Let's go back in time.
It is 2008. Well, barely. It is New Years Eve 2008. You are in Freedom Hall, watching the Cardinals lose their third game of the young season.
"This is a team that was supposed to be a final four favorite?", you would have said. "They just lost at home to UNLV. AND THE REBELS DIDN'T EVEN HAVE WINK ADAMS."
How bad did it get?
Pitino was all but begging players to leave his program.
Fast forward back to today. You are now sitting on your friends couch in Brooklyn, the place you have slept the last three nights after spending an inhuman amount of time in Madison Square Garden. Why? Because your Cardinals, the Big East regular season champs, are now one win away from winning their first Big East Tournament title.
My how things change.
After seeing the Cards play live the last two days and three times in the last three weeks, I truly believe they are the favorite to win it all. And it starts with their defense.
Louisville does not play one second of man-to-man defense. None. Everything is a zone, which is odd because when you think about a zone, rarely do the words tough, or stingy, or dangerous come to mind.
But that is exactly what Louisville's defense is.
The Cardinals base everything they do off of their 2-2-1 press, which, when it is working right, is absolutely devastating. Anyone watching their semifinal game against Villanova can attest to it. The Wildcats were cruising in the first half. They were able to get just about anything the wanted offensively because Louisville just could not score. When they don't score, they can't get into their pressure. When they can't get into their pressure, they lose a little bit of that energy, that aggressiveness, that makes them so intimidating.
All of that changed in the second half. Louisville hit two quick three's in the first 1:15 of the second half (they his eight total in the second, 13 for the game), and it was off to the races. The Cardinals would use a 17-2 run to open up a 43-36 lead, and when Nova fought back to tie it, another 10-0 spurt to put the game away.
All told, Villanova finished with 23 turnovers, the majority of which came in the second half.
Louisville's press is so effective because everyone on the Cardinals is so athletic. You are not going to get by Andre McGee, Jerry Smith, or Preston Knowles when they are guarding you in full court. If, by chance, you do, then odds are you are playing too fast, which is exactly what Pitino wants.
The Cards also have some serious shot blockers at the back of their press. If anyone does happen to break it, then they are going to have to finish on Samardo Samuels or Terrence Jennings, which is no easy feat.
But the difference makers in this defense are Earl Clark and Terrence Williams, who play the second row of the 2-2-1. Both T-Will and E5 are ridiculous athletes - long, quick, hops, and great anticipation (especially for Williams). What happens is that they make it so difficult for you to make passes to advance the ball. When you can't dribble by the first layer of defenders, and you can't pass the ball to advance it up court, it becomes very difficult to beat a press.
So, as I said before, the way to beat Louisville's press is to not let them score.
Which is much easier said than done.
The Cardinals are not a great team in the half court, but they are effective. Everything is centered around the playmaking ability of Terrence Williams and Earl Clark. Both players are quite versatile, in that they can create from a multitude of spots on the floor and are match-up nightmares for opposing coaches.
They both are also fantastic passers. So when they get into the lane and draw an extra defender, they find the open shooter or a big man for a dunk.
So when you are watching the Big East finals tonight, keep that in mind. Watch how difficult it is to advance the ball with Williams and Clark playing safety in the middle of the court. Watch how tough the front line of the 2-2-1 press is. Watch how often Louisville waits for Clark or Williams to penetrate and score or kick.
Because that is what makes Louisville a legitimate national title contender.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Let's go back in time.