Hoya fans had their delusional hopes refreshed Monday when Georgetown crushed Notre Dame in South Bend, just in time with Saturday's showdown with recently-No. 1 Louisville. The recipient of plenty of pre-season praise, the Cardinals generally ran through the early season but have hit a snag of late, losing their last two. Can Georgetown hand Louisville its third straight loss? Let's see.
It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Last season, these two teams opened conference play against each other at the still absurdly named Yum! Center with Louisville boasting a top-five ranking. Your Hoyas scorched the nets that night, holding off a late Cardinals rally to emerge with a three-point victory, their third straight over Louisville (a number that surprised me (Ed.: and is analyzed in greater detail here)). That game started deep slide for Pitino's boys, including a loss at Kentucky (no shame, there) and three more in the next five, including a 31-point disaster at Providence (shame, there). Louisville recovered to eke out a winning conference record before catching fire in the postseason, winning eight straight to capture the Big East Tournament title and advance to the Final Four. Only another loss to hated rival and eventual national champion Kentucky could stop the Cardinals' run.
This season, the Cardinals' early play had them primed for another deep tournament run. Several early blowouts were only slightly besmirched by a five-point loss to Duke, and Louisville finished non-conference play with several good wins, including Missouri, Memphis, and Kentucky. The Cardinals continued to roll through conference play, beating their first four opponents by an average of 18.5 points.
Then came last week. First, Syracuse came to town for what promised to be a doozy. After withstanding an early Orange run, the Cardinals came back and built sizable leads in each half. Those leads faded, but Louisville still had a chance to win, up two in the waning minutes. But Michael Carter-Williams, ahem, stole the game with the last four points. That loss, while disappointing, was defensible enough; Tuesday's defeat at (an increasingly competent) Villanova was less so.
Cardinals to Know. For the third straight season, Pitino gives the reins to point guard Peyton Siva (11.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 6.1 apg, 2.2 stl pg), who guides the Louisville offense and is a defensive menace. If Siva is the offensive conductor, its soloist is Russ Smith (18.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.7 apg, 2.4 stl pg), a manic guard whose instincts tend more toward scoring and general mayhem and less toward passing than Siva. A bench spark-plug a year ago, Smith has harnessed his energy a bit this year, increasing his efficiency with his volume.
At forward are a pair of hard-nosed sophomores. Wayne Blackshear (9.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 37 3FG%) is more perimeter oriented, while Chane Behanan (10.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.7 stl pg) is a bruiser down low. At 6'6", 250 lb., Behanan is a haul and would be the best rebounder on a number of squads. But on Louisville, that title goes to junior post Gorgui Dieng (8.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.1 apg, 2.4 blk pg), a onetime defense-and-rebounding specialist who has rounded out his game. Off the pine, wing Luke Hancock (5.9 ppg, 1.7 apg) brings some skill, guard Kevin Ware (4 ppg) brings lots of athleticism, and forward Montrezl Harrell (6.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) brings both.
When Louisville Has the Ball.
- Keys to an Upset:
- Protecting the paint. While Louisville's defense fueled the Final Four run and is elite again this year (No. 1 in efficiency in the country last season, No. 2 this), the real change is on offense, where last year's sputtering (No. 123 last season) has turned into more of a roar (No. 16). There are several explanations for this improvement; one is better shooting, especially from two-point range, where Louisville makes 51 percent of its shots. Siva and Smith in particular have improved their collective two-point shooting percentage by more than six points, largely because of better shot selection. But in the two recent losses, the Cardinals have regressed, shooting just 43 percent from two, with the two guards shooting barely 41 percent inside the arc. The two opponents, Syracuse (40.5 opposing 2FG%) and Villanova (43.5), both boast very good interior defenses. As it happens, so do your Hoyas (41.9 opp. 2FG%; 43.4 without Whittington).
- Stopping penetration. Louisville's offense remains predicated on high ball screens for Siva and Smith, who then penetrate into the defense's interior to open up opportunities for themselves and others. As explained here, it's not complex, but two quick guards and a pair of bulky screeners can make it very effective. Screens and penetration can wreak havoc against man-to-man defenses, but tend to be less effective against zones. Georgetown has gone zone plenty throughout the season, and may find it of use again Saturday.
- Limiting Smith. The junior guard has graduated from last year's "Russ giveth, Russ taketh away" to this year's Russdiculous, the latter a nickname derived from Pitino's horse of the same name. Keeping the feisty guard down to last year's production will go a long way toward an upset Saturday.
