Film Session: Louisville-Kentucky will be a Tale of Two (Different) Defenses

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The center of the college basketball universe will be Louisville, Kentucky, on Saturday afternoon, as the No. 1 Wildcats will head west 80 miles on I-64 to visit the Yum! Center and the No. 4 Cardinals in season’s most anticipated matchup.

Kentucky has been absolutely dominant this season, handing beatdowns to Kansas, UCLA and Providence while handling Texas and North Carolina with relative ease. They’ve struggled against teams like Buffalo, Boston U. and Columbia — which likely has more to do with a lack of focus than anything else — but that hasn’t quieted the speculation of a 40-0 season in Lexington.

Part of the reason that talk has gotten so loud in recent weeks is that the SEC is, well, not all that good this season. Florida is not the typical Gator team, Arkansas is up and down, LSU and Ole Miss aren’t as good as we expected, Missouri is rebuilding, Texas A&M and South Carolina are still a year away. Put all that together, and what you get Saturday is, by far, the biggest threat Kentucky will face until the NCAA tournament.

Can the Cardinals actually pull it off?

The answer is going to come down to offensive execution, as this game will pit the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 defenses, according to Kenpom.

What’s interesting there is that while both Louisville and Kentucky have similar philosophies on that end — both defend for 94 feet, and both extend their half court defense — what they run could not possibly be more different.

There is no trickery in what Kentucky is doing. Opponents know exactly what is coming. It’s straight man-to-man, with pressure extending out will beyond the three-point line in an effort to take teams out of their offense. They don’t want to let you move the ball around the perimeter, instead daring opposing guards and wings to try to penetrate one-on-one, forcing them to the baseline side. When that happens, Kentucky’s massive front line is there to help.

The result? The driver is going to have to take a tough, challenged shot over two defenders that are likely much bigger than him, he’s going to have to make a pressured pass back out to the perimeter or he’s going to turn the ball over.

This is more or less the perfect example of what I mean. Tyler Ulis is all over Bryce Alford from the moment he touches the ball in the back court. When Isaac Hamilton gets a touch, he’s forced to the baseline side Devin Booker, where he dribbles straight into Dakari Johnson and forces a shot he has almost no chance of making:

This is where Louisville can run into trouble.

There really is no point guard on the Cardinal roster. Chris Jones is listed as their point guard, and Terry Rozier has a future as a combo-guard down the road, but at this point in their respective careers, both of Louisville’s starting back court players are scorers first and foremost.

Rozier is one of the most improved players in the country and a guy that can take over a game in a moment’s notice. He was terrific against Indiana at the Jimmy V Classic, and he scored 26 points in the second half of Louisville’s win over Western Kentucky after Montrezl Harrell was ejected from the game. Rick Pitino needs him to be able to score, but he also needs him to pick his moments. You cannot force things offensively against Kentucky, it will not work out well for you.

And that’s where Jones comes into the equation. I’ve written about this plenty over the last two weeks, but Jones is a natural chucker that has somehow gotten it into his head that he’s the next Russ Smith. He’s a high-volume, low-percentage shooter that doesn’t always make good decisions with the ball in his hands. That was the way that Russ played early in his career. That also changed by the time Russdiculous turned into an All-American.

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Terry Rozier (Getty Images)

If Jones tries to do too much against this Kentucky defense, he’ll be in for a long, long afternoon.

Frankly, given how limited Louisville can be on the offensive end of the floor, the biggest key for them in my mind is how often they can turned their defense into offense.

And that brings me to what the Cardinals do on the defensive end of the floor.

It’s difficult to define the defense that Rick Pitino runs, but I’ll try. He has a couple of different looks that he’ll use on the press, but the majority of the time he’s running a 2-2-1, full-court press that drops back into something that looks like a 2-3 zone, which is the crux of the defense that Louisville has used since Pitino arrived.

It’s that “zone” that throws teams off. Sometimes it’s a regular 2-3 zone. Sometimes it’s a matchup zone. Sometimes they’ll play zone on one half of the floor and man on the other half. Sometimes they switch from zone into man-to-man halfway through the possession, and vice versa. Sometimes they trap, sometimes they don’t.

The entire premise of this system is to try and confuse the offense, to get them running a man-to-man offense against a zone or to delay their ability to get into a set until there are just 15 seconds left on the shot clock.

Will Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis be able to identify what they need to run offensively? You try it. What defense is Louisville running here? You think it’s zone until you see where Wayne Blackshear starts the possession and where he forces a turnover:

If Kentucky’s guards can, the Wildcats should be in pretty good shape, although some of the nation’s best and most experienced point guards have been flummoxed by the Cardinal defense.

But the more important question might actually be whether Kentucky can beat Louisville’s press.

Louisville’s ‘Black’ press, their 2-2-1 zone press, is the one they use the most often. Louisville’s two guards, usually Rozier and Jones, will essentially be asked to defend Kentucky’s ball-handlers man-to-man, slowing down their offense as they try to make the dribbler uncomfortable, speeding him up and trying to force him into a poor decision. Their ‘White’ press, a 1-2-1-1 trapping press, is more attack-minded and one that Pitino will use as a change of pace, often on dead ball situations in the back court.

Either way, the goal is to force live-ball turnovers and get easy baskets in transition out of it. Not only will that allow Louisville to avoid having to go against Kentucky’s staunch, half court defense, but it will allow the Cardinals to get right back into their press.

Anyway, enough talk of the defenses. Here are a few more notes on the matchup:

KEYS TO VICTORY:

Louisville

  • Getting good shots: It sounds so simple, but avoiding tough, contested and quick shots against Kentucky’s defense is so important, and without a true point guard on the floor, that can be difficult.
  • Guards have to score: Harrell is going to have a tough night with Kentucky’s front line, which makes the play of Louisville’s back court all-the-more important. Rozier has to be a big-time scoring threat and Jones and Blackshear have to make shots.
  • Control the defensive glass: Kentucky’s size and depth up front can be overwhelming, and they are grabbing 45.5 percent of their available misses. Harrell, Chinanu Onuaku and the rest of Louisville’s bigs will need to box out.

Kentucky

  • Don’t turn the ball over: That’s what Louisville needs Kentucky to do. Combine Louisville’s pressure with Kentucky playing their first true road game of the season, and the potential is there for Kentucky’s guards to become overwhelmed.
  • Hit perimeter jumpers: It’s amazing how much better Kentucky is when their threes are going down. They’re going to get some open looks on Saturday. Make them, and Louisville will have a difficult time winning this game.
  • Show up ready to play: I don’t think it’s possible for a Kentucky team to not be ready for this game, but you never know. If they come out like they did against Buffalo or Columbia and let Louisville jump out to an early double-digit lead, it will be tough to come from behind in that environment against Louisville’s defense.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.