One year after Kentucky completed one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory, their in-state rivals have been breezing through the NCAA Tournament at a similar pace. Louisville’s average margin of victory in the first four rounds was a whopping 21.75 points. They were never seriously threatened in the first two weekends and they’re the clear favorite headed into the Final Four. And while John Calipari had an entire rotation of first round picks and McDonald’s All-Americans last year, Rick Pitino has only one five-star recruit (Chane Behanan) on his roster. Kentucky had the talent to win any type of game; Louisville forces opponents to play their game.
The Cardinals players are just as fast and athletic as the Wildcats, but they aren’t nearly as big. Pitino recruits NBA-caliber athletes and he’s willing to sacrifice NBA-caliber size in the process. Almost everyone has been shifted down a position. They have two 6’0 guards (Peyton Siva and Russ Smith) in the backcourt, a 6’5 shooting guard (Wayne Blackshear) at the 3 and a 6’6 250 combo forward (Behanan) at the four. Gorgui Dieng is their only starter who isn’t undersized. That can be an issue in the half-court, but Pitino’s full-throttle 94-foot press makes it a moot point. Defeating Louisville starts with breaking their press, either by having the stamina to run with them for 40 minutes or the discipline to avoid turning it over.
A Louisville game doesn’t look a lot like the average college basketball game. It’s more like soccer or hockey, with the game almost permanently in semi-transition. Smith and Siva play with a reckless abandon on both ends of the floor, averaging over five turnovers and five ersonal fouls a game. For a coach who values possessions, that much carelessness from your starting backcourt would be unacceptable. Since Pitino knows his defense can manufacture possessions almost at will, it’s the price he’s willing to pay to keep the pressure on. He balances his line-ups by keeping at least one shooter on the floor, either Blackshear or Luke Hancock, but everyone else in their rotation can punish you in the open court.
Sustaining that much pressure over an entire game can wear an opponent out, which is where Kevin Ware’s injury hurts. Ware, at 6’2 175, gave them a third guard with the speed and quickness to ball hawk the length of the court. Not only did he have a huge edge on the second-unit players he was usually matched up with, he was also a valuable safety net when either Smith or Siva were in foul trouble. Without Ware, the margin of error for Louisville’s guards is much smaller. The backcourt is the tip of the spear in a pressure defense. If Pitino has to go deeper into his bench, the Cardinals press is no longer as imposing.
This is Pitino’s 12th season at Louisville, what separates this year’s team is their ability to execute in the halfcourt. The key has been Dieng’s emergence on the offensive end of the floor. An athletic 6’11 245 center with a 7’4 wingspan, he’s steadily improved his all-around game in his time in college. He has a consistent mid-range jumper, which opens up the floor and creates driving lanes for the Cardinals guards, and he’s also an extremely underrated passer. His ability to carve up the Syracuse zone from the high post to the tune of eight assists was one of the keys to Louisville’s victory in the Big East championship game.
Dieng is the player the other three teams in Atlanta don’t have an answer for. Wichita State is built around pounding the offensive glass, but they haven’t seen a center like Dieng in their first four games. Steven Adams (Pittsburgh) was too raw to impact the game while Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga) is more comfortable playing on the perimeter. Both Ohio State and LaSalle preferred to play small, which played right into the Shockers hands. Syracuse has the size and athleticism to match up with Dieng, but he’s perfectly designed to exploit the conceptual hole in their 2-3 zone. Michigan has gotten a huge boost from Mitch McGary, a 6’10 250 freshman, but Dieng is one of the only players in the country whose longer, stronger and faster than him.
In breaking down the matchups, the Wolverines seem best equipped to give Louisville trouble. The key to beating a press is having the weapons to attack it once you get the ball over the half-court line. With a future lottery pick (Trey Burke) running point and a number of athletic shooters surrounding him, Michigan can reel off points quickly in an open-court setting. They easily disposed of VCU and Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” defense in the second round in a 78-53 rout. Like the Cardinals, the Wolverines have responded to the growing number of stretch 4’s in the college game by downshifting in the front-court and playing the 6’6 210 Glenn Robinson III at power forward.
However, before they can worry about Louisville, they’ll have to get by Syracuse first. And while they’re well designed to exploit the Cardinals press, the Orange’s 2-3 zone could give Michigan problems. Everything in John Beilein’s offense revolves around Burke, but he can’t be the centerpiece of their game-plan on Saturday. You have to defeat a zone by attacking it from the high post, not through dribble-drives or pick-and-rolls at the top of the key. As a result, instead of Burke, the key decision makers for the Wolverines will be their younger front-court players like McGary and Robinson. If those two get sped up by the length and activity of the Syracuse zone, it could be a long night for Michigan.
Louisville is more vulnerable than Kentucky was last year, especially without Ware, but a lot of things will have to go wrong for them to lose. There isn’t a team in Atlanta that can match their speed and athleticism at all five positions, a testament to the program Pitino has built. A great NBA coach adjusts his system to the fit the strengths of his players. A great college coach creates a system and finds players who fit into it. 17 years after he won a national title at Kentucky with a team that had nine future NBA players, Pitino is poised to win a second with only one sure-fire pro. It would be a fitting capstone to a Hall of Fame career.