"It's almost like in baseball when you've got great pitching but not great hitting, and so you just try to have a great defense."
That was one analogy Rick Pitino used to describe this year's Louisville team in his ACC teleconference following its loss to Duke over the weekend. It's not a bad way to look at things, even though Louisville hasn't been patently bad on the offensive end all season.
The Cards have scored over 80 points multiple times this season and have shown stretches where the offense appears to click. No, none of these occasions have come when needed most (losses against Kentucky and Duke, down the stretch against Ohio State), but they can be an effective scoring team if the conditions are right.
Pitino is right, though, when he says that defense needs to be the focal point of this Louisville team. After all, it's not like defense has ever not been a hallmark of a successful Louisville team.
And when Louisville gets defense right, it almost always helps the offensive effort. A good illustration of this -- albeit a highly specific one -- is one of the defining plays of the 2013 national championship game.
That moment doesn't happen without a turnover, which was created by pressure from guards early in Michigan's possession. Louisville is best when they don't have to face the opposition's defensive set in the first place. When they dictate the pace by creating turnovers and getting out in the open floor, their lack of dead eye shooting can't be exposed as much.
Let's get back to Pitino's baseball analogy and blow it out of proportion for the sake of conversation. He established that Louisville's goal is to be great defensively to make up for some offensive flaws, saying that it was like having good pitching.
How far can good pitching get you? Can you even really compare baseball and basketball? Is this discussion seriously going to continue?
Good pitching can get you pretty far.
Ask the Giants, who rode good pitching all the way to a world championship last October. In their four wins over the Royals, the Giants allowed less than two runs per game. As a matter of fact, in games that they won in the 2014 postseason, the Giants never allowed more than four runs.
So yes, good pitching can almost singlehandedly win you championships. And yes, if you're thinking that it helps to have a superhuman Madison Bumgarner factor into the decision three times in a seven-game series (two wins, one save), you're right.
Over the course of the 2014 season, the Giants were not in the top third of Major League Baseball in any of the major offensive team statistics. They absolutely needed good pitching, and they got it.
This season, Louisville basketball badly needs good defense. To continue the analogy, they need to allow themselves to score four runs a game (for what it's worth, the Giants scored 4.1 runs per game last season) and win games.
It's only January, and Rick Pitino is used to having some hiccups this time of year. He's got a team that has already proven to be capable of good defense, and by March he will probably need it to be elite to go deep in the tournament.
Going deep in the NCAA tournament will likely mean more match-ups against talented big men like Jahlil Okafor and half of Kentucky's roster. There are other ways to defend teams like that, and pressure from guards around the arc is a nice way to start.
Pitino likely wouldn't categorize his team as "great" defensively yet, but they have the ability to get there. For starters, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier have the physical attributes to effectively disrupt opposing guards and help deny easy access to the post. That was something Pitino pointed to after Okafor had a field day down low in the second half of the Duke game.
Alright, so focusing on defense is a nice, practical idea and is almost certainly the answer for this (most) Louisville teams. But you still need to score some points and have a sustainable offensive model. Let's take a stab at that.
One positive that's come up in stretches for Louisville this season is the ability to rebound effectively offensively, which can be a lifeline for scoring struggles. The Cards are 9th in the country in offensive rebounding and crushed Duke in the category 18-5 over the weekend. That helps.
What else can help a struggling offense? A few players who can create it without a lot of help.
Back to baseball for a moment, the Giants had a total of four position players who hit over .256 throughout the postseason. Only two of those four hit over .300 in more than 20 at-bats. The Giants didn't need a ton of firepower to win, but they needed something.
For Louisville, the obvious choices to be that "something" are Terry Rozier, Montrezl Harrell (minus the long twos/threes) and Chris Jones. Rozier is the most likely one of this group to get a good shot for himself, and Chris Jones' ability to take ugly shots and make them sometimes can be useful. Seeing Harrell commit to dominating in the paint again would be nice, with the exception of short (free throw line-ish and in) jump shots.
Defense alone can't win championships, but it can get a team to the doorstep. In basketball, when it's done well, it can almost create enough offense alone to win. Really, that's how Louisville has always won.
It's only January. Losses to top teams sting, especially when Louisville is thought of as a top team itself. With that said, if the Cards have taught us anything, it's that they usually save the best for last. Trusting in that trend should serve as some over-the-counter medicine for these temporary headaches.
By the time March comes around, Louisville still might not be able to blow teams away with offensive firepower. In fact, that's probably unlikely. But if history repeats itself, the Cardinals will be able to pitch some pretty good games down the stretch, and that alone will keep them in the conversation.
Baseball and basketball are not the same, but Rick Pitino is making a smart bet that his team's defense will be able to carry them as they round third and head for home.