NEW YORK -- Fans and members of the media like to construct a basketball team's character around its ability to play defense. Good defensive teams "try harder," have "more heart" and "want it more" than their opponents. That may be true in hackneyed leads and on messageboard threads, but, on a basketball floor, defense is built on talent and coaching just as much if not more than offense is.
There isn't a team more talented or coached better defensively than Louisville, and the Cards proved it again in a 69-55 win over Villanova in Friday's first Big East Tournament semifinal at Madison Square Garden.
Their defense is a constant, a part of Cardinals basketball DNA, and it was there even in a dreadful offensive first half. Louisville shot poorly (41 percent FG) and committed 11 turnovers in a 26-point first half played across 35 possessions. Passes were aimed at teammates' feet or fumbled out of bounds, and Villanova closed off the defensive glass, grabbing 75 percent of Louisville's many misses.
But, even as the offense was feeble, the defense kept the Cards in the game. Louisville forced 11 turnovers of its own in the first half to hold Villanova to less than a point per possession. The key for Villanova was that it was able to prevent the live-ball run-outs that Louisville's offense thrives on. Despite both teams committing 11 turnovers, Villanova outscored the Cards, 13-0, on points off turnovers in the first half. With all of the ways in which Villanova dominated Louisville, the 34-26 halftime deficit felt generous to Rick Pitino's team.
"At halftime, I told the guys I was speechless for the first time this year," said Pitino. "I said, 'I don't recognize any of you -- I don't know who you are. That's not Earl Clark, that's not Terrence Williams, that's not Jerry Smith. Everything that we've gone through to become a good basketball team you totally changed in a 20-minute half."
Louisville went in the locker room at halftime happy that basketball was a sport of two halves rather than one, and -- identities restored -- the Cards immediately showed their appreciation at the start of the second half.
Louisville forced Villanova's Reggie Redding into a tough runner on the first possession of the second half. The Cardinals grabbed the rebound, and Clark hit a left-wing 3-pointer. Then, Terrence Jennings blocked Dante Cunningham's attempt, which led, seconds later, to an Andre McGee 3-pointer that cut the deficit to two.
"I thought at halftime that we were playing well enough defensively to hold them down and be able to grind one out there, but we started the second half not aggressively," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who apparently saw the writing on the wall before his team even trailed. "Shot blocked, they come down, we don't guard Clark, he hits a three. They get another three, and bang, there's the ballgame right away. We never seemed to recover from that."
Lousville then got two steals on its next three defensive possessions. The second steal from Jennings led -- finally -- to the Cards' first points off a turnover in the game, a Smith three on the end of a crosscourt pass from Williams.
"We just pressured and we dug in, got back to what we do -- forcing turnovers -- and our guards did a great job," said Clark about how his team came out of the locker room. "Andre, Preston [Knowles] and Jerry -- they just forced turnovers and they put the heat on [Villanova's] guards, and we hit open threes."
On the next possession, Jennings forced another Villanova miss by Cunningham, and Clark scored inside to give Louisville a 37-36 lead, its first since 6-5. Williams then got yet another steal -- one of 12 for UofL in the game -- that led to yet another Smith 3-pointer off of it, and Louisville was rolling, up 40-36 and on a 14-2 run to start the half.
The defense was fueling the offense rather than just limiting Villanova's scoring. And, once the shots started falling, the defense became even more suffocating. Louisville is most dangerous when its play on each end of the floor feeds the other.
For the game, Louisville forced 23 turnovers on Villanova's 70 offensive possessions, which is just less than one-third -- the national average is 20.5 percent. And this came just a day after Louisville forced 26 turnovers in a 75-possession game against Providence (34.7 percent). The Friars tend to be a bit more willing to cough up possessions than Villanova, but the Wildcats hardly did better protecting the ball or their Big East Tournament championship hopes in this game.
For those of you unfamiliar with the style of defense that Pitino's team plays, let me describe it, because it's unique.
Louisville will run a trapping press off of every made basket. There are a few keys to this press. First, Louisville uses two players to deny the ball to the opposition's preferred ball-handler. That was Scottie Reynolds on Friday. Then, the Louisville guards play very aggressively. Knowles and McGee, in particular, are pests on the ball, constantly reaching for and stripping the ball. Smith has improved this facet of his game as well to give Pitino three players who can sustain pressure.
Pitino said of Smith, "He knows how much his teammates need him, how well he's playing, and I think Earl would speak to how good our backcourt is, because they do that dirty work for 90 feet and don't give in."
"What I think makes them the best defensive team -- they're the best defensive team we've played, and we've played a lot of really good ones especially in this league," said Wright. "I think those four guards, the pressure they're able to put on the ball for 40 minutes, fullcourt, 40 minutes -- it never stops. They get a 10-, 12-point lead, and that pressure is still there, and it's still as intense as it was at the beginning of the game."
In theory, Villanova should be well equipped to handle the pressure, even if Reynolds couldn't get the ball, since it also has Corey Fisher, a terrific ball-handling option and the Big East's Sixth Man of the Year. But Louisville forced Fisher to play at a faster pace than he could handle. He committed seven of his team's 23 turnovers.
Behind the guards is a long frontcourt that dares teams to pass over the pressure. With 6-foot-9 Earl Clark, 6-9 Jennings and 6-6 uber-athlete Williams backing the press, lob passes meet a certain death in the hands of a Cardinal. With Louisville up by four and 7:50, Fisher tried to break the press with a loopy crosscourt pass. Williams would have none of it, stole the ball and streaked from halfcourt for an emphatic slam to make the score 56-50. Villanova would never be so close again.
On those occasions when teams are able to get into an offensive set after breaking the press, Louisville plays a distinctive 2-3 zone. This is not like Syracuse's zone, which tries to keep everything on the outside and worries primarily about getting hands in passing lanes. In Louisville's 2-3, the guards continue to apply pressure on the ball, harassing the opposition to the point of fatigue, offensive fouls, ill-conceived passes or wayward dribbles. And with that long, athletic frontline hedging and helping, there's often nowhere for the guards to go.
When Reynolds or Fisher did find players like Cunningham or Anderson or Shane Clark around the paint, they were forced to shoot over and around long, athletic players. Meanwhile, Reynolds -- Villanova's most important player -- scored just two points and committed six turnovers.
"They really did a great job on him," said Wright about Louisville's defense of Reynolds, who entered the game averaging 15.9 points per game on the season. "They doubled him every time he had the ball in the backcourt. Anytime we ball screened, they iced him, forced him down to the baseline and doubled him [again]."
"When we play man or zone, we really put great emphasis on pressuring the basketball," said Pitino about his halfcourt defense. "We did it with West Virginia [in the regular-season finale last Saturday], we did it the other night with Providence. If we get beat, we rotate well."
It's no wonder that Louisville's defense wore down the Villanova offense, holding it to just 12-of-35 shooting inside, a woeful, 34.2 percentage on 2-pointers. The Cats were even more helpless in the second half, hitting on just 5-of-18 2-point attempts (27.8 percent).
Louisville's defense can wear down even a Villanova team built around superior backcourt play and one that has faced the defense often. Woe to the team that has just a day to prepare for it in the NCAA Tournament. For it's clear that the Cardinals' defense is championship caliber, and if that defense can continue to feed the offense with layups and open looks at three, they may indeed cut down the nets, both at Madison Square Garden on Saturday and at Ford Field in 24 days.