This entry appears on Rush The Court.
The narrative of today’s defensive match up between #1 Louisville and #6 Syracuse has already been explored extensively. A collision of defensive juggernauts: the nation’s first and third most efficient defenses, respectively. The two lead the Big East and are top-five nationally, again, in creating steals. The Cards check in at #2 in the country in turnovers generated; the Orange: #8. Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams leads the conference with a staggering 3.18 steals per game and combines with Brandon Triche to produce 4.8 SPG; Peyton Siva and Russ Smith are top-five, producing a cumulative 4.6 pilfers.
On paper it’s a push, and a juicy storyline to hype. In reality, Syracuse fields an excellent defense, but Louisville’s has the potential to be historic, and it’s just now hitting its stride.
Team defense: a body of work
Heading into today’s game, Ken Pomeroy reports an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 79.5 for the Cards. To put that in perspective, Anthony Davis’ imposing defense at UK finished their title run with an 88.2 rating––in other words, those dominant Cats gave up almost 9 points more per 100 possessions than this Louisville team has thus far. Matt Norlander points out, “No team has finished a season by cracking the 80 barrier,” and the 82.2 Kansas posted in 2007 remains the stingiest finish in the past decade (h/t @loverofthegame_). Certainly, the regular season is barely halfway over and several potent offenses await Louisville in the Big East schedule, but they’re off to a good start.
Here’s a purely theoretical exercise: assuming an opponent has an average number of possessions (the median number in D-I right now is 66.6 per game), your typical team would score 53 points against Louisville, and 56 against a composite of the best defenses in each of the last ten years. Three points might not seem like a huge deal, but it would have been enough to tip the balance of a Final Four game in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments. This is by no means an attempt to coronate the Cards midway through the season. In fact, the team with the most efficient defense has only claimed one national championship in the last decade (Kansas in 2008). But the team standing under the confetti each is never too far out of first place in defensive efficiency.
How Gorgui Dieng can shatter the ceiling
With all that said, January stats don’t win championships. The key to Louisville’s potentially historic defense is also the primary actor in its recent improvement: a healthy Gorgui Dieng. The on-ball torment of the Siva/Smith backcourt and Rick Pitino’s trapping full-court press gets much of the credit for Louisville’s defensive efficiency. But it’s Dieng that transcends Pitino’s system, whose presence affects almost every facet of the game when he takes the court and lords over the paint. And it shows on paper.
Since Dieng’s return in the UK game at the end of December, his team’s average scoring defense has improved from 57 PPG to 54. Big East opponents have shot 37% on the Cardinals, down from 40% in the nonconference schedule. Counterintuitively, their defense has produced fewer turnovers over that same period: Big East opponents have coughed it up 16.5 times per game after the rest of the schedule gave away 21 TOs per game. It’s a testament to the defense becoming more fundamentally sound in the half-court, and relying less heavily on the feast-or-famine of producing turnovers in the press. And Gorgui Dieng is largely responsible.
So what is it that the 6’11 Senegalese center brings to the table on defense? The scouting report on Dieng has always focused on his shot blocking ability, but it’s his rebounding of late that’s really made a difference. After averaging 8 RPG in five games before his wrist injury, the big man has returned with a vengeance on the glass, grabbing 12.8 RPG and 14.25 in Big East play. In terms of rebounding rate, Dieng has collected 26.1% of his opportunities, which would make him the most efficient rebounder in the Big East had he met the minimum threshold of games played (Jack Cooley rebounds 23%, to put it in perspective). He’s grabbed an astonishing 37% of his team’s rebounds in Big East play.
Between Chane Behanan and a resurgent Gorgui Dieng, the Cardinals are allowing fewer offensive rebounds than any team in the Big East through four conference games––a figure that could frustrate a Syracuse team that butters its bread with offensive boards and is without James Southerland. You can downplay those numbers on account of a small sample size against fairly weak competition, but Dieng has been matched up with Nerlens Noel, Gene Teague and several serviceable Big East big men during that time, so his performances remain impressive. Back to back 16-rebound outings aren’t an easy feat against any team.
And what of Dieng’s vaunting shot blocking? Believe it or not, it’s diminished substantially this season. After blocking 128 shots as a sophomore, he’s logged 22 through ten games in 2012-13. Despite averaging 2.4 blocks in five games since returning, he is still one block per game short of last season’s average. Perhaps it’s an issue of conditioning or readjusting to game speed, but Dieng has been uncharacteristically late to help on multiple occasions since coming back, and has mistimed a number of block attempts one would expect him to swat with relative ease. In spite of all that fact, he’s been key to huge improvements in scoring defense, shooting defense, and defensive efficiency since his return.
Which leads us to ask, what will this Louisville defense look like once Dieng is back to full speed and blocking three shots per game once again? It’s an ominous question for the teams at the tail end of the Cardinals’ Big East schedule, and one that could portend a historic defensive season in the modern era of college basketball.