Pitino Hoping for Defense From Louisville
Unfortunately, as Pitino's team nears the halfway point of their Big East schedule, they haven't proven their coach wrong yet.
Louisville (13-7, 4-3 Big East) is suffering through one of its worst defensive seasons in nine years under Pitino. The Cardinals have allowed opponents to shoot 42.8 percent from the field, the highest percentage since the 2001-02 team allowed opponents 43 percent shooting.
"After the first week of practice, what I said was we were a very weak defensive team and a very week rebounding team," Pitino said last week. "It's pretty much what you see. ... We're trying to work at it. The players are getting better offensively. We have to keep teaching."
Louisville's success this season has been fairly simple.
When holding the opponent to below 70 points, Louisville is 10-0 this season. Last year, the Cardinals were 25-4 when holding opponents to less than 70.
Pitino emphasizes he is pleased with his team's effort, but its youth and inexperience -- there are only three seniors and a junior among the top 11 players -- have been hard to overcome at times. The Cardinals' starting lineup features sophomores Samardo Samuels (15.9 points, 7.6 rebounds) and Terrence Jennings (5.6, 3.7).
"We're very young defensively," Pitino said when his team was in the midst of a recent three-game losing streak to Villanova, Pittsburgh and Seton Hall. "We don't play very good defensively and Louisville always has done a good job percentage-wise making teams shoot a low percentage, and we're unable to do that right now.
"We have to keep on working on getting better at it. The effort is there. The guys are willing to pay the price. We're just a very weak defensive team."
Louisville ranks 11th out of the 16-team Big East in scoring defense (allowing 69.4 points per game), 12th in field-goal percentage defense and 14th in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (35.6).
However, Louisville's rebounding deficiencies from early in the season are starting to improve. In the Cardinals' past 12 games, they are out-rebounding opponents by a margin of 6.3, nearly double the 3.5 rebounding edge they had in the season's first eight games.
While Pitino said the Cardinals are playing well enough on offense to win, they've had trouble overcoming their defensive lapses and inconsistent free-throw shooting. Pitino acknowledged Louisville's inability to hit key free throws has cost it at least two victories.
For the season, the Cardinals are shooting 70 percent from the free-throw line.
"It's a confidence thing," Pitino said. "Certain things are mechanical. They have to get into a routine and they've got to relax."
Pitino said he doesn't have an answer for the poor free-throwing shooting seasons of seniors Jerry Smith and Edgar Sosa.
Smith entered this season as a career 74 percent free-throw shooter but is hitting only 68 percent this season. Sosa, a career 70 percent shooter before this campaign, is hitting only 66 percent of his free throws.
"This is no rhyme or reason for Jerry Smith and Edgar Sosa to shoot free throws the way they're shooting," Pitino said.
Coming off Sunday's much-needed win against Cincinnati, the Cardinals will have had six days between games before they visit West Virginia on Saturday. Obviously, during that stretch, Louisville spent a great deal of time looking to improve on the defensive end.
"We'll work on our defense, we're paying a lot of attention to defense," Pitino said. "If I had to evaluate what we're doing right now: what we have to do is verbally talk more. Our foot speed [on defense] is not going to get quicker in a week.
"Our verbal communication is what has to get better. That's probably the No. 1 reason our defense fails is poor communication from a verbal standpoint."
Despite the Cardinals not matching up to past defensive standards at Louisville, they're still in position to get to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time in the past 12 seasons. Among the remaining teams on their Big East schedule are home-and-home contests with UConn and Syracuse and home games with Notre Dame and Georgetown.
Before defeating Cincinnati on Sunday, Pitino said his club needed to win eight of its final 12 Big East games. If so, the Cardinals would finish the regular season 20-11 overall and 11-7 in Big East play. Certainly that should land the Cardinals an invitation to the Big Dance.
UL got its first win of the eight, so now -- according to Pitino -- the Cardinals need to win seven of their final 11.
"That's our goal," Pitino said. "Each victory you get it, it becomes easier. With each loss, it becomes more difficult."
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at firstname.lastname@example.org