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.

No. 22 Tennessee beats No. 3 Kansas 64-50 for Atlantis title

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Tennessee’s players proved to be determined defenders and relentless rebounders, along with having the kind of toughness to ensure the reigning national champions would have little chance to get comfortable.

It was all enough to give the 22nd-ranked Volunteers a title of their own, along with the blueprint that coach Rick Barnes hopes they follow the rest of the year.

Santiago Vescovi scored 20 points while Tennessee locked down on third-ranked Kansas in a 64-50 win Friday night in the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, snapping the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak.

Vescovi hit five 3-pointers as the tournament’s most valuable player for the Volunteers (5-1), who dominated the glass, overcame their own turnover troubles and made the Jayhawks work for clean looks. And for the third time in as many days, Tennessee won without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness).

Perhaps that’s why reserve guard Zakai Zeigler, who had 14 points and four steals, showed up wearing sunglasses to the postgame news conference after the Volunteers had danced and hollered through the on-court trophy ceremony.

“We know if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you’ll have no shot at winning the game,” Zeigler said, adding: “We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it.”

The Vols held the Jayhawks to 32.1% shooting, bothering them with size and length around the rim. They also took the ball right at the Jayhawks with 5-foot-9 Zeigler leading the way, down to him refusing to let go of a jump ball and trading words with 6-8 forward Jalen Wilson.

Zeigler’s night included a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock at the 7-minute mark to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-38. He followed with another big one from the right wing with 4:42 left after Kansas had closed within 11.

Wilson and Joseph Yesefu each scored 14 points to lead the Jayhawks (6-1), who shot 28.6% in the first half and never warmed up. They made 5 of 21 3-pointers in what was an all-around rough night, from losing starting guard Dajuan Harris to fouls with 9 minutes left to failing to keep the Vols off the glass (45-27).

“We played a team tonight that was older and more mature and obviously played stronger and tougher,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t handle the situation near as well as what I would hope a poised team would.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the tournament with a win over Butler, then grinded through an overtime win against Southern California in Thursday’s semifinals. This time, Tennessee played in front the entire way en route to its first title in three tries at the Atlantis resort.

“I think the main thing from the whole week was stay together through tough times, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Vescovi said.

Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have an easy first two days in the Bahamas. First came a battle to the final minutes with North Carolina State. Then came Thursday’s overtime win against Wisconsin on Bobby Pettiford Jr.’s last-second putback. But they never looked in any type of offensive flow this time with their smaller lineup.

“I feel like if we were able to get them out of place and not just have them standing there, waiting to contest a layup, that could’ve gave us some better chances at finishing at the rim,” Wilson said.

STRONG RUN

Tennessee held its three Atlantis opponents to 36.9% shooting and 15 of 59 (25.4%) from 3-point range. The Volunteers also averaged a +9 rebounding margin, ending with having Jonas Aidoo (nine) leading five players snagging at least six rebounds against Kansas.

“You can be a good defensive team but if you can’t be a great one if you give them second and third shots,” Barnes said.

SIDELINED

Beyond Harris’ foul trouble, the Jayhawks played most of the way without Pettiford, who exited midway through the first half grabbing at his right leg.

Afterward, Self said he would be out “for a while” with a hamstring strain.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to host McNeese State on Wednesday.

Kansas: The Jayhawks host Texas Southern on Monday.

BYU erases 23-point deficit, beats Dayton in overtime 79-75

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NASSAU, Bahamas – Gideon George scored 21 points and combined with Jaxson Robinson and Rudi Williams for BYU’s 15 overtime points as the Cougars came back from a 23-point deficit to beat Dayton 79-75 in overtime Friday.

BYU’s victory came in the seventh-place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

George’s 3-pointer with 2:19 left in regulation gave BYU (4-3) its first lead after Dayton scored the first 10 points of the game and led 32-9 with six minutes left in the first half.

