LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Have you ever had one of those dreams where you get lost in the woods? You know, the one where you get off the path somehow, and before long you're in a thicket, and no matter which way you turn the branches are right in your face, and you start to flail around in the dark?
That's what the Louisville press looks like.
I saw it from floor level Wednesday night when the Cardinals played poor North Carolina A&T. Every time the Aggies inbounded the ball, two Louisville players bracketed the ballhandler. He'd twist and crouch, looking for a teammate or just an open space to dribble. But the defenders shifted and waved and poked at the ball. There was no way to see the open man. On the play-by-play sheet, this is how a one-minute stretch for the Aggies looked:
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after the game that the Cardinals had 67 deflections. That's an unofficial stat, but Louisville keeps it, and Thursday they had their most ever. Pitino said the Cardinals shoot for 35. Against A&T, Louisville's starting guards -- Peyton Siva and Russ Smith -- had 32 between them.
Louisville also set an official record: Most steals in an NCAA tournament game, with 20. One of the teams that had the old record of 19 was Pitino's 1987 Providence team. That team, led by current Florida coach Billy Donovan, pressed and trapped their way to the Final Four. A Providence assistant once said that team played "mother-in-law defense: constant pressure and harassment." Pitino has used that line off and on ever since.
That pressure lifted Louisville into the top No. 1 seed going into the tournament. It's the thing other teams worry about most when they play the Cardinals. It's the dividing line for who plays and who sits: "If I didn't play defense," Smith said, "I wouldn't have been on the court."
Pitino's system has evolved over the years from a straight zone press to more of a matchup zone press, but the basic idea has always been the same: Trapping leads to turnovers, and turnovers lead to easy points.
Pitino talked Friday about figuring out pressure defense in "my own laboratory" when he was named head coach at Boston University in 1978. Not many fans came to the games. Only one reporter covered the team.* "I could basically make all the mistakes I wanted to and no one noticed," he said.
*CBS Sports' Lesley Visser, back then with the Boston Globe.
He kept tinkering with the press for his five years at BU. By his last year there he had the Terriers in the tournament. And he had the style of play that he took with him to Providence, Kentucky, the Knicks and Celtics (not so successfully) and now Louisville.
He has built a team for trapping. Siva and Smith are short -- 6-0 and 6-1 -- but quick as houseflies. Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell rotate at the forward spots to stay fresh (they all got between 16 and 22 minutes in the A&T game). Center Gorgui Dieng is quick enough to press, too. The result: By Ken Pomeroy's measure, Louisville had the best defensive efficiency in the country. The average Division I team scores 111 points per 100 possessions; Louisville gives up 81.
None of those numbers describe how terrifying Louisville's press looks on the court. Even TV doesn't do it justice. N.C. A&T was used to pressure -- they run a similar style. But for a while, it looked like that Alabama-LSU football game from two years ago where LSU could barely cross the 50. "In a hotel ballroom, it's kind of hard to simulate when we walked through last night," A&T coach Cy Alexander said after the game. "They're strong and they come at you in waves and they don't let up. One is coming and there's another set coming."
On Saturday the Cards play Colorado State -- bigger, more methodical, with five senior starters. Pitino called them one of the handful of teams he picked out before the tournament draw as "really dangerous." They have more tools to get out of the woods. But even the best explorers can get lost in there.