Coming off their 3rd loss in as many tries against ranked opponents, Louisville not only lacks a signature win they are a team lacking an identity. The entire off-season was about how will we replace Siva & Gorgui. Who will run the point? Who will anchor the middle of our defense and protect the rim? Who will lead the team? All teams have to replace missing pieces from year to year. When you win a title, and return a large part of the team the expectations are higher, and the perception is that if you replace those few pieces you can win again. In reality we lost a lot more than two of our best players, we lost the two players most crucial to our entire identity as a team and our way of winning in 2013.
Last year was about pressure defense, confusing defense, turnovers, and wearing teams down physically and mentally. Our offense slowly, but surely improved throughout the season as Gorgui developed, and Luke got healthy and confident. At the end of the year we had the #4 offense according to KenPom and #3 defense. We were, one of the best teams in NCAA history by adjusted efficiency standards. There was no doubt last years title team won with defense first, they embraced that identity, perfected it and became champions. Peyton Siva, and Gorgui Dieng were a huge part of that identity and the ability to play and win the way we did.
Now back to this year, we continue to try to answer those pre-season questions. We continue to wonder why this team is not like last year. Pitino continues to talk about the defense, the mental breakdowns, the basketball IQ and the lack of leadership. I am here to challenge the notion that this team has to aspire to be last years team. They are not. They are missing key pieces, they have added new players in new roles. This team shoots better, this team scores better, this team is better offensively. Why not flip the script in 2014? Why not win a different way? Allow this team to develop their own identity and win their own way. Perfect the offense, allow the defense to improve and see if we can ride that to Dallas and a 3rd straight final four. If we continue to try to be what we are not, we set ourselves up to fail. If we embrace what we do well. If we make adjustments and gain some confidence we have the talent to go far in March & April.
Finally, if you are still reading this...here is what i would do if i were coach Pitino to try to solve what i think is an identity crisis on this team.
1. Tell the players to forget last year. Tell them what they do better than last year. Lay out a new plan for a new team and a new way of winning. A way where we win 90-75 instead of 65-50. Give them the confidence to be themselves, and to be a new team instead of forcing them to be what they are not. Demand the same results but give them the freedom and confidence to reach those results a different way.
2. Put your best 5 players on the floor at the same time. In my opinion Louisville will not turn the corner until they commit to playing Wayne & Luke at the same time. Does playing Wayne at the 4 cause some problems on the defense and rebounding front? Sure it does. Does putting 4 guys on the court that can knock down 3s or drive to the hoop cause issues for another team to guard us? Sure it does. I think this line-up gives us the best chance to win and will give this team its own unique identity.
3. Add some simplicity and gimmicks to our defense. Forget changing defenses on each possession or off an miss or make. Let's run the pressure press more often, lets trap more often, lets use our smaller faster line up to our advantage. Let's play fast, and let's wear teams down physically more so than mentally. Rather than change it up perfect an up-tempo, high pressure, trapping style of defense that if nothing else will speed up the game and create more opportunities for our offense. We still have a top 20 defense according to KenPom. We are close on this side of the ball, we just cant do it like last year. We need to simplify our defensive strategy and use it to benefit our offense.
Louisville is still 10th in the KenPom ratings. We are one of 6 teams that is top 20 in both offense and defensive adjusted efficiency. We are not far off from being a great team, a final four team. We just need to do it a different way. It's 2014 and we need to move on from last year and win another way.