As Louisville spent the early part of the season beating up on inferior competition and booting junior starting forward Chane Behanan from the team, not many gave the Cardinals a chance to do much in March.
Louisville lost to North Carolina, Kentucky and Memphis in the early part of the season and the Cardinals didn’t beat a team that was ranked in the top 25 until its February 22nd road win over then-No. 7 Cincinnati.
But after the No. 11 Cardinals’ 81-48 thrashing of No. 19 UConn on Saturday, its time to start taking Louisville seriously as a threat to repeat as national champions. Louisville now owns a season sweep over UConn and SMU in American Athletic Conference play and a road win over Cincinnati since falling to the Bearcats at home in the earlier part of the conference slate.
Louisville (26-5, 15-3) is a different and more focused team without Behanan around as a distraction and the play of sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell has been a big reason why. The 6-foot-8 sophomore had 21 points and 10 rebounds in the win over UConn (24-7, 12-6) on Saturday and over his last five games — four of them against ranked opponents — Harrell is averaging 21.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. To put that in perspective, Harrell is averaging 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on the season. Harrell appears to be peaking late in the season much like he did off-the-bench during Louisville’s title run last season. Only now, he’s a main option for the Cardinals with Behanan no longer on the roster and Georgi Dieng in the NBA.
The dominant play of Harrell on the inside also eases the burden placed on Louisville’s deep and talented stable of guards. Russ Smith is averaging 18 points a game by only attempted two field goals in 30 minutes of action on Saturday and was 1-for-3 from the free throw line as he instead dished out 13 assists. Luke Hancock (16 points), Wayne Blackshear (11 points) and Chris Jones (10 points) all contributed solid, but not outstanding efforts, and the Cardinals still won by 33 over a top-20 team.
And the Cardinal defense was fantastic on Saturday, as they held UConn leading scorers Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright to a combined 14 points on 4-for-24 shooting from the field. The UConn backcourt duo usually averages just over 30 points per game.
Louisville has won nine out of 10 games entering the AAC Tournament in Memphis and as a No. 2 seed the Cardinals won’t have to potentially face the No. 5 seed Tigers in their home city. If Harrell continues to play like this, Louisville has enough talent at guard around him to make a serious run at a third consecutive Final Four.
Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.
According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.
That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.
“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”
As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.
Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.
When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.
Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.
Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.
While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.
“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”
Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.