CRAWFORD | The three best signs from Louisville's 59-41 win over - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | The three best signs from Louisville's 59-41 win over Pittsburgh

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Damion Lee goes up against Pittsburgh. (AP photo) Damion Lee goes up against Pittsburgh. (AP photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — You can’t really call the transformation in the University of Louisville basketball team’s defense overnight, because the Cardinals had three nights to work on it after a 66-62 loss at Clemson on Sunday.

But what they displayed against Pitt in a 59-41 loss on Thursday was something new. The Cardinals have played decent defense against mediocre teams for a lot of this season.

What they did Thursday was play very good defense against a very good offensive team — and they emerged from that game ranked No. 1 in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

Pitt came into the game ranked ninth in the nation in scoring and 13th in the nation in shooting percentage. They didn’t even reach half their average in scoring. They shot 28.6 percent — barely half of their 53.2 percent season average.

What happened? How do you go from being unable to guard Clemson — sending the Tigers to the free-throw line 44 times — to shutting down an offensive team like Pittsburgh? And what does that mean for the Cardinals going forward if they can sustain it?

There were three really good developments for this Louisville basketball team in what it was able to do on defense Thursday night:

1. ONUAKU’S LEADERSHIP. At center, Chinanu Onuaku did some Gorgui Dieng-type stuff on defense. It wasn’t just his three blocks and two steals. It was his direction of the defense, his constant communication. There were times when he reached out and grabbed teammates to send them into the right position.

If he can demonstrate that kind of understanding of what Louisville is trying to do with its zoneish-type man-to-man (which basically is man-to-man which attempts to show zone just enough to confuse opponents and slow them down), it’s a huge plus for the Louisville defense moving forward.

In 2013, when Louisville’s defense got really good, Dieng returned from an early-season injury and became the quarterback of the zone, along with being one of the best and quickest rotation big men in college basketball.

I said, after one early-season blocking call that Louisville took early in the season after Dieng left, “Gorgui would’ve been waiting for that guy, probably eating a sandwich,” a year ago.

Onuaku is beginning to show that kind of quickness and instinct in the zone. Time and again he turned to close off looks in the lane, forcing Pittsburgh deeper into the shot clock. That doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but it’s big. Onuaku has been doing all of those little things all season, which is why he has led Pitino’s MVP listing so often. His six turnovers Thursday will keep him from doing that in this game, but his contribution on the defensive end was major in ways that are deeper than the stat sheet.

(Also, let’s not forget his 4-for-5 performance from the free-throw line, including a couple of late free throws, after he had demanded the ball in the post.)

2. SCOUTING REPORT EXECUTION. It takes a while for teams to put into practice what they hear in the scouting report. The best examples of what happens when they do, for me, again are from the NCAA title season of 2013. If you put Louisville’s basic talent against Duke’s that season, no way they were 22 points better. But defensively, Louisville played very close to a perfect game from an assignment standpoint. No individual Duke player ever got the ball in a position where he was comfortable. That team was so in sync with Pitino that it dismantled teams that, on paper, were probably just as good as it was.

Thursday night, Pitino said his team did a better job of putting those scouting points into practice on the court than in any game this season.

“We took away (James) Robinson's right, we took away their two man game with traps, we pressed without fouling,” Pitino said. “. . . We did everything from a focus standpoint to take away their strengths. That's where this team hasn't been together."

3. THEY GOT THE LESSON THAT DEFENSE PAYS. On his ESPN 680 Radio program today, host Bob Valvano, who conducts Pitino’s postgame radio interviews, talked about standing outside the locker room and hearing Pitino walk in after the game and mention, first thing, how great the defense was. And the locker room erupted.

“They got it,” Valvano said.

“I think the guys saw what it could do tonight,” Pitino said, talking about the defense. “And I think they're encouraged by it. I think they'll draw some energy from it.”

And it’s not just at the team level. Damion Lee looked as if he took some things Pitino said to heart after his 6-point performance in the loss at Clemson. Pitino told him that if he became one-dimensional, he was going to have nights like the one at Clemson.

Lee was nowhere near one-dimensional Thursday night. He had four steals (second only to his five-steal effort at Michigan State). He blocked a shot. He had four defensive rebounds. He had just one assist, so there’s still some work to do, but on a night when he went 0-4 from three-point range and just 5 of 13 overall, he still finished with 18 points and was a positive factor in the victory.

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