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.

Louisville backcourt struggles in first scrimmage

Quentin Snider, Jerian Grant
Associated Press
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While a few teams did manage to hold special events for the official start of practice this weekend, most simply went about their business with drills and conditioning. One team that was the exception to all of this was Louisville, which held the first of its two intersquad scrimmages on Saturday. The Cardinals had a head start of sorts on the season, as they played six exhibition games in Puerto Rico this summer.

One hope heading into Saturday’s scrimmage was that guards Trey Lewis and Quentin Snider would have better chemistry than they did in Puerto Rico. But according to Jeff Greer of the Louisville Courier-Journal, that remains a work in progress for the Cleveland State transfer (Lewis) and rising sophomore (Snider).

They struggled in Puerto Rico, and they struggled again in Saturday’s Red-White scrimmage, the first public intrasquad practice since August. They played one half of the game together, paired with the presumed starting lineup with Mangok Mathiang out with an eye injury, a group that also included Damion Lee, Jaylen Johnson and Chinanu Onuaku.

That team lost the first half by 13 points to a younger group of Louisville players, and Lewis and Snider combined for eight points on 3-of-12 shooting, five turnovers, five steals, four assists and three rebounds.

“I thought (Snider) and (Lewis) did not play well together,” U of L coach Rick Pitino said. “They’ve got to get used to that. Neither guy made other guys better. That’s what they need to learn to do.”

As Greer also noted in his story the Cardinals have in recent years employed backcourt tandems in which both guards are capable of making plays for themselves and others. On the 2013 national champion team Peyton Siva and Russ Smith led the way, with Smith being joined by Terry Rozier or Chris Jones the following season and Rozier/Jones being the grouping last season before the latter was dismissed from the team.

Once Jones was dismissed Snider saw more time on the court, and his development was one of the keys for a Louisville team that fell one win short of the Final Four. Louisville needs him to take another step forward heading into the 2015-16 season, because even with Lewis’ experience at the Division I level Snider has more experience playing in Pitino’s system.

But while Saturday’s scrimmage didn’t go as well as anyone involved hoped, there’s still plenty of time for Louisville to work out the kinks before they open the season November 13 against Samford.

Knee injury sidelines Memphis assistant

Toronto Raptors vs Charlotte Hornets
Associated Press
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With practices beginning this weekend, not only are players looking to avoid the injury bug but their coaches are as well. And in the case of Memphis, the Tigers won’t have one of their assistants on the court for a little while due to a knee injury.

Assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, who returned to Josh Pastner’s staff this summer after a two-year stint at Arizona, suffered the injury during a recent workout according to L. Jason Smith of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. And Stoudamire will require surgery, which will put him on the shelf for a little bit.

“He was working out himself and I think he thought he was in his rookie year,” Pastner said. “We think he’s got a torn meniscus, which will require surgery and put him out for a couple of days.”

Stoudamire isn’t the only assistant coach working through pain either. Syracuse’s Mike Hopkins, who is also Jim Boeheim’s heir apparent as head coach, suffered a neck injury body surfing during a family vacation last month. Hopkins spent some time in a neck brace while putting players through workouts as a result of the injury.

As for the Tigers, they’ll have a mixture of experience on the perimeter and youth in the front court as they look to get back to the NCAA tournament after missing out last season. Among the newcomers are talented forwards Dedric and K.J. Lawson, with experienced guards such as Kedren Johnson, Trahson Burrell and Ricky Tarrant (grad transfer from Alabama) expected to be key contributors on the perimeter.