Friday, March 23, 2012
West preview: Louisville vs. Florida
By Eamonn Brennan
PHOENIX -- There is nowhere to hide. There are no secrets to keep and no shocking, revolutionary game plans to unveil.
With Louisville and Florida, this would also be the case in November: Is there a high-profile coaching duo as familiar with one another as Rick Pitino and his former star player and pupil, Billy Donovan? No.
That familiarity will play a factor, no doubt ... but it's also the default situation for any two teams squaring off with a Final Four berth on the line. By this point, the Cardinals and Gators are what they are. Both teams have revealed themselves in their three NCAA tournament victories to date. And both coaches will prepare their teams accordingly.
What do those preparations entail?
There's the obvious strength-on-strength matchup: Over the course of the season, Florida's offense has been one of the best and most efficient in the country. As of Friday's pregame press conferences, the Gators ranked No. 3 in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom.com. Louisville, meanwhile, has likewise been a great defensive team all season -- after Thursday night's historically brutal lockdown of No. 1-seeded Michigan State, the Cardinals rank No. 1 in the nation in defensive efficiency.
But there are also recent concerns to factor. Louisville's defense has gotten even better of late, but its offense has improved as the Cardinals have forced more turnovers and pushed the pace more often than during the regular season. And Florida, which struggled defensively all season, has morphed into a defensive beast in its own right. After allowing 1.04 points per possession in SEC play, the Gators have allowed just .80 points per trip in three impressive tournament wins over Virginia, Norfolk State and Marquette.
The Gators are eager to prove they're more than a deep shooting team -- a reputation they rightly earned throughout the season but which feels less applicable with each passing game. The Gators aren't shooting 3s particularly well of late, but they're winning all the same.
"Everyone already has an opinion on this team -- that we're a 3-point shooting team," guard Kenny Boynton said. "That's what everyone is saying. But we're not shooting a great 3-point percentage. In this tournament, it shows that we can score in different ways."
The Gators' newfound defensive toughness and overall versatility makes Pitino's game plan a bit tougher. He'll still be eager to unleash his team's hassling high-pressure defense on Florida's coterie of skilled guards, particularly primary ball handler Erving Walker. Pitino will also search for a team-oriented way to stop Bradley Beal -- the talented freshman swingman whose 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field made the key difference in Florida's win over Marquette -- because the Cardinals don't have one player who matches up with a future NBA lottery pick on a sheer personnel level.
In general, Pitino's defense will look to keep the Gators from doing their favorite thing of all -- storming opponents with lethal 3-point shooting, whether they admit it or not -- and let big man Gorgui Dieng, who tied a Louisville tournament record with seven blocks Thursday, handle the rest.
Florida will rely on point guard Erving Walker, right, to fight through Louisville's defense.
"Our ball pressure is tremendous," Louisville guard Chris Smith said. "We trace the ball wherever it goes. And we just really try to keep it out of reaching the 3-point line. And with this team, we have to step out even deeper to NBA range, because those guys can really shoot it."
Donovan, meanwhile, knows how good this defense is, and knows his team not only has to handle the Cardinals' ball pressure but also has to find a few easy buckets against Dieng on the inside. How? There are no secrets in the Elite Eight, and no easy answers for a Louisville defense this good.
"There's probably not a lot of stuff that they haven't seen run at them, being in the Big East and playing the schedule they've played," Donovan said. "Everybody's tried to attack it in a lot of different ways. But their defensive percentages from inside the line and behind the line are really remarkable."
Whom to watch:
Erving Walker, Florida: Walker's game may well determine whether Florida moves on. The Gators' point guard will handle much of the task of getting the ball across half court against Louisville's tricky off-again, on-again pressure, and he has been prone to turnovers in the past (his 18.0 percent turnover rate is the highest of any of Florida's starting guards, and the third-highest on the team). If Louisville guard Peyton Siva can create havoc for Walker, Louisville could again grind another opponent into submission even without much offensive efficiency of its own. Walker's ballhandling is absolutely crucial.
Chane Behanan, Louisville: The freshman was brilliant in Thursday's win, scoring 15 points, grabbing 9 rebounds and swiping 3 steals, and perhaps most impressive -- especially against Michigan State's defense, one of the best in the country -- was Behanan's calm, collected interior finishing. The Cardinals may need it again. Louisville isn't likely to shoot the ball well, especially against a Florida team with the quickness to keep up on the perimeter, and Dieng will likely neutralize much of what Gators big man Patric Young tries to do in the low block. Behanan, however, can be a matchup nightmare, too big for Beal, too quick and strong for Erik Murphy. Behanan is a tweener -- and he might be the Cardinals' best hope of posting something resembling an efficient offensive performance Saturday night.
What to watch:
To zone, or not to zone: On Thursday night, Pitino's team used a zone on 45 of its 48 possessions, holding Michigan State to just 22.2 percent shooting from the field in those trips. The ability to transition from a brutal midcourt pressure to a zone that slaps and claws and closes down angles -- well, needless to say, the Spartans didn't know what hit them.
In a perfect world, then, Pitino would bust out the zone again Saturday. That might not be the best idea. Florida loves to shoot those outside jumpers, and the team's biggest point of emphasis in recent weeks -- besides defense -- has been making sure everyone, from Walker to Boynton to Beal to Murphy and down the line, is hoisting shots with confidence. With all that backcourt quickness and the ability to fire from range, they may be the perfect zone-busting team. But can they be lulled into taking too many 3s? And is that what Pitino actually wants?
Whatever the Cardinals choose, it is likely to be effective. But the chess match between mentor and pupil, particularly when Florida has the ball, could be the tournament's most fascinating to date.