Without Chris Jones, Louisville’s Fatal Flaw is Tough to Mask

Posted by CD Bradley on February 24th, 2015

Louisville’s first game of the post-Chris Jones era looked a lot like the the last one in which the senior point guard suited up. The Cardinals struggled to score, fell behind, went on a second-half run and found a way to eke out a nail-biting win. The question is whether they can replicate that outcome when the challenges get tougher as February turns into March.

The Dismissal of Chris Jones (USA Today Images)

The Dismissal of Chris Jones Leaves Louisville in a Tough Spot (USA Today Images)

Jones was dismissed from the team on Sunday, the day after hitting the crucial shot in a home win over Miami and the day before a road trip to ACC also-ran Georgia Tech. The University of Louisville police released a statement about an hour before tip-off that Jones had threatened to “smack TF (the f—) out of” an on-again, off-again girlfriend via text message on February 17, the day before the Cardinals lost at Syracuse. Jones was suspended for that game and did not make the trip with the team. He was reinstated the next day, played against Miami on Saturday, and then was formally dismissed from the team on Sunday. The Courier-Journal reported that Jones was also involved in a separate incident but the university declined to release a report, citing the ongoing investigation. “I feel awful for the young man, but unfortunately we just have to move on,” head coach Rick Pitino said about Jones after Monday’s 52-51 win. “Mistakes were made, and sometimes in life you’ve got to pay for those. […] There’s no way he’s coming back. It’s over.”

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What Happened to the ACC’s Preseason All-Americans?

Posted by Brett Thompson on January 23rd, 2015

On Tuesday, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal that he had stripped junior star Montrezl Harrell of the Cardinals’ team captaincy. While Pitino claims that the decision was “no big deal,” it is yet another disappointment from one of the ACC’s two preseason AP All-Americans. Statistically speaking, Harrell has not regressed from his sophomore season, but he hasn’t really improved all that much either. His scoring is up about a point per game (14.0 to 14.9 PPG) and he is grabbing nearly an extra rebound per game (8.4 to 9.2 RPG), but while the junior shot the ball more efficiently last year, his level of impact looks and feels about the same. Still, Harrell turned down NBA Draft riches to return to Louisville, and expectations were that he would develop into elite impact territory. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Harrell’s season has been his play against good competition; in Louisville’s three losses to Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke, Harrell scored nine, nine and 10 points, respectively — shooting 12-of-29 from the field in those games. With so much of the Cardinals’ offense dependent on him for success, it’s no surprise that Louisville lost each of those contests.

UofL and Cincinnati split two games in their final season in the same league (Jamie Rhodes / USA TODAY Sports)

Montrezl Harrell hasn’t been the superstar Louisville hoped for this season. (Jamie Rhodes / USA TODAY Sports)

Harrell isn’t the only preseason All-American from the ACC who has been underwhelming this season. North Carolina guard Marcus Paige entered the year as the highest vote-getter in preseason All-America polls, returning to Chapel Hill following a stellar sophomore campaign in which he had often carried the Tar Heels offensively. Expectations were certainly very high for his junior campaign. Paige limped out to a slow start, shooting only 35 percent in North Carolina’s first four games, including an unlikely loss to Butler. And like Harrell, Paige’s statistics in the Tar Heels’ four losses tell the story: 15.0 points per game on 33 percent shooting. To his credit, Paige has been dealing with plantar fasciitis, and he may be turning the corner in conference play given his “clutch gene” play against Louisville and a 23-point, nine-assist outing at N.C. State. Still, Paige needs to find better consistency and efficiency to support his candidacy for any postseason award.

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Montrezl Harrell Provides Louisville With Consistency While Guards Fluctuate

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 10th, 2014

An uncontested putback slam off an offensive rebound put Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell on the board. Just 24 seconds later, the Louisville pressure forced a turnover in the backcourt, providing an easy forward pass to Harrell for yet another slam. Indiana then proceeded to carelessly inbound the ball right into the hands of none other than Montrezl Harrell, who finished with another effortless dunk at the rim. This was the beginning of how the 6’8″ All-American made his mark in Tuesday night’s game against Indiana at Madison Square Garden.

