The Cardinals are a defensive paradox: big and fast, technical and physical, pressing in the full court and swarming in the half court.
Statistically, Louisville isn’t the best defensive team in the country — kenpom.com ranks it at No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency — but the Cardinals’ frantic brand of defense is ?unmatched.
Turn on the tape and it becomes clear — there are no easy possessions for its opponents this season.
The Cardinals press the entire length of the court and often put four players in the opponent’s half to create pressure. Once in a half-court set, Louisville presses up on ball handlers, because 6-foot-8 forward Montrezl Harrell or 6-foot-10 center Chinanu Onuaku can protect the rim if necessary. That pressure has forced opponents into 19.6 turnovers per game. Louisville is keeping opponents to just 49.3 points per game and 31.2 percent shooting.
“They have as good of a pressure of a defensive team as I have seen to this point,” IU Coach Tom Crean said. “And they don’t let up. The bottom line is, they never go away and they don’t let up.”
Louisville’s pressure on ball handlers stifles their ability to shoot. Cardinal opponents have shot just 22.8 percent from 3-point range this season, more than 5 percent lower than the ?national average.
That could create a problem for an IU team that picks up almost 32 percent of its points from deep. IU has knocked down nine 3-pointers per game this season and has made at least seven in every game. Louisville has allowed opponents to make just four 3-pointers per game.
Whether or not IU can create enough space for its shooters could decide Tuesday’s game. Once again, IU will have to compensate for its lack of size inside.
Harrell, Louisville’s preseason All-American, will be the biggest threat to IU’s interior. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound Harrell could create havoc for a shallow IU front line that has yet to receive consistent minutes from any one player.
Harrell has averaged 16.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and a block per game. IU will likely turn to a combination of junior forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea and freshman forward Emmitt Holt to slow him down.
The Cardinals score the bulk of their points inside, either through their slashing guards or Harrell’s post presence. Turn them into a jump-shooting squad, and they could struggle to score.
Crean said one of Louisville’s biggest strengths is its comfort playing in any style of game. That strength is a byproduct of Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, he said.
“So I think the thing I can say best about (Pitino) is that he is comfortable with the game in the 70s or 80s and is comfortable if the game is in the 40s or 50s,” Crean said.
IU faces a team unlike any other Tuesday night. For the first time this season, the Hoosiers enter a game as heavy underdogs — kenpom.com gives IU just a 16 percent chance of victory.
Crean didn’t dance around the difficulty of pulling off an upset.
“For us, we are going to have to play out of our minds,” he said.