This is the first Valentine's Day UofL game that I can remember us ever playing, which means of course that the Blogger Code requires the game preview to have some sort of holiday-related hook, fake as this holiday may be (just kidding love you honey!). I'll leave it to GCA to come up with candy hearts for each player that represents their season so far and our wishes for them going forward (had this post halfway written in my mind before deciding it would be too creepy) and I'll try to do what I do
best most often regardless of quality: put tonight's game in the context of the season and Cardinal fandom in general.
We throw around the word "love" a lot when talking about sports teams. People's lives are defined by relationships with spouse/life partner, family and God/"none of the above", but the only one that someone literally wears on his or her sleeve and chest is the relationship with sports teams. I am writing this wearing my Blackout t-shirt, and you all know exactly what I mean.
The relationship with a favorite sports team is a lot like a marriage: you fall in love with a certain team at a certain point of time, and while the name remains the same, people change year to year and even day to day. Your favorite team can rip your heart out, then make you fall in love all over again within the span of minutes, days, weeks, years. Euphoria, sickness, anger, all of the emotions go along with both, and that's part of what makes relationships so powerful and all-consuming.
Twitter has finally made its archives available to the author, but I don't have to go through the csv files line by line to remember publicly expressing my love for the 2010-2011 Cardinal team over and over again. Usually in the midst of a crazy 12-0 run to take the lead with 2 minutes left. That team also lost every 3rd game. But because they weren't supposed to be good ("The Bridge Year") the winning and moreso the way they were winning was what made us fall hard for them and excuse the losses, or not freak out and worry it was All Over. I even wrote them an embarrassingly sappy love letter that turned out to be completely wrong: March broke our hearts harder than I can ever remember. Preston getting hurt, blowing a 4 point lead. Hell, that loss was so bad that Pitino almost retired from coaching.
One of the saddest basketball images of all time via cdn3.sbnation.com
That loss was so bad it has affected how I've watched almost every game since then. Last year's team was hard to love, and in fact even when winning close games late through November and December, there was still that holding back. Then things got really bad in January and February. Then we went away for a weekend in New York, and it's so easy to fall in love in New York. But maybe that was just New York, so we went out west and kept it going all the way to New Orleans. The off-season was filled with love, nostalgia and excitement over this season. And it was all going so well, right up to that Syracuse game.
That went on longer than I had hoped. The point I wanted to make today was that like any other relationship, a relationship with a basketball team requires one thing above all others: sacrifice. Things aren't nor can they ever be perfect. In life, and on the court, every positive has its drawbacks. After so many seasons of Rick Pitino and 26 games of this year's team, we have a good sense of the positives and negatives, the sacrifices and the things we get to enjoy precisely because of those sacrifices.
The biggest positive about Rick Pitino is that he is a great, great, great coach, and there's no one I would rather have as our coach. Point blank, period.
Pitino doesn't get a ton of publicity for this, but he was one of the first coaches to really use metrics and statistics to drive his strategy. We hear about deflections all the time, and about his love of the 3 point shot, but we don't get that next level explanation. Our offense drives people crazy because it doesn't seem like we run plays designed to get someone an open shot. We run "sets" and mostly run a pick-and-roll. This is because Pitino has determined that getting a guard into the lane with the ball will produce the highest percentage shots (either an open 3 pointer in the corner or a dunk/layup) the highest percentage of time. The sacrifice, of course, is that when the other team builds its whole strategy around preventing our guy from getting into the lane, we look lost.
Our guys are taught stats too - when Siva went under a screen late in the UK game and allowed Goodwin to hit a 3, he defended himself to Pitino with "he's 78% drive" or something similar, and Pitino told him, you have to understand the situation, they needed a 3 there. That was just a glimpse of how he must prepare our team, and it's weird it doesn't get talked about more.
There are dozens of ways this stat-based approach shapes our team, and on balance it is a good thing. But it doesn't make us perfect, and there are times when stats fail (for instance, when a guy hits 3 crazy contested 3 pointers in less than a minute to tie the game - we will take that 100 times and win 99 of them) or, rather, when the stats hold true and it just happens to be the 1 time out of 100 you get beat when you are up 8 points with 47 seconds. Pitino is a control freak, and the only way a coach can control the outcome on the floor during a game is to put guys in the highest percentage situations. He can't score the basketball, he can't block shots, but he can do everything in his power to make sure his players take open shots with the highest percentage chance of going in. This also allows less talented teams to overcome more talented ones. The sacrifice? It does not necessarily maximize the talent available.
What we get to enjoy because of this sacrifice? Our guys almost never take bad, forced shots. You watch other teams play, and it almost pains me when guys come down and shoot a contested 3 or contested 2 or do an isolation play or whatever with 25 seconds on the shot clock. It's so foreign to me because our guys just don't do that. It almost seems like guys have it drilled into them that shooting a low percentage shot or not taking the best possible shot is selfish, which can produce wonderful, unselfish basketball when it is running correctly.
