University of Louisville Russ Smith  is defended by Georgetown University's Porter, Jr.  and  Lubick during the first half of their NCAA basketball game in Washington

Louisville benches Russ Smith, but offensive issues persist in third straight loss

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – When discussing No. 5 Louisville, the first thing that is going to come up is always their defense.

More specifically, it is the pressure that the Cardinals are able to apply. With a pair of lightening quick ballhawks manning the back court in Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, the Cardinals can make life miserable for opposing back courts. It’s not a coincidence that Kenpom’s No. 2 ranked defense forces turnovers on 28.4% of their defensive possessions.

The best way to beat Louisville’s press has nothing to do with the offensive side of the ball, however.

It all comes down to defense.

If you can keep the Cardinals from scoring, you can keep them from getting into their press. And if you keep them from getting into their press, you can prevent the easy baskets that the steals Siva and Smith generate turn into. And if you prevent the easy baskets, you keep Louisville from jumping right back into that press.

On Saturday afternoon, Louisville had their losing streak extended to three games thanks to a 53-51 loss to Georgetown. That comes of the heels of a loss at Villanova on Wednesday, which was preceded by the Cardinals dropping a game at the Yum! Center to Syracuse. And that came on the Heels of Louisville being ranked No. 1 during the regular season for the first time in program history.

So what happened?

It’s simple: Louisville stopped scoring.

“The problem is we don’t get [our press] on enough because we shoot such a low percentage,” Rick Pitino said. “You keep shooting 34% or 35%, they may be tired, but you’re giving them a relief. I’m thinking of pressing on misses, something I’ve never done in my life.”

With four minutes gone in the second half of the loss to Syracuse, Louisville was up 48-40. Over the final 16 minutes, the Cardinals managed to score just 20 points and twice turned the ball over in the final 30 seconds of the game. On Wednesday, the Cardinals managed to score just 0.85 PPP against Villanova. Against Georgetown, they were only marginally better, scoring 0.86 PPP, with much of their damage coming on second chance opportunities down the stretch.

“Our offense will get better the better shots we take,” Pitino said, a clear reference to Smith’s Russdiculous tendencies.

Pitino brought Smith, who’s having an all-american caliber season, off the bench on Saturday. Smith played one of his worst games of the season in the loss to Villanova, going 2-13 from the floor and turning the ball over four times.

“There’s no such a thing as Russ overthinking,” Pitino said when asked if Smith’s tentative play of Saturday was a result of losing his spot in the starting lineup. “He’s been taking too may shots, to be honest with you. He can take a 100 shots if they’re all good shots. You’ve got to take good shots and shoot a decent percentage.”

Pitino also asked Smith to take on a different role on the team. Specifically, he wants Smith to be less of a gunner and more of a creator.

“In practice, coach has been telling me to find my teammates and focus on ball movement,” Smith said. “They want me to try and look for guys and try to get to the end of plays, so I’m trying to cut down on creating my own shots and look for other guys. Things happen, and I’m trying to get better and do whatever I can to get us better.”

“That’s what’s important moving forward, staying positive about the whole situation. If I gotta pass the ball more, I gotta find my teammates and I gotta make things happen offensively without creating my own shot.”

It’s a risky move for Pitino to make.

Louisville got hot in March last season, but what their Big East tournament run and Final Four appearance did was erase the memory of just how much the Cardinals struggled during the regular season. They were 103rd, according to Kenpom, in offensive efficiency. The reason that Louisville made the jump this season was that Smith improved his efficiency a great deal while becoming even more of a high-usage player.

He was still taking the crazy shots and throwing the risky passes, but those plays ended up successful more often than not.

And for a team that can get bogged down offensively, that aggressiveness and creativity was needed.

Pitino’s right in the sense that Smith needs to have some form of shot selection when the ball is in his hand’s.

But reining in a player that thrives on his ability to play with confidence and is such an integral and important piece can backfire.

