The Louisville Cardinals are in a year of transition. After winning the Big East regular season title along with the conference tournament championship and sending two players to the NBA, Rick Pitino knew the growing pains of rebuilding awaited him this year.
Fortunately, a couple of upperclassmen have smoothed the bumps to slight seams in the road, seams that the Cardinals’ talent will often overcome.
Offensive Identity: The biggest change in the offense is the point-guard situation.
The Cardinals are discovering their identity without Earl Clark and Terrence Williams. The insanely athletic forwards made most of the decisions last year. EC was a matchup nightmare who single-handedly altered defenses while T-Will dictated tempo.
Edgar Sosa has become the PG coach Rick Pitino always dreamed he could be. Instead of acting like a one-man offense, Sosa now runs the offense. The difference is as plain as watching a game of 21 versus watching a game of 5-on-5.
The habitual penetrator sees the floor very well now. When a sharp-shooting teammate lurks in the corner, Sosa uses his remarkable penetrating ability to set up the pass. Previously, Sosa would drive with shooting being the sole purpose.
Every drive ended with a shot, for better or worse. As his sub 40 percent shooting indicated last year, those shots tended towards the erratic.
By late January, Sosa will set a new career high for assists in a season. His average of 2.4 per game last year was embarrassing for a frequently starting point guard. The 3.9 next to his name in current gameday programs more closely resembles that of an actual lead guard.
This change in style directly affects his shooting efficiency, which is up to 46 percent from 39 percent a year ago. The new Sosa filters down to his teammates.
Overall this is a very unselfish team as guards Jerry Smith and Preston Knowles have always been team-first guys. Sophomore Jared Swopshire loves to pass. With his height and developing shooting touch, the forward plays well outside the paint.
As Sosa’s passing ability improved, the shooting percentages of Smith and Kyle Kuric plummeted. For the Cards to out-score the bad guys, they will need more triples to fall from these ordinarily reliable shooters. Even Knowles is below his traditional shooting average.
Both Smith and Kuric can be–and have been–consistent outside shooters; just not this year. The team as a whole dipped from 37 percent outside last year to 32 percent this year.
With Sosa setting up more shots, the reverse should be true.
Defensive Identity: Louisville plays two specialty defenses.
Following every made basket, the Cards set up a full-court matchup press. The effectiveness of the zone rests entirely upon the intensity of the players involved. Thankfully, players tend to defend harder after they make a bucket.
The half-court defense leaves a little to be desired. The Cardinals feature a 2-3 zone that looks like a matchup zone more than anything.
The guards are relatively athletic by Big East standards, but they gamble to much. Sosa and Mike Marra, in particular, reach and dive for the ball constantly. Sure there can be payoffs, but most of the time the overextension puts the Louisville guards out of position while simultaneously exposing the big men to an undeterred, slashing guard.
Jerry Smith does not gamble as much, but he lacks the lateral foot speed of Sosa and Peyton Siva. Smith plays hard all over the floor, but he never developed the quickness to become an elite Big East defender.
This current team is by far the worst half-court team in the last five years at Louisville. Their defensive field-goal percentage–a telling statistic–currently hovers around 43 percent. Pitino’s zone, when manned by top-tier athletes, holds opponents under 40 percent shooting yearly. For example, the Cards have been one of the top teams in the nation in FG percentage defense. Until now.
Samardo Samuels is a decent post defender and his replacement Terrence Jennings is even better. The Cardinals do not challenge shots like they used to. To hope for improvement in this area seems futile.