Louisville's D turns in historic performance

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
12:30
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PHOENIX -- When Louisville center Gorgui Dieng drained a 3-pointer in the first half of Louisville's 57-44 win over Michigan State here Thursday night -- the first made 3-pointer of his career, and just his second attempt all season -- he smiled. On the sideline, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino couldn't help but smile back.

Believe it or not, Pitino had seen this movie before.

"About a week ago in practice after it was over he kept shooting 3s," Pitino said. "I said, 'It looks pretty good, Gorgui.' He said 'Next year, I'm shooting a lot of 3s.' I said, 'No problem, as long as you make them.'

"When he made it, I said, 'I thought it was next year.' He just smiled. It was great."

Not that Dieng will have license to fire at will in the future, whether this season or next. But the story of Dieng's post-practice shooting sessions, just one more check box for the Senegalese player that seems to improve with every outing, is one of the main reasons Louisville can delay talk of "next year" for at least two more days.

Thanks to Dieng's nine rebounds and seven blocks (which tied the all-time UL tournament record held by Pervis Ellison), the Cardinals dominated top-seeded Michigan State on the defensive interior, setting a score of tourney records and superlatives along the way. The Spartans' 44 points were the fewest scored by any No. 1 seed in the shot-clock era. That point total and the 28.6 percent field-goal percentage were all-time tourney lows for MSU.

Thanks to a press that harried the Spartans, that wore them out and changed their style, Pitino is now a remarkable 10-0 all-time in the Sweet 16 -- the best record of any coach in the history of the tournament. And Michigan State, the West Region's clear Final Four favorite, ended its surprisingly successful season on an entirely uncharacteristic night.

"I think we ran out of gas a little bit -- emotionally, mentally and physically," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "Louisville had the gas. They deserved to win."

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Gorgui Dieng
AP Photo/Matt YorkLouisville's Gorgui Dieng blocked seven Michigan State shots and also knocked down the first 3-pointer of his career.
"You know what our press does a lot of times? It just wears people out," Pitino said. "We didn't really want to trap them. We wanted to run and jump to get to the legs. ... Certain people we try to create steals or traps or rotate. Tonight we just tried to get into our zone, wear them out and neutralize the backboard."

That plan couldn't have worked out better for Pitino and his team. The Cardinals' pressure was never overwhelming on any specific occasion, and more often than not the Spartans were able to get into the half court with minimal issue. But the constant pressure clearly made Michigan State uncomfortable.

The Spartans finished the game with a 24.7 percent turnover rate. But it was their shooting -- a 33.7 percent effective field-goal percentage, a 5-for-21 mark beyond the 3-point arc (and how many of those shots missed even the rim?) and a staggeringly low 22.2 percent offensive rebounding rate -- that truly caused a team averaging nearly 1.17 points per possession this season to score just 0.72 on Thursday night.

Indeed, it wasn't just the pressure, or a matter of winning the purported size-vs.-speed matchup. It was all-court defensive solidity, usually by way of a stifling 2-3 zone. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Cardinals played zone on 45 of Michigan State's 48 possessions, holding Draymond Green & Co. to a mere 22.2 percent shooting in the zone.

It came from everywhere. Dieng's shot-blocking and interior defense utterly erased MSU big men Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix from the game. (Nix's constant combinations of head fakes never remotely fooled Dieng. He stood, waited and repelled Nix with ease.) Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Chris Smith applied the perimeter pressure.

And freshman Chane Behanan did much to eliminate the matchup problems caused by the multitalented Green. His nine rebounds -- five of which were defensive -- were the perfect complement to Dieng on the glass. His offense, which came mostly on efficient (and impressively patient) interior shots, provided a handful of key baskets throughout the second half. And his three steals helped seal the game in the final minutes.

Behanan's matchup was Green; he was a freshman facing off against the Big Ten player of the year, one of the nation's most experienced players. And he won.

"I respect him a lot," Behanan said. "I've watched him play this game, and I really love the way he plays. ... But it felt good [to play well] against him."

From the inside out, Louisville was -- well, pick your adjective. Smothering. Stifling. Twitchy. Ruthless. Anything positive you can say about a defensive effort, say it about this one. Team defensive efforts don't come more comprehensive than this.

And Dieng, the sophomore from Senegal, was always at its heart -- literally and figuratively.

Asked to describe Dieng's performance, Behanan was succinct.

"Lottery pick," he said. "He played like he wanted to get drafted tonight."

Dieng does want to get drafted: According to his coach, it was the first goal Dieng stated when he arrived at the program as a freshman last season. Pitino said he promised Dieng he would "drive him like [he'd] never been driven before."

"My freshman year I was complaining a lot," Dieng said. "I said he worked me so hard, I'm tired, my legs hurt. I thank him for that, [because] he changed my whole mentality. He made me tougher. He teach me [what] this game can do in your life."

Maybe that's why Dieng wanted to get that 3-pointer up Thursday night, maybe that's why he took a break from swatting Spartans' shots to do his best Kuric impression: If he keeps playing like this, he may not have a "next year" at the college level.

But that's a concern for another time. For now, Pitino's perfect Sweet 16 record remains intact and, thanks to a Dieng-led defense, on the verge of a trip to the Final Four. The Cardinals aren't pretty, but after seven wins in a row -- including four in a Big East tourney title run -- their defense, their knack for timely 3s and their legendary coach make them one of the most fearsome teams in the country.

In other words, your favorite team doesn't want to play Louisville right now.

Who would?

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