Mike Sharavjamts’ basket gave the lead back to Dayton but George’s free throw with a minute left sent the game into overtime.

Dayton got the first points in overtime but Robinson’s 3-pointer gave BYU the lead for good halfway through the extra period.

Robinson had 14 points, Dallin Hall 12 and Williams 11 to join George in double figures for BYU.

DaRon Holmes II scored 21 points and Sharavjamts 15 for Dayton (3-4). The Flyers lost starting guards Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith to lower-body injuries in the second half, Smith with with just seconds left in regulation.

Portland beats Villanova 83-71 in Phil Knight Invitational

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Moses Wood scored 16 points and Portland beat Villanova 83-71 on Friday in the Phil Knight Invitational.

Villanova (2-4) has lost three straight games, including an overtime loss to Iowa State on Thursday to drop below .500 for the first time since March 7, 2012.

Vasilije Vucinic’s layup with 4:16 remaining in the first half gave Portland the lead for good. The Pilots had an eight-point lead at halftime and scored the first 10 points of the second half.

Wood added six rebounds and three blocks for the Pilots (5-3). Tyler Robertson scored 15 points while shooting 6 for 12 (1 for 5 from 3-point range) and added seven rebounds and eight assists. Kristian Sjolund recorded 14 points and shot 5 for 7 (2 for 3 from 3-point range).

Caleb Daniels finished with 18 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats. Villanova also got 14 points from Jordan Longino. Brandon Slater had 11 points.

Caleb Grill, Iowa State topples No. 1 North Carolina 70-65

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Caleb Grill has followed T.J. Otzelberger from South Dakota State to UNLV and now back to Iowa State hoping the pair could share a moment like they did Friday.

Taking down the No. 1 team in the country was another bookmark moment in a long journey for the pair.

“I’m actually really enjoying sitting next to him from this moment right now just thinking about how long we’ve known each other and how cool this really was,” Otzelberger said.

Grill hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points and Iowa State rallied in the final five minutes to stun No. 1 North Carolina 70-65 in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Invitational.

Iowa State (5-0) picked up just its third win over a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The Cyclones are 3-22 against No. 1 teams, with the other wins coming against Kansas in 1957 and Oklahoma in 2016.

The Cyclones can now add North Carolina (5-1) to the list.

“I was just staying the course of the game. I never really thought about it and the game just kind of came to me,” Grill said.

Grill was averaging 7.3 points and had made just 4 of 24 3-point attempts for the season entering Friday. But he couldn’t be stopped from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of big 3s to spark Iowa State’s late rally. His deep fadeaway jumper just inside the 3-point line with 1:40 left gave Iowa State a 63-61 lead and the Cyclones did just enough at the free throw line in the final minute to close out the upset victory.

Grill’s previous career high was 27 points while playing for UNLV in the 2020-21 season against Alabama. He also hit seven 3-pointers in that game.

Grill originally signed with South Dakota State when Otzelberger was the coach there. He was released from his commitment when Otzelberger took the head job at UNLV and started his career at Iowa State before deciding to join his coach in Las Vegas.

When Otzelberger returned to Ames, Grill followed again.

“Just having him be the first person that really had belief in me, it’s just really special what he’s done for me and my family and everything we’ve done,” Grill said.

Jaren Holmes added 22 points and the Cyclones withstood off shooting games from Aljaz Kunc and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for three points and missed all eight of their shot attempts. Both were averaging double figures scoring for Iowa State.

RJ Davis led North Carolina with 15 points, Armando Bacot added 14 and Caleb Love scored 12. But the Tar Heels will lament a series of mistakes in the closing minutes that allowed Iowa State to rally.

“We had wide open threes. We were able to get to the basket. We were able to get whatever we wanted, we just didn’t make those shots,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.

North Carolina led 57-49 after Leaky Black’s layup with 5:43 left, but missed four of its final six shots and had four turnovers during that span.

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and you just can’t do that in late-game situations,” Davis said. “You have to be sound and discipline and you have to do that on both ends of the floor and we just didn’t do it.”

