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Sure They Are

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Who you going to believe, Hall of Fame Coach Rick Pitino or your own lyin' eyes?

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Introduction

Bloggin' Rick Pitino is back, with a quick summary of last night's game, the MVP chart and a laughably inaccurate headline.

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Is this year's team better than last year?  Sure they are.

Pitino's metric for this is two-fold: 1) defense, 2) snapshot on December 17.  I'm sure it's actually a lot more complicated than that, but it's blogging, so we're trying to keep things simple.

Under the first metric, last year's team was better at playing the 2-3 zone than this year's team, that's for certain.  And the reasons are obvious: Nanu was the only sorta newcomer in the starting lineup, and Mangok played a bunch meaning the combo of Chris, Terry, Wayne, Trez and Mangok had the defense down. He also indicates that we will be playing a lot more man this entire season because there is worry the guys won't figure out the zone, whereas last year that team could play zone all year.  Fair points.

But, far be it from me to disagree with a Hall of Fame Coach, but he has entered our world with his click-bait blog #take, so here goes: how good the "defense" of last year's team versus this year's team is on December 17 is not just about whether they can play the 2-3 matchup zone that we want, now or in March.  This year's overall defense could be more productive because of a number of factor, which means that even on December 17, 2015, this year's team is better than last year's.

1. Defensive Success From Something Other Than Matchup Zone

First, depth: last year's team had very little depth and our press suffered / was lessened because of it.  If one of the goals of our defense is to wear out the other team physically, and mentally, last year's team could do it in the 2-3 zone but this year's team can do it through constant full-court pressure defense and more defensive energy in the man-to-man setting, and quality rebounding at all 5 spots on the floor.  We haven't seen it a ton yet because we haven't won a close game (more on that in a minute) but I think this will be a huge factor as the rotation stays at 10-11 guys the rest of the season.  Usually the bench shortens in February and the predictable rotations are set for March with guys Pitino trusts.  But this year (if we can fade the injury luck) we have a group of 10-11 guys who will see the floor just as much now as when the games matter.  The UK game will tell us who Pitino really trusts, but I kinda hope he plays it just like he's played all of these games and wears UK down by subbing liberally and playing full court man-to-man instead of leaving guys on the bench because of the situation.

2. We Are Watching Us Play Against the Ghosts of the Living

Second, snapshot: this one is harder because maybe the only person who watches UofL basketball more closely than the readers of this blog is Rick Pitino.  But, try as we may, UofL fans do not live in the precious present.  We are always playing the Ghosts of the Living: when we beat bad teams, we aren't watching us play those teams, we are worrying about whether those shots will fall in March or if that little jump hook Nanu makes look easy will work over Skal, and remembering that Samardo didn't start making that shot until like February of his sophomore year.

And last year's team, while it was good, was not comfortably winning games against even moderately good competition - those games were not fun and were not over in the first 10 minutes like games this year.  And, let's be honest, in the second half of the MSU Elite 8 game, it was not the defense that let us down.

3.  The Bar Is Different This Season

Third, college basketball is "down" compared to last year. We've stared arguably the best team in the face and know we can hang.  It's not exactly Duke in the 2012-2013 season, but both times we didn't have a key African guy named Deng/Dieng.  Last year we wanted no part of UK in the tournament (especially in the championship game with them sitting on 39-0 because I'm not sure the stakes could be higher unless Space Jam was a documentary).  But this year?  If we draw MSU as our 1/2 seed and get to play them again, can't you see it going exactly like Duke 2013 went, but without the whole "most famous in-game injury in modern college basketball history" thing?  I guess my point is, the bar we need to reach is different than last year's bar, and I think this team can get there without playing the matchup zone or having "hand activity" and "stances" as good as last year's team.

