College Basketball Nation: Digging In

"Digging In" is our in-depth look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who scout and prep for these teams all season. Our final scout: Louisville.

How good is Louisville? Good enough to make opposing coaches downright conceptual.

That's not even my word. That's how Villanova assistant coach Billy Lange, who scouted the Cardinals for the Nova staff this season, described Thursday what he thought was the best approach to playing the Cardinals. We were talking about one specific aspect of Louisville's style -- in this case its amorphous matchup-zone defense -- and Lange was explaining that the Cardinals are so good on that end of the floor, and so able to switch defenses on a whim, that you can't really devise a game plan with sets and quick-hitters the way you can most normal defenses. You have to settle for giving your players broad concepts -- protect the ball, make the extra pass, penetrate and kick -- and hope they can get it from Point A to Point B without being micromanaged.

That was just the defense, but the more we talked, the more I thought this might be the underappreciated key to Louisville's tidal burst through the final two months of its season: It reduces opponents to guesswork. You can't really scheme against the Cardinals the way you can other teams, because they aren't like any other team.

Louisville's high ball screens aren't just effective; the Cardinals can attack at any angle, sometimes from one second to the next. You can play brilliant defense on Russ Smith and force him to shoot some freak-show 18-foot floater and, because it is Russ Smith, it is just as likely to go in. Its press and matchup zone defenses aren't just great, they're unpredictable, and the best way to attack them -- by beating Louisville across half court and using odd-man advantages to get easy shots in the press break -- is also the best way to play into coach Rick Pitino's hands.

(The more we talked, the more I was reminded of the scene in "The Dark Knight" when that accountant tries to blackmail Batman [awesome idea, by the way; HE'S BATMAN GUY], and I practically saw Pitino smile the Morgan Freeman smile: "Your opponent is a lightning-quick defensive behemoth that does its best scoring work off turnovers … and your plan is to play up-tempo against us? Good luck!")

"I really don't think you can overprepare," Lange said. "I think you have to get your guys in a mindset where you tell them, 'We're going to play together off of concepts and instincts.'

"If you get robotic against them, they're going to eat you alive," Lange said. "They're going to kick your [butt]. I mean they'll just straight-up kick your [butt]."

So: How does a coach prepare for the unprepare-able? While you decide whether or not that's actually a word (it's not), let's dig in.

When Louisville has the ball

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLimiting the space Peyton Siva (3) gets coming off a high ball screen can slow Louisville's offense.
1. Guard the high ball screen well -- or as well as possible. Louisville's best and most-used asset on the offensive end is its guards, Peyton Siva and Smith, and its go-to offensive play is the spread-floor high ball screen. Everyone moves to the perimeter, Gorgui Dieng comes up top, and Smith and Siva read the angles and attack the defense relentlessly. There are all the usual ball-screen decision-tree issues to worry about here -- do we hedge, do we play under, how much help do we give away from the ball -- but the biggest challenge, Lange said, is how unpredictable the angles become. "They get you really spread, what they do a great job of is Dieng will run out and adjust the angle of the screen at the last second," Lange said. "It's not predictable; you have a hard time deciding which way the ball is going to go." The key, Lange said, is for a team to be ready to react either way, and then make sure neither Smith or Siva sees daylight when he comes off that screen. "When they come off that angle, Siva can not see space, because if he feels that way he's much more aggressive coming off," he said. "Same with Smith."

The spread pick-and-roll stuff isn't actually at its best when the ball handler ends up taking a shot -- Louisville scored only 310 points when the pick-and-roll ball handler ended the 433 possessions in Synergy's database from this season -- but what it does do is create angles and matchup problems, and Siva especially loves to get a head full of steam and dump off to Chane Behanan for easy finishes on the baseline.

2. Don't let Russ get you down. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Louisville team is the distance Smith has traveled from last season. In March 2012, he was a lovable kook -- an oblivious goofball just as likely to hit a big shot as he was to make an inexplicable turnover. This season, Smith has morphed into a bona fide star and thoroughly underrated player-of-the-year candidate whose offensive attack has managed to become more lethal and consistent without losing any of that jittery je ne sais quoi that made it so hard to defend in the first place. It's a microcosm of Louisville's season: How do you prepare to guard a guy for whom everyone else's bad shot is merely Russ being Russ?

"There are two things you can try to do," Lange said. "The first is work really really hard to not let him catch the ball. The second is, when he does catch the ball, turn him into a contested 3-point jump-shooter. And if he makes his first couple of 3s, you don't panic and press up on him, because I still think he can shoot them out of games if he falls in love with the 3-point shot."

