CRAWFORD | Eight thoughts from a first-look at the Louisville basketball team
Eric Crawford shares some thoughts on the University of Louisville basketball team after its first public scrimmage of the 2017-18 season Wednesday night.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- As soon as Rick Pitino mentions a previous team, especially what was probably his most famous previous team, everybody starts squawking and hooting and howling about a false comparison.
Let’s get this out of the way. Pitino has, to my knowledge, at no point compared the talent he has on his current University of Louisville roster to the talent he had at the University of Kentucky when his team won the NCAA title in 1996.
But Tuesday night, in the theater-style film room of the Yum! Center practice facility, Pitino rolled a standard-definition (because that’s all there was) replay of his ‘96 UK team’s first half of a game at LSU, in which the Wildcats scored 86 points.
It’s not the first time Pitino has showed a subsequent team video of that squad in action. Usually, it is to demonstrate the kind of defensive pressure it applied. This time, however, he had his players watch the offensive execution, the passing, the cutting, the ball movement.
That’s what he’s hoping this year’s team can emulate. He wants that kind of speed and ball movement on offense. And yes, he wants that kind of defensive havoc with a return to straight man-to-man and switching man-to-man defenses and full-court presses.
One week into practice, he saw a lot of speed when the Cardinals staged their first public scrimmage on Wednesday night. He didn’t see that kind of execution or passing.
He split his team evenly and saw newcomer Tony Hicks lead his Red squad to a 105-102 victory over Quentin Snider’s White team. He also saw the teams combine for 59 turnovers. Moving fast is one thing. Playing fast is another.
“For less than one week of practice I was very impressed,” Pitino said. “Impressed with their conditioning, their cat-like quickness and speed, I told you beforehand that you were going to see a lot of turnovers, and obviously you did. But I really liked their conditioning with no substitutes with the pace of the game. . . . This is a very athletic basketball team. It’s very difficult to learn to play at this pace. I’ve only really ever had one team do it. Our pace was equal. Our passing was not.“
Looking at the game as, well, a game, is pretty worthless. But there are a few takeaways that might prove worth making later on. Among them, these eight:
1). DONOVAN MITCHELL IS VISIBLY IMPROVED. The sophomore has lost 10-12 pounds, which has improved his quickness and his conditioning, but it wasn’t easy. He wasn’t playing with much body fat to start with, and cut it several more percentage points by cutting out, in his words, “Pizza was huge. Three to four servings of pancakes, eggs and bacon a day was huge. Gummy bears. Anything that sounds delicious, I definitely wanted to have, sweet potatoes. I took all that out of my diet. It was very, very hard. I’m not going to lie. But after I got down 10 pounds, I started to get in the habit, drinking a lot of water.”
Now, he says, if he goes off the diet and cheats, “I feel like I let somebody’s dog die.”
All right, maybe not that bad. Mitchell scored 22 points on 6-10 shooting, had 9 rebounds and six assists in the scrimmage Wednesday, and drew the highest praised Pitino dished out.
“The guy who impressed me the most the whole game was Donovan, because he played with pace,” Pitino said. “The other guys played too fast, didn’t change their pace, but Donovan looked like a complete basketball player. He never got tired, he played with pace, he changed his speeds.”
Mitchell went 4-6 from behind the three-point line, including a handoff curl three from the top of the key that was a staple of Pitino’s Kentucky teams in the mid-1990s. If he can make that shot with any consistency, it’ll be a dangerous weapon for the Cardinals. Pitino said Mitchell’s shooting has improved a great deal. Mitchell spent a lot of time in New York working out with Russ Smith and Chris Smith during the summer.
“The other day we had 17 pro scouts in practice and they were all amazed at how much better his shot was,” Pitino said. “He’s worked very very hard on developing arc on his shot. We’re talking thousands and thousands of shots.”
2). PITINO THINKS THE THREE AND FOUR SPOTS ARE STRENGTHS. The numbers from this scrimmage, at least, bore that out. Jaylen Johnson and Ray Spalding combined for 39 points and 35 rebounds. They also combined for 12 fouls (there were no disqualifications in the scrimmage).
Pitino described Johnson as “a workhorse, relentless,” and praised Spalding’s work at the top of the press, saying, “Ray is very difficult to pass over. It’s a scary thing for a guard to have to go up against him. You don’t go around him. He gives you major problems with his wingspan.”
