Louisville Is Not (Yet) Who We Thought They Were

Posted by Will Tucker on November 26th, 2013

One year to the day after eventual national champion Louisville fell to a different ACC team in a different non-conference tournament, the program’s longest winning streak ended with a 93-84 whimper against North Carolina on Sunday. Aside from the date, the two losses couldn’t have been more different. Last year’s team admirably traded punches with an Elite Eight-caliber Duke squad playing at full strength; this season’s squad was a Russ Smith 36-point performance away from getting run out of the gym by what appeared to be a borderline Top 25 team playing without its best player.

(Michael Dwyer / AP)

Louisville’s porous transition defense gave up a number of demoralizing buckets (Michael Dwyer / AP)

Simply put, the Cardinals are not yet what we expected them to be. As much as they dazzled on both ends of the floor in five dominant wins, new starters Chris Jones and Montrezl Harrell were exposed as behind schedule defensively by North Carolina’s skill and athleticism. Jones scores baskets in ways that Peyton Siva rarely attempted in college, but that’s not what Rick Pitino needs out of his point guard this year. Against the Tar Heels’ efficient transition offense, Jones struggled to get back into position several times – sometimes seeming a little too eager to gamble on a steal or an offensive rebound – resulting in some of the uncontested dunks and layups that helped UNC shoot a strong 55 percent from inside the arc.

Nor did his on-ball defense live up to prior performances: Pitino’s new point guard forced only one steal, while the Louisville press generated a season-low 18 percent turnover rate, a full 10 percent below its average. In fairness to Jones, Russ Smith was as much to blame for this issue, recording only a single steal himself. Smith’s explosive offense has distracted from the fact that his steal percentage has dipped noticeably this season, although that probably speaks to the growing pains the Cardinals’ new lineup is experiencing more than a sudden deficiency on Smith’s part.

In the frontcourt, Harrell was no better in the Cardinals’ half-court defense, particularly when forced to guard out to the three-point line where he struggled to stay on his feet and resist leaping at the slightest head fake. The sophomore looked unusually excitable playing against what was apparently the dream school of his childhood, and that’s certainly understandable. But his lapses on defense were also characteristic of a freak athlete who hadn’t yet encountered an opponent who could challenge his defensive discipline. As high as Harrell’s ceiling is and as quickly as he’s developed since he arrived on campus, he poses an unexpected defensive liability until he can gain a better grasp of the subtleties of team defense.

In the grand scheme of college basketball, these problems aren’t deal-breakers for the Cards by any stretch. Early struggles with defensive chemistry tend to get fixed by March in the Pitino era. It’s tempting to watch a game like Sunday’s and say that Louisville lost too much talent and experience with the departures of Siva and Gorgui Dieng. While that might be the case, it doesn’t mean this team won’t find ways to adapt and capitalize on its own unique strengths in the next three months. The circumstances of this loss to North Carolina make it more painful for Louisville fans than dropping last November’s showdown with Duke, but it’s probably a minor stumble rather than an omen of fundamental issues.

Will Tucker (124 Posts)

Kentucky native living and working in Washington, D.C. Fan of tacos, maps, and the 30-second shot clock. Not a fan of comments sections, bad sportswriting.

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