Defense makes Louisville dangerous team as tournament nears
NEW YORK -- The Syracuse assistant coaches sat stoically in the team's locker room, their voices hoarse and tones hushed. Trainer Brad Pike taped an oversized bag of ice on the twisted right ankle of point guard Michael Carter-Williams. C.J. Fair stared blankly into space.
The haunting silence of the Syracuse locker room offers the best illustration of the sheer dominance of Louisville's 78-61 victory over Syracuse in the Big East Tournament Championship Game. In the last call for the Big East as we know it, the Cardinals eliminated Syracuse with a fitting blur.
"For us," said Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, "it got to a point where it felt like we were just trying to survive."
When the NCAA Tournament bracket is released on Sunday, the other 67 teams in the NCAA Tournament are going to become familiar with that feeling. Louisville flipped a 16-point Orange second-half lead to a blowout victory and showed why it should be the No. 1 overall seed. The Cardinals' press -- a 2-2-1 zone they call "22" -- sparked a 44-10 second-half run that left Syracuse dazed, hobbled and ornery. When Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim was asked if his team handled Louisville's pressure, he replied snippily, "Obviously not."
And it's just as obvious that Louisville should be considered the NCAA Tournament's toughest out. Pick against the Cardinals at your own risk.
"They're the best pressing team in the country," Carter-Williams said.
Syracuse had appeared to find itself in New York and salvage its spiraling season, as it came here having lost four of its past five games. But in a jaw-dropping display of domination, Syracuse scored just two field goals over the final 15:51 and was left searching for answers. After cruising to start the game, Syracuse got swallowed up amid a flurry of double teams, hand checks and mental mistakes.
"We got sped up and made some poor decisions," Hopkins said. "But that's what Louisville's press does. They do a great job of playing physical and getting up in you. It's not just pressure, it's physical pressure."
There are many reasons why Louisville will be difficult to beat in the NCAA Touranment. They have a future Hall of Fame coach in Rick Pitino, a versatile roster that goes nine-deep and veteran guards who are NCAA Tournament tested.
But whatever poor No. 16 seed draws the Cardinals this week will have to deal with a press, a defense that Syracuse saw three times this season and still looked so overwhelmed that it seemed like Louisville had six defenders on the court.
"They just force you into things that you normally don't do," Carter-Williams said. "So it's hard to prepare for that."
If anyone is going to beat the Cardinals, they're going to have to beat the matrix of their press. How do you beat it?
Louisville's plays its 2-2-1 press about 85 percent of the time. (They have a 1-2-2 press known as "White" they sometimes run off settled situations like made free throws. They also have a man press known as "Black" that they rarely run.) To beat the 2-2-1 press, the key goes back to the old John Wooden adage: "Be quick but don't hurry."
"Normally, when you're bringing the ball up, their rotations are so quick," Carter-Williams said. "When the second guy comes to you who is off the ball, their rotations to leaving the furthest guy open is very fast. You have to be quick."
Carter-Williams finished the game with four of Syracuse's 20 turnovers, a twisted ankle and was the face of Syracuse's frustration, throwing the ball away at one point and yelling at teammate Trevor Cooney.
"Their guards were being shaky with the ball," said Louisville reserve Stephan Van Treese. "We were pressuring them the way that a Louisville defense does."
Syracuse's other lead guard, Brandon Triche, finished with seven turnovers and said the key against Louisville is to attempt to be deliberate. He referenced a "certain anxiety level" that comes with getting the ball over halfcourt. And when Syracuse did that, it had to reset and then begin attacking Louisville's matchup zone defense.
Hopkins said it felt like they had to beat two defenses to score.
Go too fast, and the turnovers come in a torrent. Don't go fast enough, good luck beating two stingy defenses.
"You have to be able to score against it," Hopkins said, meaning breaking the press for easy looks.
With Louisville, the old recruiting axiom applies: It's the Jimmys and Joes more than the Xs and Os. A team with designs on winning the national title needs to win games in different ways. Louisville's boxscore on Saturday showcased the excess of its talent. Consider the bench production: Freshman Montrezl Harrell came off the bench for 20 points and seven rebounds and transfer Luke Hancock chipped in 10 points and six rebounds. Kevin Ware shot 3-for-3 from the field and Triche said he considered Ware a defensive upgrade from starting guard Peyton Siva. Louisville's bench scored 41 points. Good luck preparing for that.
"Everything came together, that's how we play," Van Treese said. "I feel like as long as we're running we're going to be beating people."
Louisville has won 10 games in a row. Six more seems within reason. Louisville began the game with only tepid pressure, and in explaining why, guard Russ Smith brought up a key point to watch during the NCAA Tournament.
"We didn't know how the refs were going to call the game," Smith said. "That's what it really was, so we were just calm, we were still going to dog the ball, but not too aggressive."
Pitino's philosophy has always been to be so physical that there seems to be a foul on every play, which means that officials can't call fouls. Officials in the NCAA Tournament tend to let physical play go, which will clearly favor the Cardinals.
"Everyone is in playoff mode right now," Van Treese said. "Everything is coming together."
And for Syracuse, everything fell apart. Their dazed locker room offering the most compelling evidence of why Louisville is going to be the most difficult team to knock out of the NCAA Tournament.