This is much easier said than done, of course, because Smith is so quick to get past defenders and so herky-jerky when he does. Plus he's lethal on the fast break -- he scored 1.171 points per trip on transition plays this season, which were his most frequent (28.5 percent) play type -- and can be perfectly well-defended and still make the kind of crazy Euro-step bank shots that had Duke defenders hanging their heads Sunday evening.

"When he gets a turnover and he's running the court in transition, you're not stopping that," Lange said.

3. Take care of the ball. This doesn't file neatly under "when Louisville has the ball," but it is impossible to untie the Cardinals' offensive output from their defense, which has forced more turnovers (71) in the 2013 NCAA tournament tournament than any other team. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Louisville has scored 72 transition points in its first four games, the second-most in the field. Of those 72 transition points, Louisville has scored 37 (51.4 percent) off turnovers in the tournament, more than any other team in the field. So: If you want to stop Louisville's offense from scoring, at least get a shot to the rim. It's no guarantee, but it's certainly better than the alternative.

Plus, saying "take care of the ball" against Louisville's defense in the below section would have been way too obvious. I mean, duh.

4. Oh, and block out. Just a quick bonus point of emphasis here: The Cardinals rebound their misses at a top-20 rate this season, as Dieng and Behanan (and even Montrezl Harrell) are absolute beasts over the top on the offensive glass. The good news for Wichita State is that the Shockers are arguably the best rebounding team left in the tournament, so this isn't a real matchup woe. But it is worth noting.

Trademark set: Spread-court, adjusted-angle ball screen. "He's a great offensive coach, and they run plenty of other stuff," Lange said of Pitino and the Cardinals. "They run guys off back screens with shooters, they run some double-screen stuff almost la Allen Iverson. But that screen action is just really tough to defend, and when Dieng is popping and making those 15-footers, it's almost impossible."

When Louisville is on defense

1. Inbound the ball well against the press. This seems pretty basic, right? Louisville scores, so you take the ball out of the rim and throw it in to a guard, and then you try to bring it up the floor. Great. Easy. Except, you know, the exact opposite of that.

When Louisville is pressing, as it has on 49.8 percent of its defensive possessions in the tournament, how you inbound the ball might be the most important aspect of surviving pressure defense that swarms and smothers even the best ball handlers in the backcourt. This is not the kind of thing I would have thought of, which is probably (among myriad other reasons) why I don't get paid to coach basketball, but you could tell Lange had thought about it -- a lot.

"How are you inbounding the ball?" Lange said. "Are you inbounding it with your four or your five, or with a guard? Whatever you do, you can't do the same thing over and over, because they get accustomed to what you're doing and they start closing it down.

"The most important thing, however you decide to do it, is that you're catching it on the move," he said. "If you catch it with your back to half court and your chest to the baseline, you're already in trouble. You have to catch moving forward so you can get them chasing you right away."

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportRick Pitino can change his squad's defensive approach seemingly from possession to possession.
2. If you beat the pressure, attack. Congratulations! You've managed to make it past half court against Louisville's pressure defense! It's OK to take a brief moment to enjoy your accomplishment. Maybe write a self-congratulatory Facebook post. And then make an utterly crucial decision: Do you pull the ball back out and work your offense in the half court? Or do you attack?

The former option is the most conventional route. As I wrote above, when you're playing a team that likes to force turnovers and scoop long rebounds and score in transition, it would follow that your best bet is to slow the game down, work for a good shot in the half court, and try to keep the turnovers to an absolute minimum.

But the most conventional route is not always the best, particularly when you're a 10-point underdog (as Wichita State is) and you have a guard (Malcolm Armstead in particular) who is comfortable getting at the rim in 5–on-4s and 4-on-3s. And honestly, it might be the best strategy for everybody. Lange explains:

"Here's the thing: If you break the press and pull it back out, you are forcing yourself to play against two very good defenses," he said. "First you're playing against the press, and then you're playing against the matchup zone. Whereas if you can get them scrambling and chasing out of the press trap, and you have advantages, I think you've got to try to attack because you have a better chance to get a really good shot that you might not be able to get in the half court."

The numbers back this up: On the 16.8 percent of its defensive possessions when Louisville has allowed opponents to play in transition, those opponents are scoring 0.913 points per trip. In the half court, that number plummets to 0.706. It may seem anathema to try to get into a jumbled back-and-forth game with a team with Russ Smith and Peyton Siva in the backcourt, but it's probably your best shot.

3. Play conceptually in the half court. Pitino, being Pitino, won't just let you race across half court and get layups more than a few times before he decides to switch things up; whether you like it or not (I'm guessing not), you are going to have to play against Louisville's devastating matchup zone. Bummer, huh?

