PITTSBURGH — Pitt showed some troubling tendencies in Saturday’s 25-point loss to North Carolina, some that head coach Jeff Capel acknowledged other opponents may replicate if the Panthers aren’t able to provide an answer for.
In particular, Pitt struggled when North Carolina went to a 2-3 zone full of taller athletes that were able to give problems at the rim. Pitt seemingly couldn’t find anyone to shoot over it or work successfully in the middle of it, and Capel acknowledged this if left a potential blueprint for other ACC teams to follow.
But Pitt’s next opponent isn’t likely to be one of them. When Louisville comes to town on Wednesday for the first time under new head coach Chris Mack, the Cardinals will look a good bit different than the typical Louisville team has in the past.
After years of operating in Rick Pitino’s preferred defense — a matchup zone with full-court pressure — Mack has installed a man-to-man defense more reminiscent of Virginia’s ultra-conservative pack-line defense.
“It was a 180 from how previous Louisville teams played in the past,” Mack said on Monday’s ACC teleconference. “It was more of a gambling, full-court, a times matchup zone. We’ve gone to more sound, man-to-man.”
The effort has been a work in progress. Louisville is ranked No. 79 in the country in adjusted defense according to KenPom.com, No. 99 in effective field goal percentage against. Particularly lacking have been turnovers, where the Cardinals are 290th in Division I. But Mack is committed to the system that he brought with him from Xavier, where he had a ton of success with the scheme. He’s called his work so far with Louisville’s defense more of a mixed bag.
“We’re not as good as we need to be defensively,” he said. “I think, for the most part, our effort is there. I think, for the most part, our IQ is there in certain situations isn’t, and it needs to be up if we’re going to play with some of the big boys in this league.
“But I do feel like our guys have bought in. But we have to become better on that end, through film, through repetition, through communication and understand. We’re still — I don’t want to say in the beginning stages — but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
So Mack is not likely to start tinkering with a zone to stop Pitt while trying to instill the principles of his new defense to his players at Louisville.
But that defense does provide its own challenges, and some of them are similar to playing a zone. The pack-line scheme, popularized by Virginia coach Tony Bennett, is a passive man-to-man defense that’s designed to prevent penetration and provide plenty of backside help if it is allowed.
“It’s forcing you to make shots,” Pitt captain Malik Ellison said after practice on Monday. “That’s the biggest thing. We just have to play together, be ready to shoot the open shot, and we’ve got to make them.”
In that regard, it won’t be that much different from facing Carolina’s zone. But Pitt wasn’t able to capitalize.
“I thought at times we were getting really good shots — wide open threes — especially early in the game,” Capel said Saturday. “We just missed them.”