NO. 1 LOSSES

North Carolina lost as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since Nov. 21, 2015 when it lost 71-67 at Northern Iowa. The Tar Heels also lost as No. 1 to UNLV in 2011 at a Thanksgiving tournament.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: Pete Nance wasn’t able to contribute in the same way he did in Thursday’s opening round. Nance, who tied his career high with 28 points against Portland, didn’t score for the first 27 minutes and finished with seven points.

Iowa State: The Cyclones were playing a No. 1 team from outside their conference for the first time since 1999 when they faced Cincinnati in the championship game of the Big Island Invitational.

UP NEXT

Iowa State will face either No. 18 Alabama or No. 20 UConn in the championship game while the Tar Heels will face the loser for third place.

No. 8 Duke locks down late, holds off Xavier 71-64

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – After a shaky offensive performance in the opening round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, Duke coach Jon Scheyer wanted to see Jeremy Roach get back to playing more instinctively, especially at the offensive end of the floor.

Roach responded with a season-high 21 points, Mark Mitchell added 16 and No. 8 Duke withstood Xavier’s second-half comeback for a 71-64 win on Friday.

The Blue Devils (6-1) advanced to the championship game thanks to the play of their standout guard and another strong defensive effort. Roach came one point shy of matching his career high, and the Blue Devils rebounded after an unexpectedly tight victory over Oregon State in the opening round of the event.

Roach was 3 of 14 shooting against Oregon State as the Blue Devils scored a season-low 54 points. He made 9 of 15 shots and had five assists against Xavier.

“There’s a lot that falls on your shoulders so you can end up overthinking it a little bit,” Scheyer said. “The thing that I love for him today is he just was him. And when he’s that way, he is to me the best guard in the country.”

The Musketeers (4-2) were held to two points over the final five minutes and missed their last four shot attempts. Souley Boum scored 23 points and Adam Kunkel had 13. Kunkel didn’t play the last 11 minutes after taking a hard fall committing a foul.

Xavier leading scorer Jack Nudge was 1 of 13 shooting and finished with five points.

“Jack played a great effort. He really did. He was ready for the game. He just had one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in the basket,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.

At the same time, Miller was disappointed in what he called the “fracturing” he saw from his team.

“There were spurts and segments of the game where I thought we reflected our style, how we’re trying to play, whether it be defense and offense. But there were way too many segments of the game, if not most of the game, where we were at times in our own way,” Miller said.

Mitchell scored seven points in the opening minutes of the second half, including a pair of layups, and he hit a 3-pointer from the wing that gave Duke a 49-36 lead, its largest of the game.

That’s when Xavier’s comeback started. The Musketeers pulled within three points on several occasions, but Duke answered each time. Desmond Claude’s driving layup pulled Xavier within 63-60 with 5:51 left, but Ryan Young scored for Duke and Xavier didn’t make another basket.

Roach’s jumper with 2:40 left pushed Duke’s lead to 69-62.

“We like to play inside out but I mean, when guys are hitting shots it just opens up for everybody else,” Roach said. “Just try to continue to be consistent hitting shots and I think we’ll be fine.”

Kyle Filipowski had 12 points and was not Duke’s leading scorer for the first time in five games.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: The Blue Devils’ dominance on the backboards finally came to an end. Duke had outrebounded each of its first six opponents by double figures, the longest such stretch in school history. But Xavier’s interior size limited Duke to a 33-32 advantage on the glass. The Blue Devils had 12 second-chance points.

Xavier: The Musketeers played an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time since beating Virginia Tech in last year’s NIT Season Tip-Off. Xavier dropped to 0-2 against ranked opponents this season, having lost to Indiana last week. The Musketeers will play another ranked foe in Sunday’s third-place game.

UP NEXT

Duke will face the Gonzaga-Purdue winner in the championship game on Sunday, while Xavier will play the loser.