No. 4 Louisville entered its matchup with Memphis on Saturday as one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Kenpom had them ranked second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing just 83.6 points per 100 possessions. Translated to raw numbers, only one team had managed to score more than 60 points against the Cardinals this season, and that was the 66 points and fast-breaking Long Beach State managed to post. Hell, Louisville managed to hold Arkansas State to a measly 27 points. Seriously. 27 points. In an entire game.
Its easy to put up defensive numbers like that when you are one of the best in the country at forcing turnovers and forcing opponents to miss shots.
The question mark surrounding this Louisville program early in the season is on the offensive end of the floor. The Cardinals are 63rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, and those numbers are bolstered by the blowout wins Louisville notched against IUPUI and Fairleigh Dickinson in the past two weeks. Two Louisville starters (Peyton Siva and Chane Behanan) as well as their high-usage gunner off the bench (Russ Smith), the three players that attempt the highest-volume of shots per-minute, all notched efficiency numbers below 100 prior to Saturday.
Against Memphis, however, Louisville was a different team, nearly breaking the century mark in their 95-87 win over the Tigers.
And Russ Smith was the spark.
The sophomore got the start over Chris Smith because of the way that Louisville matched up with Memphis, and it paid off for Pitino immediately. The sophomore scored 13 of the first 17 points for Louisville, sparking a first half surge that allowed the Cardinals to open up a 10 point halftime lead. He finished with 24 points, easily a career-high, and seven steals on 6-16 shooting.
Smith brings a different dynamic to this Louisville team. Where starting point guard Peyton Siva has become something of a controlled point guard — the guy that Rick Pitino trusts to get the Cardinals into their offense and the guy that has the ball in his hands at the end of a clock — Smith is all attack, all the time. Given the way that Louisville likes to play, pressing and pushing in transition, Smith’s ability makes him a terrific fit on this team.
The issue is that there is some bad that comes with the good.
For every great move that Smith makes in transition, he throws up a challenged floater while going 1-on-3. For every three he hits, he misses two. Every foul he draws is nullified by a turnover he commits.
And while I’m sure there are a few hairs on Rick Pitino’s head that will turn grey before the season is over thanks to Smith’s shot selection, the veteran coach also must understand that by trying to rein in his young point guard, he eliminates the opportunity for a performance like tonight. Smith was a difference maker. He was the guy that got Louisville going and provided counter-attack after counter-attack against a team in Memphis that runs the floor as hard as anyone in the country.
The Cardinals are going to have to come to terms with the fact that it is in their best interest to deal with a couple “What in the hell is he DOING?!?” moments with Smith.
Because he’s capable of making a lot of things happen on both ends of the floor.
What We Learned
– I’ll go ahead and say it — Louisville is the most selfless team in the country. They can go ten or eleven deep right now, and that’s with injuries to Wayne Blackshear and Stephen VanTreese. They had three players — and two starters — give up their scholarships without a fuss to bring more players into the program. They had seven players score in double figures. They were led by a players that got a spot start because of the matcup. The guy he started over finished with 11 points.
– I think we can now officially say that Gorgui Dieng is a game-changer inside. He finished this one with 14 points, 14 boards and six blocks. Seven of those rebounds came on the offensive end. More impressive to me, at least, is that he began the game missing his first five shots. Its not offensive that you see a player that limited offensively able to work through a slow start.
– Louisville doesn’t need Peyton Siva to be a big time scorer. 13 points, nine assists, 4-8 shooting, just three turnovers? I’ll take that line out of him every night.
– Will Barton is a different player from last season. He notched yet another overpowering double-double on Saturday, finishing with 28 points and 16 boards. He loves to get out in transition and is fearless attacking the basket. If Memphis can turn this thing around, he deserves legitimate all-american consideration.
– Joe Jackson has deserved some of the criticism he has gotten this year, but certainly not all of it. Jackson is a terrific talent, and while he has his ups and downs (as any young point guard would) and works through his understanding of good passes and shot selection, he has the ability to keep Memphis in games like this because of how well he can push the ball in transition. Right now, he’s not very good at operating in the half court, and hopefully that comes with time. But there is no denying his natural ability.
– It frustrates me to watch Memphis play. I don’t think Wesley Witherspoon could possibly care less about the outcome of any game, maybe even this season. Tarik Black still hasn’t become the player we expected him to be this year. Adonis Thomas looks like he could use a solid kick on the rear-end every now and then. With the Tigers, its all about effort, intensity and desire. Jackson, Barton and Chris Crawford played with it tonight. The rest of the team didn’t.
– Stan Simpson is not good to be on the Tiger’s roster.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.