Shooting bad shots also leads to fast breaks for the other team. Possessions are limited commodities, especially in Big East games. So every bad possession is way more harmful in a game with limited possessions. In the long run, taking good shots leads to more points and limits the other team's points.
I'm sure Pitino has run the math and decided that 2-for-1 if you take 1 rushed shot is worse than holding it and taking 1 good shot and preventing the other team from getting any shot. Not doing 2-for-1s is one of those things that drives fans crazy, but it's a sacrifice. Even if you are right and we SHOULD be doing them, we don't. And that's a sacrifice we have to make.
The biggest sacrifice that we make because of our Coach's offensive philosophy is this: our guys are hesitant, think too much on shots and just don't take enough shots. Perfect can become the enemy of good. How many times do you watch our team play and you are just like, "shoot the ball who cares if it goes in at least just shoot it because you never know?" I say this a lot (although more last year than this year) and I can't help it.
That's what amuses me somewhat when Pitino says that we have to bring in shooters and that he told his assistants if they bring him someone who can't shoot, they are fired. If you bring in shooters to our system, they still have to have the green light to shoot! Watch Rozier's highlight video of the huge game he had here, and count how many of those shots he would get in our offense? Unless there's a change in philosophy on when someone is allowed to shoot, or we adjust to other team's adjustments that are preventing Siva from getting into the lane or Chris Jones gets into the lane and finds open guys better than Siva does, then we are going to have marginal improvement (more likely to make the open shots we are currently getting) but not a total team image makeover (Louisville will out-score you to win because they are so good at shooting!)
I wish I could structure this post better but I have to make sacrifices with my time.
The takeaway is, I hope, that Pitino's stat-based philosophy has set up our offense to act a certain way, and in the long-run that is better, even though short-run results sometimes are tough to watch. What is so frustrating is that every team we play against knows that if you clog the lane, Siva and Russ can't score or create for others, and if you protect the ball we can't score in transition. There has to be an adjustment that takes that into account, and it seems like that adjustment always occurs in New York or in the tournament when we start getting open shots. Maybe it is because we are playing against teams and coaches for the first time who have not had 6+ years to learn and prepare to play us. Maybe it's because we actually put new stuff in. Watch the Michigan State and Florida videos from the NCAA or even the Big East tourney videos, and guys are taking shots that we normally don't take.
Maybe that's because Pitino's philosophy shifts when we get to the tournament - the famous "play loose" thing. Our team needs that more than ever this season. Our wins this year have been almost all big wins that have not required us to make a key play late. And our losses have ALL been in games when we've not made that key play late.
There's the sacrifice to blowing teams out: not learning how to win and have confidence in close games. Russ Smith looks positively terrified when the game is close late (except when he's shooting FTs). Re-watch the Florida game - after Siva went out, Russ ran point and it was a disaster except that he found Chane a couple of times and Chane scored. Florida could have made a number of plays but they missed their shots and walked on the Russ turnover late.
I love Russ, but he is the personal embodiment of the sacrifices we have to make. Only when Pitino finally learned to sacrifice and take the good and the bad with Russ did Russ unleash his full potential and win us a bunch of games. And he breaks almost every rule about our offense, and shows why Pitino's long-term strategy makes sense: if a shooter has a bad night, you have to be able to win other ways. As a coach, you get paid millions of dollars per year and wins and losses are on you, but you can't control whether a guy who normally shoots 40% shoots 22%, and you can't control a random guy named Terrance Hill shoots 36% from 3 for the season and then hits 5-6 against you in a win-or-go-home game. If so much was on the line, would you "let your players play" or would you try to control the outcome in every possible way? I know what I would do. No matter what, you are sacrificing something.
Even our defense involves making a huge sacrifice: we play extremely aggressive and press all game, but it puts our two most important players in a position and mindset where they are at risk for foul trouble the entire game. People get mad at #Sivafouls but that's how he plays.
After this many games we have a good sense of our team. We can blow teams out if things get rolling, and if we make just some of the open shots we are actually getting, we are going to win against almost any team in the country. If the other team pulls a Notre Dame or Northern Iowa or Duke and limits possessions, takes care of the ball and makes shots against us, we will be in a close game late. And whatever magic the 2010-2011 team and last year's team had early in the season and to a lesser extent in the tournament that gave us the confidence we were going to win a close game late, if we get a little bit of that in March, we are going to be fine. If we play as tight in close games in the tournament as we have been lately, we are in trouble.
No team is ever perfect, and the closest team I've ever seen to perfection was last year's UK team - and they still had close calls along the way. But, like in love, if you expect perfection it is not going to work out. We have all been worried that this year is our best (maybe last) chance to win the title, but that's just not true anymore, if it ever was.
So the point is, it's okay to be afraid of getting your heart ripped out by this team because they've shown us exactly how they will do it. They've also shown us exactly how they can win it all.
Happy Valentine's Day.