4. We Are Taller and More Talented and Athletic This Season

Fourth, size & talent are up this year.  Lee is way more athletic than I expected, Nanu has improved, Mitchell and Adell are athletic and physically capable of playing good defense.  The matchup zone was really good for us because it helped lessen physical disadvantages.  But we are going to have athletic and size advantages in all but a handful of games we play, and I'm not sure where to slot UK in on that list.  So, again, the bar is lower this year: this year's team doesn't need to reach its full potential in the match-up zone to reach its overall potential.  I mean, it's not like we shut down Michigan in the championship game did we?  Or Oregon for that matter?  Shutting down Duke was a game-specific defense on Curry and an Angels in the Outfield, arena-wide near-religious emotional experience thing post-Ware injury.  This team doesn't need the killer matchup zone to win in March, and at the end of the day Pitino will figure out how this team maximizes its chance to win by February and March and we'll make a run, but will have to get lucky with matchups, draws, bounces, injuries, shots, etc., like everyone does in March.

If you take any other metric than "plays our patented 2-3 matchup zone well", this team is better than last year's team.  They are more likable, better passers, better shooters, have more depth, have more overall talent even if there's no Trez or Terry, are playing actual offense earlier in the season than any Pitino-era team I can remember, and if they played last year's team 10 times, I think they beat them >5 times.

5. But, Close Games Would Be Good For Us

But Pitino has a point about toughness, which I think is most worrisome when you think about close games.  The 2014 team was booming mofos left and right and then could not win close, high pressure games.  Last year's team was able to win close games and had some good comebacks, which is a sign of toughness.  We have no idea how this team will react to a close possession-by-possession conference or tournament game.  I kinda feel like Lewis and Lee are both going to want to take the last shot, which is good to have options and guys who want the ball in their hand.  And I trust Q to handle it under pressure too.  So with 3 very capable guards, I think we're going to be okay there, but until we see it, that's the biggest missing puzzle piece.

6. In Sum, Our Defensive Ceiling Is Higher than Last Year's Offensive Ceiling

In sum: the ceiling is higher than last year because last year's offense had a hard cap on offense because of the whole bad shooting thing, but this year's team has a much higher ceiling on defensive efficiency.  They can reach that ceiling easier than last year's team could reach it's offensive potential: what we lack in 2-3 zone and fundamentals we make up for in bodies to play aggressive full court press and substitutions to wear teams down, only having to defend 30 seconds in the half court, long athletic guys at the 4-5 spots able to protect the rim and let the guards gamble more, and high scoring offense putting pressure on the other team to catch up.  This team can turn a 5 point lead early in the 2nd half into a blowout, and last year's team couldn't.

7. We Know What We Are Watching, And We Know "It" When We See It

There's a long way to go.  But, we are watching these games with all of the context and caveats and history and December glasses and we can see it.  And we know how what we are seeing (guys who can make open 3s!!!) looks compared to most December games.  Like last night, on the fast break, Lee giving the ball to Q who dribbled in while Lee ran behind him and spotted up, and Q gave it right back.  That play unfolded in slow motion, we all knew it was coming, and Lee nailed it.   That Lee and Snider can do that after playing together in only 8 real games means something.

Or like the alley-oop play we run in the half court.  I remember a game last year where the crowd groaned audibly when someone didn't throw the obvious alley-oop pass to a wide-open Wayne.  We know what we are watching, we know when that alley-oop is there, and I'm not sure any other fanbase in America would have seen that play develop and audibly be let down when it didn't happen like our crowd did.  And this year, we are going to see it a lot because Mitchell has the same alley oop range as Lee does 3 point range.  Just throw it up there.  We're all on board.

Look, whatever IT is, we know it when we see it.  And this team has it.

8. What We Are Really Asking You, Coach

I understand we haven't beaten anyone of note, but when fans ask Coach if this year's team could beat last year's team, what they are really asking is, you know, if last year's team almost made the Final Four and the overall competition this year is not as hard as last year's.....and this team sure looks like it is better.....what we're asking is, I mean....can they you know......win, uh, the uh, you know.....again?

What we are asking you, Coach, is: do you think we can we win it all?

And I think he might not say it publicly, but deep down I think he knows the answer, and it's not "no, they aren't better than last year."

The answer is: They sure can.