The tale of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino’s career is long and multifaceted, as he’s helmed five different collegiate programs and two NBA franchises. But in recent years at Louisville, the story is all about the defense.
Since the 2007-08 season, Pitino’s Cardinals have ranked in the top five in the nation in defensive efficiency five out of six seasons. In each of the last two seasons, they have been No. 1 in the nation.
Even though Duke dismantled a highly-touted Michigan State defense Friday night in Indianapolis, Louisville’s defensive unit is yet another significant step above. And unlike a Spartan defense that was content to apply pressure without generating huge quantities of turnovers, the disruptive Cardinals are incredibly aggressive going for the ball.
Six Louisville players average more than a steal per game, and Cardinal opponents turn the ball over on a remarkable 27.8 percent of their possessions. Pitino’s squad forces 18.7 turnovers per game, the second most in Division I.
When Duke and Louisville met in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship in November—a 76-71 Blue Devil victory—Duke turned the ball over 14 times despite averaging 10.6 turnovers per game, the ninth-best clip in the nation.
Add in that Louisville protects the paint well and plays solid perimeter defense even when they fail to get turnovers, and it is not difficult to see how Pitino’s players earned their distinction as the nation’s top stoppers.
Taking advantage of the havoc they wreak on defense, the Cardinals turn the opposing miscues into a remarkably efficient transition offense. Emblematic of these transition efforts and the frenetic Louisville defense is junior guard Russ Smith.
Smith is the centerpiece of Louisville’s attack on both ends, racking up 2.1 steals per game and turning a significant percentage of those into fast-break opportunities with his outstanding quickness. Although he runs the point at times for the Cardinals and can be a distributor, he primarily works to find his own shot, taking 32.6 percent of Louisville’s shots when he is on the floor and averaging 13.9 field goal attempts per game.
“Russ Smith is the most aggressive guard we’ve seen,” Duke forward Mason Plumlee said.
Despite his slight 165-pound frame, Smith is a crafty finisher in traffic, playing through contact and getting lots of opportunities from the free-throw line, where he converts at an 82.7-percent rate.
Alongside Smith in the backcourt is point guard Peyton Siva, the Cardinals’ lone senior. Siva leads the team in steals at 2.2 per game and also delivers 5.8 assists per game, including many highlight-reel dishes.
“Those two guys pressure the ball better than anyone in the country,” Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. “It starts with defense, and their defense leads to their offense. And they’re tenacious getting to the rim creating for others. So they’re two of the best.”
Although Siva is not one of Louisville’s more efficient scorers, he has the ability to take advantage if Duke point guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton are lax on defense. Siva showcased all of his skills that when these two teams met in November with a 19-point, six-steal effort.
Wayne Blackshear, a 6-foot-5 wing whose length and chiseled frame make him an excellent wing defender, is the final piece of the Cardinal starting backcourt. Though not a flashy offensive player, he is a reliable cog who rarely turns the ball over and finishes at a 55.2-percent clip when he gets inside the arc.
Down low, Duke will face Senegalese import Gorgui Dieng for the first time, after Dieng missed the November contest with a broken wrist. Dieng is one of the most talented defenders in all of college basketball, with a reported wingspan of 7-foot-6 and outstanding athleticism. He swats 2.5 shots per game while rarely getting in foul trouble, and even contributes 1.4 steals per game. He keys Louisville’s outstanding efforts on the offensive boards as well, averaging 9.5 total rebounds per contest, and rates as a dangerous if not prolific interior offensive threat as well.
“The two of these guys,” Pitino said, referring to Dieng and Smith, “have improved dramatically as much as any two basketball players I’ve coached.”
But Dieng’s absence in the Battle 4 Atlantis matchup was not felt as deeply as it might have been, thanks to Louisville’s excellent depth on the interior. Chane Behanan does not have the height of a typical power forward at 6-foot-6, but he possesses a bulky 250-pound frame that he uses to excellent effect on the glass and on defense.
Junior Stephan Van Treese plays limited minutes at 6-foot-9, but gives Pitino reliable effort off the bench. Explosive freshman Montrezl Harrell has shown flashes of potential to fill Dieng’s shoes in almost all facets of the game, as a rebounder, defender, shot-blocker, and offensive contributor in the post.
“You just have to be smart and constantly paying attention,” Duke forward Ryan Kelly said. “They have a deep roster. They throw a lot of bodies at you, and guys that really right now are playing very well off the bench.”
Louisville’s weaknesses will come into play if the Blue Devils can keep the Cardinals out of transition and limit them to half-court sets and perimeter play. Raw sophomore Kevin Ware, who sees limited action as a reserve guard, is the only Louisville player who is shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc this season. Small forward Luke Hancock is the only regular threat from long range—at 37.0 percent—for a team that shot only 33.1 percent from deep this season.
If the Blue Devils can keep the story from continuing to be about Louisville’s aggressive defense, Duke will have a shot at reaching the tournament’s final weekend. But if the Cardinals generate turnovers and push the pace like they’re accustomed to doing, the top seed will likely run right on through to the Final Four.