Hey, remember when Louisville had Lamar Jackson on their football team, two coaches that nearly everyone would kill themselves to get, and a basketball team coming off of a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament with five of the top seven players returning? And now they have none of these things. Very funny!
If you’ve been living under a rock or simply don’t follow college basketball outside of Tennessee, here’s a brief summary of the last year or so for Louisville. Rick Pitino, a legitimate Hall of Fame coach, got canned for doing the thing that all elite coaches do and also for lasting 17 seconds. David Padgett, his replacement, navigated a surprise transition fairly well, starting 15-4 and 5-1 in ACC play. This quickly turned into Not Handling It Well, closing 5-8 in their final 13 games and blowing an NCAA tournament bid because they lost a game to Virginia that they led by 4 with under 5 seconds to play. IN REGULATION!
Now, Padgett/Pitino’s replacement is Chris Mack, who you know from his time at Xavier. Mack’s task is pretty easy: replace four of the five 2017-18 minutes leaders, find a new scoring leader after his top three from 2017-18 left the program in one form or another, and also, replicate the elite defense (seven straight top 10 KenPom Defense finishes from 2011-2017, with a 39th-place run last year) that defines Louisville basketball despite having all of these new challenges. Have fun, Chris!
Through three games, one of which was against an actual competitive team in Vermont, Mack has chosen two pretty interesting strategies to make Louisville a serious NCAA Tournament option this year: get to the free throw line at all costs and crash the defensive boards to limit second chances as much as humanly possible. Louisville has an otherworldly free throw rate – about 0.88 free throw attempts for every one field goal attempt – that is at least partially because their first two opponents, Nicholls State and Southern, are foul-happy teams. However, Vermont was one of the most foul-averse team in the nation last year and still fouled Louisville 26 times. (It’s worth noting that Vermont got fouled 21 times on their own, so perhaps they had particularly involved referees on this night.)
The second half of their strategy has been reliant on playing three smaller teams, the first two of which had no starters taller than 6’7″. A team like Louisville, who starts 6’5″/6’7″/6’10” on forwards, will obviously have an inherent advantage here. Even so, they’ve been particularly good at owning their own boards to date – none of their three opponents has topped a 25.8% offensive rebounding rate yet.
We’ll see what this does for Louisville long-term. Their best player through the early season was a ninth-man his freshman year that racked up eight DNPs in conference play alone. They’ve struggled lots of every part of defense that isn’t post-ups or rebounding related. There’s basically no way their free throw rate is sustainable over an entire season. An NIT bid, particularly one where they’re a top two seed, probably represents a good season. This is still a serious challenge for Tennessee, but a completed work beats a work in progress most times.
WHAT THEY BRING
Playmakers on the perimeter
Meet Darius Perry:
Perry is the point guard, a player who operated in something resembling a sixth-man role as a freshman. He struggled a lot with efficiency his first year – 23 of 70 (32.9%) from three, 17 of 44 (38.6%) from two – but an 87.3% career free throw percentage confirms that he’s better than that. It’s just three games, but he’s already hit 6 of his 9 threes (Ni.ce%) and has shown an ability to get to the rim that he didn’t quite show his freshman year:
His confidence seems to be very high, which is something Louisville will desperately need long-term. I like watching him quite a bit, though, again, this will be his first serious test as a starter.
VJ King actually starts games as a power forward, but don’t let that fool you – he plays any position from 1 to 4, depending on his team’s need.
King is the only returning starter from last year, though he can’t create his own shot quite as well as Perry. What King has done is get to the free throw line at a consistently good rate throughout college. King’s hit more free throws (134) than he has two-pointers (132) through 2+ years. He’s not much of a dribbler, from my view, but he is very aggressive. Christen Cunningham also starts on the perimeter, but Ryan McMahon seems like a better long-term option. Khwan Fore (remember him?) has been getting a little over 15 minutes a game, but he’s mostly a defensive specialist/foul drawer.
Two giants in the post
Both are former four-star recruits, but they’ve taken different routes to get here. Enoch played at UConn before transferring to Louisville; Williams was the second-drawer guy behind Brian Bowen in Pitino’s final class. Both have been ruthless through two games offensively. Williams is more of a work in progress in a big body, but Enoch is a pure bully:
I know it’s a random white guy he’s abusing here, but those are some seriously great moves for any post player to copy. Enoch struggled a ton with fouls in his time at UConn, averaging around 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes, so that’s why Williams’ presence is so important. If Tennessee can get one or both in foul trouble, this game will end very quickly.
A 6’7″ ball-handling power forward
We’ve mostly entered the positionless age of basketball by now, but this will never not look weird:
That’s Jordan Nwora, the team’s best player through three games. Name it and he’s been excellent at it: 12 of 18 from two, 4 steals, 18 points per game, 4 of 7 threes made against Vermont, and a pretty small turnover rate (13.3%) for a bigger guy. Nwora oddly loves to handle the ball in transition, and he leads the team in transition possessions, which Louisville’s had quite a few of. It will be of utmost importance for Tennessee to get back after a missed shot or a turnover, as Louisville has showed no hesitation about pushing the ball up the court quickly.