If you watch Louisville often, you can't help but notice how diverse its defensive approach can be. The Cardinals move and shift their zone from side to side to overplay a team's best scorer; they run good shooters off the 3-point arc and rely on Dieng's shot-blocking on the back line to force uncomfortable midrange shots; they spring any number of traps and sieges, which Pitino dials up from the sideline almost on command. (By the way: Watching Pitino coach this defense is one of the true joys in college hoops right now; it frequently looks as though he is telekinetically willing players into possession-specific positions, accompanied by a fittingly wide-eyed glare.) Point is, they're not good the way Syracuse is good -- where you know what you're facing and can scheme for it and just have to hope your shots go down. Louisville's half-court defense is good in a profoundly more frustrating way, because it can't be planned for.

"You will never see consistency from possession to possession in what they do," Lange said. "So if you go into it like, 'I watched them play against Marquette and they did this, so we're going to run a certain set against them' -- that's crazy. Don't do that.

"Have a couple of things your players can get into real quickly, run your set, and then if you don't have it, you've got to play conceptually," Lange said. "I don't think you can go into it robotic and programmed, like you're going to run your stuff. Because it just doesn't work."

Defensive style: Trapping press, token press, half-court matchup zone.

Takeaway: I have a pet theory -- that the best college basketball coaches set the terms of the game most advantageous to their teams, and then funnel all of their year-long recruiting, development and strategy into making sure they're setting the agenda each and every time they take the floor.

It is not easy to do this without, you know, possessing the basketball. But I don't think there's a better way to describe what Louisville (and Syracuse, for that matter) does to opposing offenses. They force you to play them, and never the other way around.

And then there is the other issue: Even if you handle all of the pressure and take care of the ball and get good shots and hang with Louisville for 20, 25, 30, 35 minutes … all it takes is one or two possessions -- a long rebound here, a turnover in the backcourt there -- for them to speed you up, get you rattled, and mercilessly bury you.

"Three points goes to nine for them faster than any team in the country," Lange said. "If they were a more consistent 3-point shooting team, they would have obliterated college basketball this year. Just obliterated it. They're on another level the way they're playing right now.

"You can't play the clock against them, you can't get cute. You just have to play it all the way to the end, stay focused, and hope you have a chance late."

And this is why Louisville is the overwhelming favorite to win the 2013 national title: After all is said and done, the best strategy against the Cardinals is "do your best and hope things go well."

There is no more ringing endorsement than that.

Digging In: Wichita State

April, 2, 2013
4/02/13
11:30
PM ET
"Digging In" is our slightly wonky look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who must scout and prep for said teams all season. Today: Wichita State.

When you talk to coaches about Wichita State, even when you're asking them to help you recreate their in-depth advance preparations, you frequently hear some variation of the same refrain: They play hard, they play smart, they play together and above all they brim with confidence -- they always believe they're the best team on the floor.

"You always see that with them," Creighton assistant Steve Merfeld said. "They play with that confidence that when they step on the floor they're supposed to win -- that has always been there."

Of course, thinking you're going to win and actually executing well enough to get it done are two different things, and finishing 5-5 in the final 10 games of your regular season (including losses to Indiana State and Southern Illinois), as Wichita State did, is a far cry from knocking off Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State en route to the Final Four.

If confidence is a constant, what's been the difference? Ron Baker is a good place to start. The redshirt freshman has done a rather remarkable thing: After missing two and a half months due to injury, and playing just 10 games before that injury, Baker returned to a big role in WSU rotation just in time for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. That would be impressive enough had he not been excellent since, but he has been: In seven postseason games, Baker has shot 8-of-15 from 2, 11-of-26 from 3, and 24-of-27 from the free throw line. He has 24 rebounds and 10 turnovers. And his key shots down the stretch against Gonzaga -- when Wichita State poured open one of the freakiest flash offensive floods we've seen all season -- effectively drowned Kelly Olynyk and Co.

Baker has also made the Shockers difficult to scout. Whereas most teams in the tournament have an entire season of film of the same lineup from which coaches can cull, Baker has not been a part of that bargain. When Merfeld and Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson, the two I asked for help with this scout, saw the Shockers in the regular season, Baker wasn't in the lineup.

