue to work on. That’s what makes Pitt so great. They’ve been together. They know each other. They know their strengths, they know their weaknesses, they know where the cuts are going to come from, and that’s what our team does not know.”

An example. Pitino said the Cards were 0-for-13 on challenged shots at Clemson, an area where the team has generally been good this season. This team has been very good at not taking challenged shots.

But faced with a more physical opponent — and an early deficit — Pitino said his team began to rush offensively. Damion Lee, the Cardinals’ leading scorer, was in such a a hurry to score that he didn’t wait for screens, and often took off on his own in search of points. The same was true of Trey Lewis at times.

“This team is unique,” Pitino said. “We lost 85 percent of our scoring. There’s so many things you have to put together in order for the parts to fit into the puzzle. It’s not only rebounding, it’s not only passing, offense, defense, pressing, match-up zone, it’s everything. Now we got a little bit of a jump with the Peurto Rico trip, but right now we’ve got many, many weaknesses, and you saw it in the last game. Guys getting impatient because they’re down, not passing the ball enough, guys got into their face and bumping and grinding, and they didn’t slow down and use screen. So it’s a learning process. We learn every, single game.”

Offensively, passing, screening and shot selection are the lessons. On defense, learning the zone, containing dribble penetration and anticipation are things Pitino is working on with his players.

He wants, in his system, his team to get 38 or so deflections a game. In three ACC games, the Cards have been lucky to get into the 20s. He’s looking for a defense that is more aggressive in the half-court, and because it lacks natural, speedy defenders at guard, that means it has to play smarter.

“We've been very blessed the last few years to have lightning-quick guards like Peyton Siva and Russ Smith and Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, and they create a lot of deflections,” Pitino said. “The leader on our basketball team is a guy averaging 17 or 18 minutes a game - Ray Spalding. We don't have the type of backcourt that we've had, that's lightning-quick with their hands and their feet. You've got to get it more by anticipation.

“The message I told my team yesterday was, when I was with the Knicks, we averaged 116.8 points per game, and Mark Jackson was a rookie. Mark Jackson did not have blinding speed, either with his hands or his feet. But he got all his steals and deflections in the halfcourt by knowing where the ball was going to go and by studying the game. That's what Quentin (Snider) and Donovan (Mitchell) have to do, because Mark was third in the league in steals that year as a rookie. There's many different ways to get deflections and steals. It doesn't have to come with blinding speed like with Russ or Peyton or Terry. It has to come by anticipation. Some of the great defensive backs don't necessarily have blinding speed, they just anticipate extremely well what's going to happen. We've got to get better at that.”

Pitino is working to add elements of the full-court press. To put his team through drills that improve individual defensive technique. It’s a lot to cover, with a lot of players, while also addressing the overall challenges of game plans and scouting.

And, by the way, scouting is a part of it. The Cards gave up the left hand to players who wanted to go left against Clemson, and the right hand to players who wanted to go right. Sometimes in a four-point game, that’s the difference.

And against a team like Pittsburgh, which Pitino called “an execution machine,” those little things can add up in a hurry.

The hope, Pitino said, is that one by one, the little warning lights go out, as players improve individually and get more comfortable. Until then, he said, there will probably be little warning lights that go off in different areas every game.

“In the Wake Forest game it was transition defense,” he said. “In the N.C. State game, at the end, it was poor passing. In this game it was the physical nature where they got after us and we backed up too much on our heels and took bad shots. . . . Like I said, they have two of the three E’s. They give great effort, they have great enthusiasm, they’re wonderful people. But they don’t execute well — at any phase of the game. They work very hard at it, and they will get it, but it’s in every area where they’ve got to improve. And that’s a good thing. If they can get better in every area, just think how good they could be if they master those areas. But the clock, every week, the sands runs down that clock.”

Pitino said he remains hopeful, and that he knows he has the talent. He’s just trying to be beat that clock.

“This team, everybody got very excited at the beginning of the year, but I know exactly who we are and what we are, and we’re very excited to still be in the Top 25,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot of weaknesses. And what we’re hoping for is, come March, most of those weaknesses have gone away. But you would expect a team that’s new to each other to have a lot of weaknesses, and last year’s team, we had a lot of parts that came together at the right time, and we hope we can do the same this year. But we’re going to have a lot of bumps along the way.”

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