“I don’t really mind it. I know how good I am,” Smith said. “I’ve proven myself against top tier talent. It’s not really anything that I would want to focus on or cry or bicker about.”

“At the end of the day, it is what it is. Coach is coach and I’m the player. I just gotta go out there and make things happen.”

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Some conference matchups play out before football

Oregon forward Dillon Brooks, left, reacts after scoring a basket against Utah during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Oregon defeated Utah 77-59. (AP Photo/George Frey)
(AP Photo/George Frey)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Utah at No. 16 Oregon, 4:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview:

Utah suffered one of the worst losses I’ve seen in a while on Thursday night, when Brandon Taylor, for some unknown reason, decided to foul an Oregon State player firing up a half court prayer at the buzzer. The Utes, who are arguably the second-best team in the Pac-12, will look to bounce-back on Sunday against the best team in the Pac-12, No. 16 Oregon at 4:00 p.m.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. No. 12 SMU will attempt to stay atop the American standings as they travel to South Florida. While the Mustangs won the first matchup between these two teams at home by 14, they’ve dropped their last two games on the road.

2. A few more American contests are going down as East Carolina travels to UConn and Houston heads to Tulsa. The game between the Cougars and Golden Hurricane is especially interesting because both teams are sitting two games back of SMU and trying to make a move on the postseason.

3. No. 5 Iowa continues the soft part of the schedule as they face Illinois on the road. The Hawkeyes posted recent easy victories over Northwestern and Penn State and will be heavily favored again on Sunday.

4. Could be an intriguing game as No. 17 Miami travels to Georgia Tech. Although the Yellow Jackets aren’t a major contender in the ACC, they’ve been tough this season, especially at home. The Hurricanes fell victim to Georgia Tech last season while they were ranked by Marcus Georges-Hunt has to get back on track after a recent slump for that to happen.

5. There is an Atlantic 10 game that will be featured on NBCSN on Sunday: Saint Louis at St. Bonaventure (2:00 p.m.).

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Sunday afternoon.

Illinois State ends No. 21 Wichita State’s 12-game win streak

Fred VanVleet
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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Having won 12 straight games, No. 21 Wichita State entered the weekend one of the hottest teams in the country. And with a four-game lead atop the Missouri Valley standings, clinching the regular season title was more a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.” But none of that mattered Saturday night at Illinois State, as the Redbirds managed to hand the Shockers their first conference loss by the final score of 58-53.

In addition to the 12-game win streak, which was second to Stony Brook (15 straight wins), Wichita State also saw its 19-game win streak in Valley regular season games come to an end. Illinois State was the last Valley team to beat Wichita State, eliminating the Shockers in the Arch Madness semifinals last March, and they played with the confidence of a team that believed it could win.

And after a rough first half the Redbirds found a way to come back, erasing a 16-point second half deficit in the process.

Wichita State’s issue in the second half was the fact that they couldn’t make shots. The Shockers shot just 26.7 percent from the field and 1-for-14 from three in the second half, with Fred VanVleet going scoreless and Shaq Morris scoring just one point. And just two players, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp, managed to make multiple field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes. Illinois State certainly deserves credit for that, as they took away the quality looks Wichita State was able to find in building its lead.

And on the other end of the floor Paris Lee took control of the game during Illinois State’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half with Deontae Hawkins adding 11 second-half points. Illinois State was even worse from the field, finishing the game shooting just over 27 percent from the field. But they were able to attack the Wichita State defense and get to the foul line, outscoring the Shockers 22-9 from the charity stripe. And in a game in which neither team could get much going offensively, the ability to get points from the line proved to be the difference.

This defeat doesn’t help Wichita State, but did anything really change? Maybe the margin for error when it comes to an at-large bid gets a little smaller with the loss in the eyes of some. But when considering injuries to the likes of VanVleet and Anton Grady in non-conference play, those early season losses are understandable. Saturday was a rough night for Wichita State, but given the maturity and talent on at Gregg Marshall’s disposal the Shockers will be fine moving forward.