For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: Louisville. Up next? Baylor.
The three teams we've previewed thus far in Summer Buzz all have one thing in common: speed.
North Carolina always plays fast, and that won't change in 2010-11. Duke crept to a halt in 2009-10 on their way to an NCAA title, but new personnel dictates a major increase in tempo. And Kentucky, which eschewed the dribble-drive motion offense last year, plans on returning to the fast-paced system that helped lead John Calipari to his greatest successes at Memphis.
Fitting then, that the fourth team in these previews plans on doing much the same. This bit from Rick Pitino in today's Summer Buzz Mag feature pretty much says it all:
"We're going to play faster than we've ever played here before," he says. "We're going to break on every opportunity and try and get the ball past midcourt in fewer than four seconds. And we're going to incorporate our own personal 24-second clock. We feel we can manufacture points that way." [...] Pitino also plans to press off of every made basket and dead ball and will implement varying types of full-court pressure, depending on the type of field goal converted. Also, expect a lot more man-to-man defense.
Last May, New Yorker writer and all-around Famous Author Guy Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece called "How underdogs can win." Gladwell's thesis argued that underdogs give themselves the best chance of winning when they change the method of competition. In ancient war, this meant "waging war over the broadest territory possible." In basketball, it meant pressing.
There were a few problems with Gladwell's thesis, one of which involved Pitino's time at Kentucky. Gladwell saw Kentucky's success in the late 1990s as a product of Pitino's relentless full-court press and fast-break system, as though Pitino's talent-laden Kentucky title teams were somehow underdogs in college hoops. They weren't. They were, for all intents and purposes, Goliath.
The 2010-11 Louisville Cardinals are not that. A recruiting drought -- thanks largely to the arrival of Calipari at Kentucky -- and the early departure of forward Samardo Samuels mean Louisville will, in fact, be less talented than most of the elite teams in college basketball in 2010-11. Can Pitino minimize that gap in talent by running all the time? Can his old-school fast-break tactics change the nature of the competition? We get to watch the uptempo underdog thesis in action this season, and it couldn't have happened at a more appropriate school.
Given the Cardinals' 2009-10 output, their fans will just be happy to see some entertaining basketball again. Louisville ranked No. 170 in adjusted tempo last season, averaging 67.3 possessions per game, a speed more appropriate for the Big Ten than any team coached by a full-court guru. That pace will have to skyrocket if Pitino's hopes of uptempo efficiency are to bear fruit.
More than anything, though, the Cardinals must learn to play defense again. Louisville ranked No. 79 in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2009-10. When the full-court press didn't work, Pitino sat his team back in a zone, which, in turn, made things even easier for opponents. If Louisville adopts the pace Pitino is talking about, they don't have to be a great defensive team. But they have to be a good one.
This is, more than speeding things up, perhaps Louisville's biggest impending challenge. Can untested sophomore Peyton Siva pressure the ball for 80 feet? Can Memphis transfer Robert Sallie complement his shooting with defense? Without top recruit Justin Coleman (ineligible for academic reasons), does Louisville have the backcourt depth to play all-out? Can Louisville's athletic young front court keep up?
The most important question in all this: What if they can't? Could Pitino's system be enough? Does uptempo basketball really level the playing field? Louisville won't be a contender in 2010-11, and they might not factor much into your bracket, but watching them find the answers to these questions should be more than enough to keep fans -- not just Louisville fans, but hoops heads in general -- interested.