Quality post-up defense
Of the five forms of play types Synergy Sports has Louisville as defending 15 or more possessions on, post-up defense is the only one to top a 45th-percentile rating in Division I-A. This probably isn’t surprising, considering the post defenders are Enoch/Williams/Nwora/sometimes King. For them to rank in the 94th-percentile in it so far, though, is a bit of a surprise. This is at least partially due to a particularly potent excellence in forcing turnovers on plays like these:
That’s perfectly played; there is nowhere Anthony Lamb can go after he’s committed to a 13-foot turnaround jumper defended by two people. Again, all of these guys are or have struggled with fouls in the past, so this could still be a good place to force some shots through. (Grant Williams, in particular, will envy a challenge.) This being a team that’s still looking to fill in certain roles and adjust to a new coach and new style, though…there’s still some kinks to work out.
Somehow, 6’2″ Christen Cunningham ends up on 6’6″ Anthony Lamb, which is not how you want these things to go. That’s a communication issue partially forced by Vermont playing 6’9″ Ra Kpedi here, but VJ King or Dwayne Sutton should’ve rotated to help.
Non-quality everything else defense
I would love an explanation for why Darius Perry screens Christen Cunningham, who is his teammate:
Or how Perry just gets blown by on this pretty innocuous pick-and-roll:
Or how three different players just forgot this Vermont player existed:
Two of these are communication issues that may or may not get worked out over the course of one season, but the Perry P&R defense is something Tennessee can seriously attack. The goal should be to force action to his side and make him defend Jordan Bone (or others) one-on-one. Even Khwan Fore, a very good defender, is victimized by a slow switch on a pick play here:
This is where, in my opinion, playing Louisville now will be much easier than playing them in February or thereabouts. Tennessee may be able to get more open shots than they’d expect, simply because these less-experienced players are struggling to communicate and find their man on the court. Like, I can’t really imagine a 6’10” guy having to guard a perimeter shooter under Pitino:
Against a better shooting team – and, yes, even against Tennessee – Louisville could get seriously roasted. While I thought they played pretty well overall against Vermont, especially on offense, they’re struggling with some pretty basic tenets of defensive communication and effort. Vermont shot 13 of 18 at the rim against Louisville, and Vermont is a team with precisely one rotation player taller than 6’7″. You’re not playing Duke out there. Against Nicholls State, Louisville had serious issues defending the three-point line (Nicholls shot 12 of 31 from three, and very easily could have won had Louisville not enjoyed an insane 38-12 advantage in fouls). This is a defense that needs some serious reworking to make for an NCAA Tournament team.
HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT
Hate to be easy here, but Enoch/Williams aren’t going out to the three-point line to touch this:
And considering Louisville’s struggles with communication all over defense, a play like this Schofield/Alexander screen could work wonders for Rick Barnes and company:
Louisville has faced no one built like Alexander yet this season, so I’m very interested to see how they handle him, both on offense and on defense. The Louisville big men have yet to face someone they aren’t 2-3 inches taller than. As much as I love watching Vermont’s Anthony Lamb, he can’t provide this type of post defense:
Alexander can, and his smart defensive instincts could cause some trouble for Enoch/Williams. Just like them, it’s imperative he doesn’t rack up bad fouls in this game.
Extra passes work, and they’ll work a lot against a defense that hasn’t contained them yet. Alexander could’ve easily gone to the rim here, but he didn’t; this is a smart pass to Johnson, an underrated shooter. Tennessee should be able to get quite a few open threes just off of plays like this.
Grant Williams versus The World
This is my favorite Williams development through three games. I don’t recall him taking this many ISOs in 2017-18, but he’s essentially the only player on the roster I’m comfortable with using those possessions on. He gets a good matchup on the perimeter, and he always will. Either a guard who’s five inches shorter has to switch onto him or a slower post player gets blown by/fouls him. Barnes should dial up several perimeter possessions for Williams.
Attack the rim aggressively
Again, you’d think this goes against the logic of Louisville’s post-up defense, but here’s a work-around: use Bone, Lamonte Turner, Bowden, and Schofield to drive to the rim over and over and over. Either they’ll have to foul them or Tennessee will get plenty of layups. Vermont used this strategy very effectively, especially in the second half to start a late rally.
Kyle Alexander versus the Louisville big men. Both Enoch and Williams present unique challenges: Enoch is a bulldozer that doesn’t seem to care who’s in front of him, while Williams uses a little more finesse but struggles with footwork. Alexander will likely log 30+ minutes tonight, and he should; he generally handles guys like this effectively.
Lamonte Turner and Yves Pons versus Louisville’s second unit. Two very different players will have two very different challenges: Turner to be the offensive microwave off the bench, and Pons to be a ball-stopper for most likely VJ King.
Tennessee’s shooters versus open shots. This probably sounds dumb, but it’s important. Per Synergy, 15 of Tennessee’s 38 catch-and-shoot threes have been unguarded. Tennessee’s hit 9 of those 15. They’ve hit 8 of the other 23. Hitting the open ones when they’re there will decide this game.
Tennessee 77, Louisville 70.