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.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.