- Limiting possessions. Louisville has maintained the offensive rebounding that was the one bright spot on last year's ho-hum offense, grabbing nearly 38 percent of their own misses this season. The Cardinals also have cut down on turnovers, ranking in the top third in the conference in protecting the ball rather than, as last year, the bottom third. The cumulative effect of more offensive rebounds and fewer turnovers is a lot more shots. Georgetown has to win one possession battle or the other, either protecting the defensive glass or generating a bunch of turnovers. The Hoyas have struggled to force turnovers in conference play (12th in turnover percentage), making the latter option seem less likely. Which brings me to...
- Moses. Ayegba played his best game as a Hoya Monday night, bodying Jack Cooley and protecting the defensive boards. He still has positioning issues on defense, but there are few centers he'll be better suited to defend than Dieng. Cooley and Dieng aren't exactly clones, but both are evolving offensive players who still basically thrive on physical play and finishing in the lane. Dieng is particularly nasty on the boards, where he gathers four offensive rebounds per game. Moses probably is the Hoya best suited to keep him off the glass and contest those second chances. (Side note: Behanan is no slouch on the offensive glass, either, grabbing 3 of his teammates' misses per game, so Nate Lubick and Otto Porter likely will have their work cut out for them as well).
When Georgetown Has the Ball.
- Keys to an Upset:
- Protecting the ball. Underlying the seeming mania of Louisville's defense is the cold calculation that the Cardinals will win by simply generating more shots than their opponents. Louisville is first in the Big East in defensive rebounding and first in turnovers forced, all while excelling in the same two categories on the other end of the floor. The Cardinals are especially lethal at taking the ball away, turning opponents over on a quarter of possessions in conference play. They generate many of these turnovers on the press, and others through the ball-hawking and risk-taking of Siva and Smith, who each average over two steals per game. A Georgetown offense that had been reasonably careful with the ball in non-conference play has become sloppier since, ranking 13th in the Big East in turnovers. Georgetown will need to limit the miscues to prevail Saturday.
- Three-point shooting. In an effort to force all those turnovers, Louisville's perimeter defense tends to take chances, leaving itself vulnerable to quick ball reversals that find open three-pointers. Perhaps because of this, Louisville's Big East opponents have found some success from behind the arc, making 35 percent from three. Over the course of its last three wins against Louisville, Georgetown has shot very well from deep, making 47.5 percent from three, including 7 of 11 last season. Likewise, a Hoya squad that struggled from three in non-conference play has found its stroke of late, making 36 percent of threes in conference play, the second-best mark in the Big East. Continuing that trend Saturday is a must.
- Pace. Louisville will press much of the game, particularly off of dead balls. The temptation is to slow things down, but Georgetown must seize the slight transition opportunities afforded by a broken press. This is not to say the Hoyas should play at the Cardinals' pace but, as they did against St. John's and Providence, instead must take what the opposing defense affords them.
- Getting to the line. In the two recent losses, Louisville has sent its opponents to the line nearly 25 times per contest. That in part can be attributed to one of the opponents, Villanova, which gets to the line at an elite rate. Georgetown has made it to the line at a healthy rate during conference play, though those numbers have been depressed of late by South Florida and Notre Dame, two foul-averse opponents. The Hoyas must get to the line more often Saturday.
- Starks and DSR. Georgetown has enjoyed double-figure scoring from one guard or the other for the past four games, but never both. The two guards combined to score 25, 23, and 23 in the Hoyas' three wins without Whittington, and 19 against South Florida, when the problem was more defensive than offensive. Saturday, at least one, and probably both, will need big days, handling the ball against the Cardinal pressure, stroking open threes, and generally providing secondary scoring options after Porter.
Prediction. Monday gave us all hope. But, since it's ‘90s movie reference week on the blog, let me tell you something my friend: hope is a dangerous thing; hope can drive a man insane. If hope doesn't drive us all nuts, this Hoyas team will. I think there's a reasonable chance that your Hoyas are still a tournament team, but feel far less confident about their prospects Saturday. Louisville's press, its size on the front line, its depth, and its motivation after losing a pair of winnable games all will make things tough for the Hoyas. And there's the strong possibility that the Hoyas, with uncertain depth and just as uncertain offense, will make things tough on themselves. I suspect Georgetown will keep things close for much of the game but won't have quite enough to keep pace with the Cardinals. Louisville 63, Georgetown 59.