Even so, there are still some things you can rely on Wichita State to do, some points of emphasis both coaches readily agreed on, and some things these obviously interested observers have seen during Wichita State's four-game run to the Final Four:

When Wichita State has the ball

[+] EnlargeRon Baker
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportGuard Ron Baker's return from injury has added to the difficulty in scouting Wichita State.
1. Know where Carl Hall is at all times. This usually isn't very difficult -- Hall is a very active and physical forward on the low block -- but he is by far the best offensive rebounder on a team that typically whose best offensive feature, the only place where it ranks among the top 100 teams in the country this season, is its 38 percent offensive rebounding percentage. If you can take Hall off the glass, you can hold Wichita State to one shot, and you're in much better shape when it's a one-shot team. "When we were able to beat them we were able to neutralize Carl," Merfeld said. "He is just a monster on the offensive glass."

2. Keep Malcolm Armstead in front, and challenge Cleanthony Early as best you can. The Shockers aren't exactly known for being an up-tempo team, but they have gotten good looks out of transition and secondary sets all season, and Armstead has typically been the reason why. "He's good in transition on quick-hitters or he can settle in and run some of their stuff," Jacobson said. "He's good in [the half court], good in transition and good in the late shot clock, so you get a guy that can make plays in all three situations." Merfeld, meanwhile, compared Early's scoring and shot-making abilities to All-America Creighton forward Doug McDermott's, in that "you think you have him defended and the angles shut off and he finds a way to finish it anyway."

3. Finish the game. When you look at Wichita State's overall offensive numbers this tournament, there is good reason to be impressed: The Shockers haven't been held to below a point per possession to date, and they scored more efficiently (1.19 PPP) against Gonzaga than they did against La Salle (1.16). But Wichita State has been especially lethal late in games: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wichita State is shooting 58.3 percent in the final five minutes of games in the tournament, up from 40.8 percent the rest of the game. The Shockers also have drawn twice as many fouls as their opponents in the final five minutes of games, and though they're shooting 34 percent on 3-point field goals, they've shot 44.1 percent in the second half. Maybe that's "clutch," or maybe it's a fluke, but either way opposing defenses have to stay locked in. (Just ask Gonzaga.)

Trademark set: UCLA Triangle Stack. "They run a million different things out of that set," Merfeld said. "And they get good shots out of it. It's varied a little bit in the tournament because they've been attacking so much more in transition, but in the half court they set up that stack and have dozens of little variations they get out of it."

When Wichita State is on defense

1. Run if you can. "The biggest thing to us has always been the ability to score in transition, before they set their defense," Jacobson said. "Once they set their defense they're a very hard team to play against."

2. Make the extra pass. Wichita State doesn't typically extend its defense in an effort to force copious turnovers. Instead, the Shockers prefer to stay in front. They challenge shooters well, particularly inside the arc, where they allow just 43.4 percent shooting, and they don't give up many open looks. "Their rotate on defense exceptionally well," Merfeld said. "You have to pass and make the extra pass to get good shots off against them." The importance of open, good shots is tantamount, because it's more likely you'll find one of those than find an offensive rebound and easy putback against a team that allows just 26.3 percent of available offensive rebounds (11th-best in the country) to slip into its opponents' hands.

3. Get to the line. If there is a weakness to the Shockers' defense, it's the propensity for fouls; their foul-shot-to-field-goal-attempt ratio is 37.8 percent, No. 278 in the country. "Get to the free throw line" is not a particularly sophisticated piece of advice, but it is without question the path of least resistance against the Shockers' D.

Defensive style: Wichita State is a man-to-man defensive team. This season, of the plays in the Synergy scouting database, Wichita State played 2,221 defensive possessions in the man-to-man and just 158 in zone. And yet Jacobson praised coach Gregg Marshall's ability to tweak things just so. "They change their defenses just enough so you never really settle in -- your ability to adjust and take care of the basketball is affected," he said. "Primarily they play man, but they'll throw a press on you after made free throws, they'll play a 2-2-1 three-quarter court and then settle back into a 2-3 zone. You have to be ready to handle that aspect."

Takeaways: For all of the crucial markers of Wichita State's basketball personality, the fact of the matter is that its next opponent is Louisville, which tends to Zerg-swarm opponents, drain them of their former characteristics, and leave nothing but dry husks in their wake. "The two things from Louisville's standpoint against Wichita State are rebounding and whether the defensive pressure, both in the half court and the full court, is effective," Jacobson said. "If [the Cardinals] get the game turned with their defense and then get out in transition and get going with their guards, and they rebound well, it could be a very difficult game for Wichita State."

The conventional strategy might be to slow the game down as much as possible, but Merfeld was convinced Marshall would tell his players to attack Louisville's press -- to push forward and get baskets if they crossed half court with a man advantage and the ball in a playmaker's hands, even at the risk of playing right into Louisville's strategy.

"They'll attack it, they're relentless," Merfeld said. "It's what their role is, their attitude -- what they're supposed to do right now. They're attacking, and they're playing exceptional basketball."

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