Montrezl Harrell (left)

Montrezl Harrell (left) is the Best Player in the Country, According to Rick Pitino

Under Rick Pitino, Louisville has become known for its full-court trapping schemes, which utilized lightning-quick, athletic guards and wings to force their opponents into turnovers and easy baskets. Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean, Earl Clark, Terrance Williams, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith all share the lineage of playing the ever-important full-court press enforcer. But the departure of Smith from last year’s Sweet Sixteen squad left the Cardinals somewhat exposed in the backcourt, lacking a true go-to player who keys the system’s success. Question marks this season have arisen around the play of Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, the pair of whom were shooting just 29.8 percent from downtown heading into Tuesday night’s Jimmy V Classic. Yet despite their, and the team’s (49.6% eFG) less than ideal shooting performances, the Cardinals have pieced together an 8-0 record. The why can largely be attributed to their defense, which ranks among the top 10 in seven major statistical categories, and with 6’10 freshman Chinanu Onuaku anchoring the post, the defensive system employed by Pitino has allowed the junior Harrell to flourish.

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Four Teams in the Preseason Top 10: Banner Year for the ACC?

Posted by Brett Thompson on November 12th, 2014

The Atlantic Coast Conference looks poised to have a dominant season among basketball’s top conferences, boasting four of the nation’s preseason top 10 teams in Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville. After a short one-year stint in the American Athletic Conference, Louisville is the latest former Big East team to join the ACC, while the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Cavaliers are ACC mainstays — each hopes to carry the conference banner to the finish line in March. Virginia wants to defend its conference title and prove last season wasn’t a fluke; Louisville hopes to send a message in its ACC debut; and the Tobacco Road teams are hoping to make it back to their rightful place in the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. Simply put, the ACC is going to be a war at the top of the standings, and each team has a major driver pushing it this year.

Virginia's ascendance will only help the ACC's argument that it's the premier basketball conference (USA Today Sports)

Virginia’s ascendance will only help the ACC’s argument that it’s the premier basketball conference (USA Today Sports)

This season marks the third time since 2002 that a conference has had four teams in the preseason top 10. Ironically, both of these instances came courtesy of the Big East. In 2011, the conference placed Connecticut and current ACC members Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville within the top 10; and in 2008, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and another current ACC member, Notre Dame, topped the list. In each of those years, the ACC’s only two representatives were — who else? — Duke and North Carolina. This definitely speaks to the prestige of the basketball programs that the ACC has added in recent years, and it’s not implausible to think the ACC could place even more than four squads in the top 10 in coming seasons.

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Who Won The Week? Louisville, Marcus Smart, Michigan and The Citadel…

Posted by Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) on February 28th, 2014

wonweekWho Won the Week? is a regular column that outlines and discusses three winners and losers from the previous week of hoops. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.

We’ve got more to get to here than usual, so we’ve got a special extended-yet-abbreviated edition of WWTW on tap today.

WINNER: Louisville

Russ Smith won Louisville's game over Cincinnati on Saturday with a late jumper. (AP)

Russ Smith won Louisville’s game over Cincinnati on Saturday with a late jumper. (AP)

Your defending national champions – remember them? – are rolling at just the right time in the season. They went into Cincinnati and handed the Bearcats their first home loss of the season Saturday, 58-57, with a Russ Smith dagger – remember him? – then followed that up by blowing out woebegone Temple 88-66 on Thursday.

Sophomore Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell thrived this past week, as he has since the dismissal of Chane Behanan, scoring 21 points in both games. Going forward, the Cardinals have games left at Memphis and SMU, followed by a home game against Connecticut. Though they’re tied with Cincinnati at the top of the American and on a seven-game winning streak, we’ll know much more about Louisville by the time the conference tournament rolls around.

(Related winners: Smith; Harrell. Related losers: Cincinnati, which squandered its chance at an outright AAC championship by losing at home; Temple, which had its first 20-loss season in school history thanks to Louisville.)

LOSER: Saint Louis

The Billikens, which had been one of America’s last four teams undefeated in conference, took one of the most befuddling losses of the whole season, falling 71-64 on Thursday to a Duquesne team that had won four Atlantic 10 games in Jim Ferry’s two seasons in Pittsburgh. What had been one of the nation’s top 10 shooting defenses gave up an effective field goal rate of 50.7 percent, including 14-0f-18 shooting and 7-of-9 three-pointers by Dukes guards Micah Mason and Jerry Jones. And against one of the nation’s 10 worst defenses vs. three-point shooting, Saint Louis only made 4-of-23 shots from beyond the arc. The Billikens have a top-five defense nationally according to KenPom.com, but their offense ranks 169th in efficiency. Then again, defense wins championships, right?

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Let’s Make Some Room Atop the American for Cincinnati

Posted by Nate Kotisso on January 9th, 2014

It seemed like the AAC’s first season of existence would be a banner year with defending champion Louisville joining, a talented UConn team shut out of the tournament in 2012-13, and a Memphis club armed with one of the best backcourts in America. Yet most forgot about the arrival of Cincinnati. The Bearcats aren’t exactly a big name in college basketball (well, not anymore). Highly-touted freshmen? Not here. Legendary coach? With time maybe, but not now. A rabid fan base that travels to road games well? There weren’t any more than 30 fans sitting behind the Bearcats’ bench on Tuesday night in Houston.

