Louisville exposes Pitt's weaknesses in upset
Louisville coach Rick Pitino watched tapes of every Pitt game this season to prepare for the No. 7-ranked Panthers.
Monday night's blowout will be required viewing for every upcoming Pitt opponent.
Louisville became the latest team this season to expose Pitt's difficulties against quick, athletic teams.
Similar to their earlier losses to Wisconsin, Oklahoma State and Marquette, the Panthers (22-4, 10-2 Big East) seemed a step slow against Louisville. They looked out of sync against the Cardinals' full-court press and the switching 3-2 zone.
And once again, Pitt's backcourt has looked shaky against all-out pressure defense.
Pitt turned the ball over a season-high 19 times, including 16 in the first half, when Louisville ran to a 36-19 lead.
The final result was a telling, turnover-plagued 66-53 defeat by Louisville, the most lopsided home loss in six seasons.
"A lot of credit goes to Louisville and how well they played," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "They had a lot to do with this game. Obviously, we didn't play very well. We need to get better."
Mike Cook, Levon Kendall and Antonio Graves each turned the ball over four times. Guards Levance Fields (5-10) and Ronald Ramon (6-1) and center Aaron Gray also had multiple giveaways. It was a season-high for Kendall, who entered the game with only 27 turnovers in 25 games.
"I don't think we were confused," Gray said. "I just think we didn't do what we had to do offensively. We'd rather that it happened now than later down the road."
The normally sure-handed Panthers also endured high turnover games against sleek units from Auburn, Connecticut and Marquette, turning the ball over 18 times in each. Pitt escaped with wins over Auburn, which was 3 of 20 from 3-point range, and Connecticut, which missed 38 of 59 field-goal attempts, but it showed where the Big East frontrunner requires work.
"We need to continue to improve," Dixon said. "We need to get better. I don't think we ever thought we were as good as we needed to be."
Pitt looked confounded Monday night, throwing the ball all over the court. It brought back memories of turnover-fests against the Dominic James-led backcourt at Marquette, the stable to fleet guards at Connecticut and the waves of long athletes at Auburn.
In fairness, Pitt isn't the only team getting rattled against those teams. Marquette, Connecticut and Louisville rank 2nd, 4th and 6th, respectively, in turnovers forced in the Big East. Auburn ranks No. 2 in the 12-team SEC.
When Villanova, another ball-hawking team, pressed the Panthers on Jan. 29, Pitt turned the ball over 11 times in the first half and trailed, 28-23, at the break. The host Wildcats called off the press for much of the second half, and Pitt came back for a 65-59 win.
Gray expects more teams to use the Louisville game as a blueprint for trying to beat the Panthers.
"Teams are going to play more press," he said. "This is what Louisville does. They are very good at what they do. Maybe another team wants to go outside their element and try to press us. I'm sure it will be a huge emphasis this week in practice, and I don't foresee this happening again. It's something we are going to have to get better at."
The Panthers will have four days to work on improving before hosting Washington (16-8), another team hoping to use a road game at Pitt to enhance its NCAA Tournament at-large chances.
The Huskies will pay extra attention to the Louisville tape. They will notice how Louisville switched from a zone defense to a man-to-man whenever Pitt got the ball inside the foul line. The objective was to prevent Gray from passing to a perimeter shooter for a 3-point attempt.
It effectively neutralized Gray's ability to find the open shooter, one of his strengths.
The strategy worked. Pitt, the Big East's top 3-point shooting team, was a season-worst 3 of 21.
"When the ball goes inside, they are very smart finding their shooters," Pitino said. "So, once it went inside, we weren't going to let it go outside to a shooter."