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.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.