Mick Cronin has his Bearcats off to a 3-0 start in AAC play. (AP photo)

Mick Cronin has his Bearcats off to a 3-0 start in AAC play. (AP photo)

Still, Mick Cronin has perhaps his best team since being named head coach in 2006. And the Bearcats played like it in the first half against the Houston Cougars. The active hands and moving feet of Cincinnati’s defense frustrated Houston, forcing nine turnovers, blocking seven shots and forcing the Cougars to shoot 8-of-24 from the field. Cincinnati took a 16-point lead into the locker room. But the Cougars went on a 23-10 run to start the second, capped by a three-pointer from Brandon Morris to cut Cincinnati’s lead to 50-47 with 9:56 to play. It was Morris’ fourth three of the half on his way to a career-high 17 points. The Bearcats stopped playing their hard-nosed defense, which prompted Cronin to call a 30 second timeout to regroup. And regroup they did.

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Evaluating AAC Non-Conference Schedules: The Bad and the Ugly…

Posted by CD Bradley on October 30th, 2013

We looked at the best of the AAC non-conference schedules in Part I, after explaining a bit of what makes for a good non-conference schedule. This season, there’s quite a bit more bad than good, which could drag down the collective RPIs of AAC members and ultimately lead to lower NCAA Tournament seeds come March.

Larry Brown's SMU Mustangs, a popular sleeper pick, have a lot riding on a trip to Virginia.

Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs, a popular sleeper pick, have a lot riding on a trip to Virginia.

The Bad

  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats return the favor of a visit last season from MW favorite New Mexico with a road trip of their own to The Pit. They also will play former Big East rival and mid-level ACC squad Pitt at Madison Square Garden. Then… well, there’s the rivalry game with Xavier, which seems poised to finish in the bottom half of a newly constituted (read: relatively weaker) Big East; N.C. State, clearly headed toward the bottom of the ACC, and Conference USA also-ran MTSU. That trio might end up in the RPI top 100; it’s highly unlikely any other team on the schedule will come close.
  • Louisville: If the defending champs can escape Rupp Arena with a win, all will be forgiven by both their fans and the committee, as a road win against Kentucky is perhaps the highest quality victory available in college basketball this year. Southern Miss, which finished with an RPI of #30 last season, is favored to win Conference USA. They face a potential Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off final against North Carolina at the Mohegan Sun. They need the Tar Heels to be there, because the rest of their foes are middling teams in weak leagues, with Charleston the most likely to crack the top 100, and several – we’re looking at you, Hofstra and UMKC – seeming likely to end up north of #300.

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A Quick Examination of the AAC Non-Conference Slate

Posted by CD Bradley on October 28th, 2013

Highlighted by the annual renewal of college basketball’s best rivalry, the American has plenty of compelling games to offer before its first in-conference games tip off on New Year’s Eve. The conference’s teams also play a number of games, that while they might not be showcased on national TV, could prove just as crucial if not more so when the NCAA Tournament field is selected and seeded in March. Let’s take a look at four intriguing match-ups as well as four under-the-radar games that AAC teams will be involved in during the non-conference part of the season.

ESPN.com John Calipari (left) and Rick Pitino might not be all smiles when their teams square off Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena.

John Calipari (left) and Rick Pitino might not be all smiles when their teams square off December 28 in Rupp Arena.

Four most intriguing AAC non-conference games

  • Memphis at Oklahoma State, 8 PM, November 19, ESPN. This match-up of two of the nation’s best backcourts, with Marcus Smart and company squaring off against the Tigers’ fleet of guards, has to be considered among the highlights of the season’s first two weeks. It will also provide, fair or not, an early barometer of how these teams and leagues stack up.
  • Louisville at Kentucky, 4 PM, December 28, CBS.  It’s the two best teams in the country. The last two national champions. It’s the most important annual sporting event – yes, even bigger than the Kentucky Derby — in a state where college basketball is the most important sport. It’s Russ Smith vs. the Harrison twins, Montezl Harrell vs. Julius Randle, and, of course, Rick Pitino vs. John Calipari.
  • Florida at UConn, 7 PM, December 2, ESPN2. Connecticut has one of the best guard tandems in the country in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Florida has talent all over the floor, led by senior center Patric Young. Can the Huskies overcome the Gators’ interior advantages to get the kind of marquee win their non-conference schedule offers few opportunities for? The answer could be key to their March chances.
  •  Gonzaga at Memphis, 9 PM, February 8, ESPN. This rare February inter-conference matchup is one of two visits to AAC homecourts by ESPN’s College Gameday this year (Louisville at UConn on January 18 is the other). The Zags entered last year’s NCAA Tournament as the nation’s #1 team, but reached only the round of 32 before bowing out to Wichita State. This game should provide crucial insight into whether Gonzaga can begin to approach last year’s success.

