CRAWFORD | Cure for kryptonite? Pitino works to crack Virginia c - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Cure for kryptonite? Pitino works to crack Virginia code for Louisville

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Rick Pitino shouts to his Louisville team during a 22-point loss at Virginia to end last season. (AP photo) Rick Pitino shouts to his Louisville team during a 22-point loss at Virginia to end last season. (AP photo)
GAME INFO. Click to enlarge. Credit: Louisville Sports Information. GAME INFO. Click to enlarge. Credit: Louisville Sports Information.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Most likely, "obsessed" is too strong a word. Let's just say that University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has put a lot of thought into the Cardinals' ESPN Big Monday Atlantic Coast Conference showdown at Virginia.

He's been binge watching video of the Cavaliers like most of us binge watched Breaking Bad.

Somewhere in the middle of all that video, Pitino came to a conclusion. He's been doing it all wrong. As he watched his team labor through its offense against Virginia, then watched many others do exactly the same things against a Virginia defense rated No. 3 in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings.

Coaches will tell you, they never look past the next game to the one after it. Pitino not only has been looking ahead, he talked about looking ahead. He went so far as to call the Cavaliers "kryptonite" to his team's offense after Virginia beat the Cardinals 61-53 on Dec. 28. That came after losses of 16 and 22 points last season.

Here, in a nutshell, is what Pitino found. Louisville's offense is designed to beat you with pick-and-roll action, with players getting into the lane to score or create for teammates, first off cuts and screens, and then off pick-and-roll or ball screens at the top or side-court. But Virginia is among the nation's best teams at guarding the pick-and-roll, and is one of the best teams nationally at guarding screens.

Running an offense like that, you're attacking the strength of the Virginia defense.

"I think we have played them wrong," Pitino said. "In certain sets, we’re trying to run our sets and figure out, OK they’re going to take away A, B, let’s go to C, D option, and really when you play Virginia, it’s a matter of creating ball movement, creating player movement, and making shots. It’s not about an offense you’re going to run. It’s going to come down to individual players, breaking them down and making shots, off the pass. It’s not about an offensive set."

Using Synergy Sports statistical analysis, Virginia earns a grade of "Excellent" or "Above Average" in every defensive category -- except one.

Its defense on cuts is rated "poor." Cutting isn't done often in college basketball, or at least not extremely well by many teams. It requires constant motion, and seems to have given way to the ball screen or pick-and-roll. But if a team is a good cutting team, with good passers, it can create movement and take advantage of those cuts for open jumpers. Virginia's opponents have shot off cuts on just seven percent of their possessions -- but they have scored on nearly 70 percent of those.

Pitino believes he knows what his team has to do to beat Virginia, after watching its losses to Villanova and Florida State. What he doesn't know is if his team has the ability to do it.

He needs players to beat Virginia defenders off the dribble, then find teammates when the defense adjusts. He also needs those players to make jump shots, which they've been doing a great deal lately, but haven't done very well against Virginia.

No one does. Virginia opponents have taken 303 catch-and-shoot jumpers this season, about a third of the shots taken against the Cavaliers. Just 67 of those, 22.1 percent, have been unguarded. Interestingly, opponents have made a higher percentage of contested catch-and-shoot jumpers (33.9) than they have unguarded ones (29.9). In general, players who aren't the best shooters on a team are more likely to get the open looks.

"You’re going to have to shoot great to beat Virginia," Pitino said. "If you shoot great, you have a chance to win. . . . I think after studying the other teams, as well, you come to a conclusion, after looking at all the other teams, all the games they play, and see why the other teams had difficulty in scoring, you realize that it’s not only you, but it’s ten other teams trying the same thing and it’s not working against them. Now, do you have the players that can beat them off the bounce and create? That’s the second thing. There are certain teams we’ve had that can do that. Peyton Siva, Luke Hancock, Russ Smith, Terry Rozier. Now do you have the players to do that, that remains to be seen."

That, of course, is only part of the problem against Virginia, because it also is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation. They just do everything well. They're not looking to run, but they score 44 percent of the time out of their half-court offense -- nearly a quarter of the time getting spot-up jumpers, and they're one of the best in the nation at making those shots. And just about every player can shoot it.

"I've always felt you've got to be as good as Virginia defensively. In our game (in December), they shot 49 percent, we shot 43 percent. So you're not going to win that game. Villanova was as good defensively, Florida State was as good defensively and Pitt just shot lights out. Those are certain formulas to beat a team like that."

The Cards will also have to try to keep Virginia off the free throw line.

"In all three losses -- against Villanova, Virginia shot 3-for-3 from the (free throw) line, against Florida State, from the line they were 3-for-5 and against Pittsburgh -- in an overtime game -- they were 3-for-5. So in all three losses, the other team has shot many more free throws and didn't foul Virginia. Forgetting about they're one of the better defensive teams in the nation, what really makes them special is the way they execute on offense because their offense is terrific."

A win for Louisville would ratify some of the success it has had the past couple of weeks, and it would put the Cardinals in position to pursue a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed down the stretch. It also would elevate the Cards in the ACC standings.

A loss, however, isn't devastating. It backs the Cards up in the ACC standings, but losing at Virginia is no shame. The Cavaliers have lost only three times at home in three seasons.

The Cards are getting outstanding play from sophomore Donovan Mitchell. They will miss Quentin Snider in this one. While they've played solid offense without him, only one of the teams they've played -- Florida State -- has applied significant ball pressure. Virginia will apply pressure. Donovan, David Levitch and Ryan McMahon will have to limit turnovers and get the offense moving.

At least, that's what Pitino hopes will be the antidote to his program's kryptonite.

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