Assessing Louisville’s Frontcourt Issues Looking ForwardPosted by Chris Johnson on December 30th, 2013
(Ed. note: this post was largely written prior to Monday afternoon’s news that forward Chane Behanan had been dismissed from the team, making a dire frontcourt situation even worse. Inconsistent as he was through the early part of the season, Behanan has proven that, when engaged, he can be an effective scorer and rebounder. The Cardinals will need to adjust to recreate his lost production.)
On Sunday, one day after Louisville fell, 73-66, to in-state rival Kentucky at Rupp Arena, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino took to his website to address some issues he feels his team needs to address as it prepares for American Athletic Conference play (which begins New Year’s Eve, when the Cardinals play at Central Florida). Chief among them was what Pitino perceives as a weak frontcourt. The analogy he uses to make this point is probably the funniest thing you’ve heard a college basketball coach say since Barry Hinson went rogue in a now-famous postgame press conference earlier this month. “Let me give you an analogy of our frontcourt knowing who they are. It’s like having Christina Aguilera to sing at a concert, she comes out, ignores her great voice and dances for two hours. That’s our front court,” Pitino writes. Later in his post, the Hall-of-Famer points out specific players… and name-checks another pop star. “In other words, Montrezl and Chane – Need to dominate the paint. Rebound like Kenneth Faried , defend like Dennis Rodman, block shots and dunk. Score off rip moves and leave the dancing to Justin Timberlake.”
If you watched Saturday night’s game, wherein Kentucky’s forwards outplayed Louisville’s, Pitino’s assessment might sound accurate. The Cardinals looked overmatched on the low block. Most fans and media came to the same conclusion. The question is, what does Louisville’s underwhelming frontcourt play on Saturday night augur for the rest of the season? Is the Cardinals’ frontcourt so flawed, especially with the Monday loss of Chane Behanan, to the point it can’t be fixed in time for them to compete for a national championship? Is there nothing Pitino can do between now and March to make his team’s frontcourt better? Do I need to go back and listen to all of Christina Aguilera’s albums to find out?
One big talking point after the game surrounded the effect Gorgui Dieng’s departure to the NBA has had on Louisville’s frontcourt defense. Because Louisville doesn’t have a shot-swatting force to anchor their backline this season, people said and wrote that it will struggle to defend big teams like Kentucky. Anecdotally, this seemed like a valid point. Dieng was a tremendous defensive player, someone the Cardinals no doubt miss this season. So I decided to make a statistical comparison, using figures that would seem to best measure a shot eraser like Dieng’s impact on a team’s defense, between last season – when Dieng, one of the best defenders in the country, blocked 9.4 percent of opponent’s two-point shots while he was on the floor, according to Kenpom – and this season.
(All stats updated through December. 30; credit: hoop-math.com & Kenpom.com)
Keeping in mind that Behanan’s play is included in the above statistics, none of those numbers support the idea that Louisville’s frontcourt defense is dramatically suffering without Dieng. It’s actually blocking a higher percentage of the shots opponents take around the rim, and holding them to the same two-point field goal percentage. The one change that seems significant is the 3.3 percent bump in the percentage of shots opponents are taking there, a figure that theoretically should increase without Dieng patrolling the paint. What’s important to remember is that Louisville has only played 13 games this season, most of them against very weak competition. The 2012-13 numbers reflect the team’s body of work over an entire season. The 2013-14 numbers could (will) change by the time the Cardinals reach the NCAA Tournament.
To date, though, it seems Louisville has done a fine job defending the paint without Dieng, despite Pitino’s assertion to the contrary. “We need to defend the paint; 42 points there is absurd,” Pitino wrote on his post under the sub-head ‘Four key things are hurting us.’ It’s true Louisville’s frontcourt struggled Saturday night. The Wildcats dominated the glass, grabbing 41.5 percent of their misses and 69.2 percent of Louisville’s, while the Cardinals managed just 30.8 percent and 58.5 percent, respectively. Kentucky had 17 second-chance points to Louisville’s six. Julius Randle, limited to 21 minutes because of leg cramps, looked unstoppable at times; he scored 17 points and connected on all seven of his two-point field goal attempts in the first half.
It’s easy to pin this loss on the Cardinals’ frontcourt. But the idea that Louisville, because it struggled to guard a highly skilled future lottery pick forward and lost the battle on the glass against one of the deepest and most athletic frontcourts in the country, is somehow flawed or unfit to compete for a national championship is tenuous. Louisville didn’t peak last season until February, after that wacky five-overtime loss to Notre Dame. It – like Duke, another team with apparent defensive issues in its frontcourt – has time to iron out its issues on that end of the court. Make tweaks. Move pieces around and see what works. The Cardinals, it should be noted, still rank fourth in the country in defensive efficiency.
Oh, and by the way? When’s the next time Louisville’s going to face a frontcourt that’s even half as athletic or skilled as Kentucky? Look at the Cardinals’ schedule. None of Memphis, UConn and Cincinnati, the Cardinals’ top competitors in the AAC, has big men that will stress Louisville’s frontcourt defense the way Kentucky did. Pitino will probably spend more time listening to contemporary pop music – so he can use, say, Miley Cyrus, instead of Christina Aguilera for his next obscure basketball-related analogy – than he will worrying about how Shaq Goodwin (Memphis), DeAndre Daniels (UConn) and Justin Jackson (Cincinnati) will exploit his frontcourt. There are no Julius Randles in the AAC. Even without Behanan, Louisville’s front line won’t be tested in conference play the same way it was Saturday night. It just won’t.
There is some reason to be concerned about Louisville’s ability to score in the low post. Behanan is now gone. Harrell hasn’t blossomed the way most expected he would this season; Mangok Mathiang, while putting up productive big man minutes for a freshman, needs seasoning and sees fewer than 18 minutes per game; Stephan Van Treese has, at best, remedial offensive skills; and Wayne Blackshear is only 6’5″. Louisville’s inability to get anything on the offensive end from its forwards on Saturday (Van Treese, Behanan, Blackshear, Harrell and Mathiang combined for 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting) seemed to force Russ Smith and Chris Jones into a number of ill-advised drives and wild shots. The Cardinals will need to find more balance on offense, and I think they will. It’s December. At this point of the season, teams are still trying to forge their identity, figure out roles, and so on. Without the ongoing distraction of Behanan around to foil things, Pitino’s frontcourt might just come together a bit more quickly with roles and playing time better defined.
It’s early, and even more so for a team like Louisville, which the past two seasons has shown the ability to catch fire late in the season just in time to build up steam heading into NCAA Tournament play. No, Louisville’s frontcourt didn’t look great against Kentucky. And yes, we are inclined to make sweeping conclusions based on what happens in big games. But let’s reserve judgment on Louisville’s frontcourt. The time to panic is not now. It’s March.