At the three spot, freshman V.J. King started slowly on offense, getting a feel for the game, but still finished with 19 points and 8 rebounds. We went just 6 of 16 from the field, but physically was up to the demands of playing 37 minutes and still finishing strong. Deng Adel had 14 points on 5-11 shooting, with 7 rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes.
3). RYAN MCMAHON CAN SHOOT -- WORKING ON DOING MORE. Who knows how far Pitino can go with this, but McMahon entered the scrimmage Wednesday, drilled three quick three-pointers and dished for a couple more, and broke the game open for a time.
He has improved his strength, adding five pounds. He does some nice things with the ball. He has a quick release and picture-perfect shooting form. He also has some issues on defense and in working against pressure defense.
Still, for the game, the redshirt freshman went 6-8 from three-point range to finish with 18 points, and dished out a team-high six assists.
“He’s got great arc,” Pitino said. “He shoots at a Steph Curry rim. You shoot at a big rim when you have great arc like Ryan. Now we’ve just got to get him to cut down his turnovers. He’s very clever. He’s going to be a good basketball player. Guys like Ryan and Russ Smith just need time. Russ didn’t come into his own until his junior year.”
McMahon said, “I feel like if you do one thing really well, you can get opportunities. But now it’s all the other things that will keep me on the court. So I’ve got to work on cutting down turnovers and playing defense and contributing in those ways.”
4). HICKS ADDS AN ELEMENT. Fifth-year transfer Tony Hicks is the team’s quickest player, and should be a capable replacement at either guard spot. Pitino said he has a ways to go in a number of areas -- but speed isn’t one of them.
“He’s a speed merchant,” Pitino said. “Very, very fast. He’s got Peyton Siva-type speed. We’re working on a lot of things with him, but he’s got the speed.”
5). SNIDER LEADS THE WAY. It’s no surprise that Quentin Snider led the Cardinals in scoring, but it perhaps might be a bit of a surprise that he matched McMahon with 6-8 shooting from beyond the arc to finish with 27 points.
“His shooting in practice, it’s amazing,” McMahon said. “We all know he’s consistent from out there. And he’s a really steady leader for this team.”
Pitino said, “I think Quentin is terrific. I don’t ever see him get tired. But he’s got to cut down on his turnovers. He’s an outstanding, outstanding basketball player.”
6). CENTER SPOT STILL DEVELOPING. Probably no position on the court has seen more change under the new style of motion offense Pitino is trying to implement than the center spot. Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman are flashing to the high post more and looking to facilitate with their passing, a bit like what David Padgett did during his playing days, but without that level of passing ability, yet. That’s one of the things Pitino said he’ll be working on with his big men.
The two teams combined for 17 blocked shots, and Stockman had four of those. He says he’s far more comfortable on the court than he was a year ago. Pitino said Stockman had a couple of bad days of practice leading up to the scrimmage, but has been better in general.
“The five is by committee,” Pitino said. “Anas has just got to get stronger. Matz is much improved.”
7). INTERNATIONAL EXPERIENCE INFLUENCED OFFENSE: Asked about his idea to going to more of a motion-based attack on offense, Pitino credited his stint as Puerto Rican National Team coach.
"I think it was my experience coaching Puerto Rico and coaching FIFA basketball," he said. "I really enjoyed that and liked what they did. It takes a little time too, because you want to see a lot of turnovers because our focus on steals is over the top. That being said you know sometimes when you have the ball in the hands of the point guard you don't turn it over as much. When you got the ball in the hands of your fours and fives just as much as your ones, twos, and threes it's dangerous. We've worked very hard on it. You'll see Ray and Jaylen be careless because the amount of pressure we put on them, and Anas. Matz is the new Dirk Nowitzki so that won't happen."
Lest anyone think Pitino made that comparison seriously, he added, "I'm kidding with that statement."
8). ODDS AND ENDS: The announced attendance was 7,896. The Cardinals racked up the fouls. Stockman had 10. Johnson and Mitchell had eight each. Spalding, who shot 50 percent from the free-throw line a year ago, went 12 of 16 from the stripe Wednesday night. Hicks, King, Mitchell, Johnson, Snider and McMahon all shot 50 percent from the field or better. Everyone else was below.
The Cards will scrimmage again a week from Friday in the KFC Yum! Center.
Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.