PORTLAND, Ore. – In the Louisville Cardinals’ first two games in the NCAA Tournament, they played vastly different styles but ended up with the same result: a victory and a trip to the next round.
Despite two consecutive years of first-round exits, Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino wouldn’t say he was relieved to get through the first weekend because of that.
“Yes, we did lose in the first round the last two years, but that’s going to happen. Look at Duke and Missouri,” Pitino said. “I’m relieved because I wanted this so much for the players.”
Pitino also cited the two No. 2 seeds that lost Friday as why he hasn’t yet started planning for the Cardinals’ next opponent, No. 1 seed Michigan State.
St. Louis did put a scare into Michigan State Sunday afternoon, but the Spartans pulled out the win, 65-61.
After Louisville’s third-round win over New Mexico on Saturday night, Lobos head coach Steve Alford called the Cardinals “one of the better defensive teams in the country,” citing their field-goal defense that now ranks second in the country at 37.9 percent shooting. The Cardinals are also seventh in the country with nine steals per game.
Despite being one of the NCAA’s best shooting defenses throughout the regular season, Pitino chose to change up his team’s tactics before the Big East Tournament, which his team swept through on its way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
While continuing to play in a 2-3 zone, the Cardinals have extended pressure to the 3-point line instead of packing in the defense around the paint.
“We thought we were weak and small, so we really guarded the paint well and we gave up a lot of threes at the midpoint of the season,” Pitino said. “When we got to the postseason, I said, ‘That’s over with. We’re now going to guard the line with our life.’”
One consequence of extending the defense has been an increase of surrendered offensive rebounds. Against Davidson, Louisville gave up 12 offensive rebounds compared to the 26 defensive rebounds it grabbed, and that split was even more staggering against New Mexico, which had 15 offensive rebounds compared to Louisville’s 17 defensive rebounds.
Though Pitino was concerned with his team’s work on the defensive glass, he said it was a tradeoff for pressuring teams on the perimeter. The Cardinals shot 4-of-19 from 3-point range Thursday and the Lobos went an equally cold 5 for 23 from long range Saturday.
“When you put such great emphasis on stopping the three, and you’re out on the line and there’s long rebounds, it goes over the heads of the guys blocking out and they come up with the rebounds,” Pitino said. “Certainly, we need to do better. We have been doing a better job. That’s the first time we’ve really been hurt like that.”
Pitino is confident in his team’s ability to adapt and find success based on the teams it has already faced this season, from Marquette’s fast-break offense, to Syracuse’s zone defense to Pittsburgh and West Virginia’s methodical, grinding games.
“You see it all in the Big East,” Pitino said.