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ESPN Insider Projects AAC Among Nation’s Top Conferences

Posted by CD Bradley on October 25th, 2013

The American compares favorably to the best conferences in the country in ESPN Insider‘s 351-team projections that were released Friday. Led, unsurprisingly, by Louisville at #2, the American placed three teams in the top 25, and three more in the top 100. The team projections are based on projections of each player, based on past production by both the players and the teams as a whole, as explained by Dan Hanner. “The model predicted the tempo free stats of every D1 player, projected the lineup for every D1 team, and then added up the player stats to get a projection for every D1 team,” Hanner wrote. (ESPN Insider absorbed most of the writers of the late, lamented College Basketball Prospectus, which produced similar #1-#351 rankings in its annual book in years past.)

Congrats to Fran Dunphy on His 400th Victory

Fran Dunphy’s inexperienced Temple team presents a major challenge to the coach this year.

After modeling predictions for each player on each team (a detailed, somewhat technical explanation of that process can be found here), Hanner ran 10,000 computer simulations of the season, a new aspect of this year’s version of the rankings which provides a best and worst case scenario for each team. “There are a number of consequences to adding a simulation to the model,” Hanner wrote. “First, the simulation approach gives an advantage to teams with positional flexibility. For example, Louisville has two players, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, who will likely compete to be the team’s starting point guard. Both players project as good, but not elite college point guards. But when you simulate the lineup, and realize that the better of the two players will start, suddenly the expectation is even higher. The winner of the competition is going to have a higher expectation than either player individually.”

Accordingly, Louisville is ranked second (only the uncertainty surrounding Chane Behanan’s suspension dropped them below Kentucky for the top spot), with a best case as the top team in the county and a worst case of 12th. Memphis checks in at 15th (best case sixth, worst case 26th), while UConn is 25th (12th/42nd).

The rest of the American ranks:

  • Cincinnati: #59 (23/97)
  • Central Florida: #96 (60/138)
  • Rutgers: #100 (58/150)
  • SMU: #105 (70/134)
  • South Florida: #110 (63/151)
  • Temple: #129 (67/209; the wide variance, Hanner explains, is due to the lack of returning production: “Fran Dunphy has worked miracles before, but he has never had a team this inexperienced at Temple.”)
  • Houston: #158 (96/209)

The American joins the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big East as the only conferences with each team in the top half of the overall rankings, a claim the SEC, Big 12, MW, A-10 or any other conference cannot make. The full rankings, with commentary, can be found here; conference predictions can be found here.

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Rule Change on Hand-checking Poses Issues for Louisville and Russ Smith

Posted by CD Bradley on October 17th, 2013

With every new college basketball season comes tweaks to the rules of the game, and this year’s version may cause problems for the defending national champions. A major point of emphasis this year will be the enforcement of rules designed to improve offensive flow in the game many complained had grown too sluggish. Among them are increased scrutiny of hand checking, particularly on the ball, and bumping cutters through the lane. Discussion of the rule this week quickly focused on Louisville, which relied on intense pressure defense to win a national title in April. The Cardinals ranked first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, and second (to VCU) in forcing turnovers.

GoCards.com Russ Smith's defense helped Louisville win the national championship, but a rule change may force him to alter his style this season.

Russ Smith’s defense helped Louisville win the national championship, but a rule change may force him to alter his style this season.

“Louisville isn’t going to have a team if we stick to this because they’re going to all foul out in the first half, and I love the way they play,” said Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy to ESPN, whose team turned the ball over 19 times in an NCAA Tournament game against the Cardinals. “If you’re going to call touch fouls, it’ll be over in the first 10 minutes. (Rick) Pitino will have to play. It really is crazy.” Eustachy wasn’t alone. CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb, when asked about the impact of the rule on Twitter, replied, “Louisville will be called for a ton of fouls.” ESPN analyst Jeff Goodman said Louisville, along with VCU and Butler, would be hurt by the rules on the defensive end. “However, VCU and Cards will benefit offensively.” Surprisingly, Pitino is a big fan of the changes. “Last season was terrible,” Pitino told ESPN. “It was an ugly season. We need to change the game. The one thing the coaches can’t do: they can’t gripe about it. The first six weeks will be a transition for the players as well as the coaches.” He also said the rule changes would render Russ Smith “unguardable.”

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