@ Louisville 2/15/2023

For better or for worse, my recording of the game got turned off last night and I haven’t found a full game capture anywhere. So, this review will be much lighter on clips than normal. Probably for the best!

This was an ugly win; one that had no upside on the national stage but could have had a ton of downside had we lost. So, thankfully we didn’t! The problem with only having the condensed game footage is that you can only really illustrate the highlight plays, not the defensive stops or offensive misses; but the benefit of that happening this game is… that it was this game. I do think there were a few things worth highlighting and discussing, though.

Generally speaking, I don’t believe in “bad wins.” Yes, I’m aware that winning narrowly over an opponent with this bad of a resume is not confidence-inspiring. I’m also aware that it pulls down our NET ratings which can impact our seeding in the tournament. But the season is one long growth and maturation process, hopefully culminating in the team firing on all cylinders by tournament time in March. Teams have bad games. Teams go through slumps. Coaches continue to make adjustments to their strategies and lineups. Recall that Mamadi Diakite didn’t even start against FSU in the ACC Tournament (only playing 13 minutes in the loss) or against Gardner-Webb in the NCAA Tournament prior to starting every game after that on route to the tournament run. He averaged 21 minutes per game that season, but averaged 32 minutes per game in the NCAA Tournament. It took that long to commit to him as a must-have staple on the court, and we all know how he impacted that run. Point being, things evolve and change even late into a season. Heck, that’s a big portion of this whole blog – what do I think those changes would best be, given what we’ve seen, moving forward (married with celebrating what’s going well)?

To not play your best and have some of those things to learn from but to still come out of it unscathed in the W/L column is just fine by me. You almost never have it perfect from the jump. It’s about winning enough to hang banners while striving to eventually figure it out the best you can by the time the journey closes.

So, on this very weird night, what do I think were key takeaways?

Perimeter Matchups

One thing about Louisville – they’re long and athletic. Their point guard, El Ellis, is 6’3″, shooting guard Mike James is 6’5″ and then they go 6’9″ with SF Jae’lyn Withers, 6’8″ with PF JJ Traynor, and 6’8″ with their other PF, Kamari Lands. In a different world, with the season unfolding differently, this might have been a great matchup to play Ryan Dunn at the SF position to check Withers. But, given that he’s been used exclusively at the PF slot over the latter half of the season, this left Armaan Franklin often checking the much larger Withers. That’s more of an aside, because Armaan and, for some time, IMK, held Withers to a respectable 12 points on 4-11 shooting and 1-7 from three. Not bad, especially considering the size disparity.

Where this did become an issue is that it left Kihei Clark having to either defend Ellis or James, conceding 5 inches to Ellis and 7 to James. From a pure size standpoint, it made most sense to play Clark on Ellis and Beekman on James, and that’s exactly how we started the game. The problem with this is that when you have larger, quick guards who are very confident with their shot, either spotting up OR pulling up off of the dribble, they are often confident elevating and shooting over the top of Clark. We saw this just last week with Jeremy Roach. He was absolutely lighting it up in the first half against Clark until the second half where we mostly put Beekman on Roach and Clark on the larger, but less confident creating his own outside shot, Proctor. Things improved from there. There have been many matchups like this in the past. In this one, it was much the same. Ellis got rolling early by just confidently shooting over Clark’s contests.

Initially, he got going putting BVP in the pick and roll with Clark as you see here, with Clark not able to get back into the play after the screen and Ellis just using his superior mobility to get a mid-range shot off over BVP:

But then, whenever they created a situation where Kihei had to close out on him, even just a little bit, it was bombs away. Like below, there really wasn’t a ton of space, he just confidently stepped into a deep three, elevating over Clark’s contest.

And here, below, he literally just brings the ball up the court with momentum, uses a screen all the way out by the logo, creates some space just with his speed, and pulls up with confidence, not at all worried about the contest.

And then in this clip below, you see them design an out-of-bounds play for him where he’s the inbounder. It’s just a simple action designed to run Clark off of the one pin down screen and it’s all he needs to get a really clean look. This is the call (and shot) of someone playing with complete confidence because he’s a volume scorer and the shot contests are not intrusive.

Now, I don’t have the clips of some of the stops, but when we did pivot Beekman to guard Ellis things got much better. Ellis still scored the odd bucket and created an opportunity here or there, and Mike James actually hit a shot or two over Clark but, on balance, it was FAR more effective putting our best perimeter defender on their best perimeter scorer, just like when we put Beekman on Roach.

Here’s the one example I could get on how much harder it was for Ellis against Beekman. The clip below cuts in with our play already in progress – Ellis has received the inbound pass and is looking to shoot. Beekman is able to recover and is in position to contest such that it runs Ellis off of the line (compare to the clips above). Despite having to change direction so quickly, Beekman is able to stay with Ellis and ride him through the lane, eventually getting him to pick up his dribble and then blocking his shot attempt. Huge difference.

Given that Clark’s offense is often so essential and clutch, as it was in the second half of this game, the defensive matchups are huge. Given a similar situation moving forward that we’ve had the past two games where the opposing team’s best scorer is their smallest player, I’d like to see us start Beekman off on that matchup and force their complimentary player to become the volume guy in order to beat us. Normally those players are less comfortable doing so, and we could always send help Clark’s way or switch Beekman back if it’s not working. At the very least, you’d start out the game with the opposition’s role player being hot and their volume scorer likely having had fewer reps to get warm, which always seems preferable to letting their best scorer get into a rhythm from the get go.

Isaac McThreeeeeeeely!

McKneely hit two of three three-pointers in this one and both were at big moments in the game and neither had that much space when he fired them.

Here’s the first in the second half right after Louisville had just taken a one point lead for the first time in a while. You’ll see in this clip, there really wasn’t much to this set up. He just stands outside of the three-point line and his man plays too far off of him trying to help on any potential driving lanes from Clark. Clark passes the ball over to him and he just quick-fires before his man recovers.

That’s just punishing to his man falling asleep only momentarily, and was a potential Louisville momentum killer.

This next clip below was under four minutes to go and took our lead from five to eight. Clark draws the defense into the lane and kicks it out to IMK, who takes a quick dribble and pulls up from three off of the bounce over his defender.

Not only was this a huge shot but, again, it didn’t require a lot of space to get off and he drilled it so confidently, which brings me to my next point. I’d like to see him hunting these more often. These aren’t wide-open looks. He can probably get these looks pretty regularly if he wants them. It’s almost like he senses a big moment in a game or that his shot would be a big momentum play and that’s when he hunts it. Don’t get me wrong, that’s great, clutch, and awesome that he has that in his DNA and I have no doubt that’s going to be, uh, relevant for the next few seasons, including this one. But, given how he’s been shooting from there on the season, it feels like he could play with this level of shot-hunting aggression more regularly throughout a game. I’d love to see his volume on par with our highest volume shooters from outside in any given game!

Small Ball

I’ve written a lot about this over the past few weeks so I’m not going to do a deep dive, just a few examples. The Jayden Gardner/Ben Vander Plas pairing continues to be one of our least efficient duos on the season, both offensively and defensively. You can see in the chart below from http://evanmiya.com that it’s the third least (qualifying) effective two player pairing on the entire team, adjusted by quality of opponent. It’s the third least effective defensively and fourth least effective offensively.

Meanwhile, when you match BVP up with Dunn, it’s actually our best combined defensive pairing and when you match Gardner up with Shedrick, it’s our most effective overall frontcourt pairing. Something I may explore at a future date, which wouldn’t be surprising given the above, is this concept that the games where we’ve looked best recently (N.C. State, Wake) are games where Shedrick and Dunn’s combined minutes have been up near or over 30 (30 for Dunn in the Wake game, 3 for Shedrick, 27 for Shedrick, 2 for Dunn in the N.C. State game), effectively splitting BVP and Gardner up for longer stretches of time. Our best stretches against Duke, for another recent anecdote, Meanwhile, the games where we’ve looked worst recently (Virginia Tech and this game against Louisville) their minutes have waned (0 for Shedrick against VT, 10 for Dunn; 8 for Shedrick against Louisville, 6 for Dunn). I suspect that a deeper dive into number of court minutes shared by the two would be proportional to the quality of our performance but, for now, I’m going to leave that to the story that the data (and eyeball test) tells us.

To reiterate the reasons for this, and the review from the Wake Forest and N.C. State games cover this in the most detail if you’d like to revisit, it’s because they do not improve the spacing for each other on offense and offer no rim protection and very little length on defense. So, while each are talented scorers and each are capable, physical defenders, when they play together there is an overlap of skillset, and we’re missing the spacing, rim-running on offense that is valuable to pull everything together, and the length, rim protection, and improved mobility on the defensive side when both are together.

A few examples of this on the defensive side of the ball from this one. Here’s a clip below with BVP getting the rip-through blowby baseline drive. Louisville takes advantage of their quickness advantage with his man. Gardner is in position to come over to help, but because neither have the length or bounce of a true rim protector, this is an easy finish for JJ Traynor at the rim.

These next few clips are after we got up 10 points with about five minutes to go in the second half primarily due to a stretch of play with either Dunn or Shedrick in the game. We brought our starters (minus Franklin for McKneely which is also a downgrade defensively) and, from here, Louisville closed by making up 7 points ofer the final 5 minutes. Here’s a clip that starts the momentum just after the lineup change where Louisville puts Beekman in the pick and roll with BVP. BVP’s man gets the ball around the foul line while he’s trying to recover, with IMK stepping up to “tag” the defender to make sure he doesn’t slip all the way to the hoop. Gardner is far too much directly on his man here, not shading the corner at all. He’s supposed to put himself in position half-way between both here so that he can recover either to the corner or to his own man. The pass goes to the corner and neither Gardner, out of position, or IMK are quick or long enough to bother the shot.

Unfortunately, we get the below clip already in progress in the middle of the play, so we can’t diagnose the whole thing, but you see James gets the ball in the corner with some good space between he and Kihei. Gardner is right there to guard his man, but he’s too far off of him. The pass is whipped over to his man, Withers, who gets a clean look over his contest. The shot misses, but BVP just gets outmuscled for the rebound and the easy put back.

This unit struggled so much that on the final possession of the game, up three, when we needed a key stop, we actually went with our Smallest lineup. Clark, Beekman, IMK, Franklin, and BVP to defend the possession rather than our starting lineup with Gardner. I wish the clip below had the entire sequence, it just has the end, but we executed some very good defensive rotations and pressure and ended up forcing this contested, bad, look at the end.

In Conclusion

This is one of those I think you mostly take a deep breath, sigh, and move on, happy that the result was what it was. I do think and hope that we apply some of what we learned from this game moving forward, though. Namely, if the other team has a high volume scorer with a confident shot, I’d love to see us put Beekman on him from the jump. IMK has become a walking dagger from the outside, would love to see him continue to hunt that shot in normal situations, not just in crucial moments. And, still, I’d love to see us break up the scoring bigs to reduce their collective footprint together. If the last defensive possession of the game was any indicator, it might be something we see explored more often.

Notre Dame is a big, lengthy team that can shoot the ball. They don’t start anyone under 6’4″ and they have decent size in the frontcourt as well. It will certainly be an opportunity to look at these three core concepts above, and could also be another situation where we play down to our competition if we don’t.

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