During the 2021-22 season, Louisville competed hard with a limited roster, which centered around talented guards Carlik Jones and David Johnson. With a lack of 3-point shooters — Johnson was the top spot-up target — Louisville became increasingly dependent on pick-and-roll action for half-court offense.
That’s not such a bad idea when Jones is the lead guard; throughout his college career at Radford and Louisville, Jones was a powerful pick-and-roll operator. Jae’Lyn Withers was a steady interior finisher, too, while feasting off the passing of Jones and Johnson.
However, with a dearth of kick-out options, opponents could key in on the action in the middle of the floor. As a team, Louisville shot under 31 percent from deep. According to Synergy Sports, the Cards had an effective shooting rate of 50.6 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts — a drop from 56 percent in the 2019-20 season.
In an effort to course correct, Louisville hit the transfer portal in search of shooters; Chris Mack added Matt Cross and Noah Locke, two outstanding 3-point bombers. Jarrod West, a veteran pick-and-roll creator with shooting capabilities, followed suit.
Now, two months in on a long season, full-force conference play is here and the No. 2 spot in the ACC is up for grabs. Can Louisville make a run? Well, the answer lies with an offense that’s had its ups and downs, but is now showing signs of life.
This Season, At A Glance
The Cards have won three straight games and are undefeated (4-0) in ACC play; however, the offense has been a little underwhelming. For the most part, the defense has carried the water, although there are reasons for optimism on the other side of the floor.
Currently, Louisville’s offense ranks outside the top 115 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric. So far, Mack’s club has yet to eclipse the 1.2 points per possession mark in a single game.
Through the first 14 games, the Cardinals have improved their 3-point attempt volume: 43.2 percent of Louisville’s field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc. The Cards are playing with increased pace, too: 15.9 seconds per offensive possession, according to KenPom — two seconds faster than last season. At face value, these are positive indicators.
Unfortunately, turnover issues (19.4 TOV%), bricky outside shooting (31.4 3P%) and a lack of rim pressure have caused problems.
The Cardinals rank No. 322 nationally in spot-up efficiency, per Synergy Sports: 0.80 points per possession. According to Bart Torvik’s shot data, only 32.5 percent of Louisville’s field goal attempts are 2-point attempts around the basket, which ranks 259th nationally.
Even when a team adds good shooters, and invites more pace-and-space into the mix, it’s hard to replace elite guard play, like Jones and Johnson. Louisville needs guys that can touch the paint, bend defenses and force rotations.
Quick Lineup Thoughts: Frontcourt
Louisville could also stand to play more lineup combinations that feature at least three plus-shooters at the same time. This, however, can be tricky while trying to integrate Withers and Malik Williams together — a pairing that just hasn’t worked all that well offensively. Complicating matters is the need to play Dre Davis and Samuell Williamson.
Now, Davis and Williamson do a lot of good, winning-type things on the basketball floor; those are two guys that any program in the country would be happy to have.
However, both Davis and Williamson have effective shooting rates under 44 percent and have shot a combined 7-of-34 (20.6 3P%) from beyond the arc.
There was always going to be a challenge of playing Withers and Williams together. Both guys have stretch potential; however, they’re a combined 17-of-63 (27.4 3P%) from deep, so far.
When Withers succeeded last year (58.2P%), it was mostly in an undersized center role. While playing in more twin-big lineups this season, Withers has slipped from an efficiency standpoint (44.4 eFG%), which has negatively impacted other aspects of his game.
Withers has the skill set to operate as a play-making 4, but the transition hasn’t been smooth.
Over the course of his five seasons at Louisville, Williams has rarely played with lineups with another big man on the floor. During the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, Williams played a combined 11 minutes with center Steven Enoch on the floor, too, according to Pivot Analysis. The Cards were -10 in those 11 minutes.
At times, the half-court action has looked workable around spread pick-and-roll — with Williams showing flashes as a short-roll passer.
Those moments aren’t exactly plentiful, though. According to Pivot Analysis, the Cardinals are +32 in 139 minutes with Williams and Withers on the floor together. That positive point differential is mostly the result of the team’s defense.
In those minutes, the offense has scored just 95.5 points per 100 possessions. The offensive rating drops to 90 points per 100 when Davis plays with Williams and Withers.
Of course, Louisville could try to stagger minutes between Withers and Williams; over the last three ACC games, those two have played together for only 14 minutes, including no shared floor time vs. Pittsburgh.
Look how clean the lane can be when Williams short rolls into space, while Locke and Cross (in the corner) are spaced to the weak side of the floor.
However, to platoon those two and play Withers more at the 5 would mean Sydney Curry and/or Roosevelt Wheeler losing playing time.
These are tough calls to make. Curry was excellent vs. Pitt, too.
Double PG Lineups
In an effort to grease the wheels on offense, Mack has utilized more double point guard and three-guard lineups. This means playing West with fellow transfer point guard Mason Faulkner, along with Locke or JUCO transfer El Ellis.
During the win over Wake Forest, the Cards outscored the Demon Deacons by 14 points in the 16 minutes with West and Faulkner out there together. They were especially good down the stretch of that game.
When Louisville plays Faulkner and West with Locke, Cross as a stretch-4 and Williams, it really opens the floor up for dribble-penetration. Once Faulkner started rolling downhill, Wake Forest’s defense adjusted, which opened up kick-out opportunities.
On this Horns Out possession, Locke clears and Williams lifts to set the ball screen for Faulkner — with Dallas Walton playing to the level of the screen and dropping. Wake Forest’s off-ball defender stay home on the shooters; it’s dangerous to help off Locke or Cross. Instead of rolling, Williams pops and is wide open to line up this triple.
Once you start having success with those spread pick-and-roll concepts — by generating the necessary rim pressure — it complicates matters for the defense. All of a sudden, they have to start thinking more, especially in terms of help assignments. This allows the offense to open up the playbook and get into new looks.
Here’s another Horns Out set for Louisville. This time, though, it’s an after-timeout (ATO) call and instead of setting a ball screen, Williams catches an entry pass at the elbow. From here, the Cards run Chicago action (a pindown into a handoff) for Locke, who drains the decisive 3-pointer.
Throughout the course of the season, Louisville has utilized a lot of this Chicago action to create 3-point looks, while initiating from the elbow.
Locke can also be the recipient of this Chicago action/shooting opportunity.
Louisville will also throw it to the elbow, then look to run pindown action or split cuts for Locke — playing off of his movement shooting.
West and Faulkner have played 76 minutes together, so far. The Cards have an offensive rating of nearly 112 points per 100 possessions with those two on the floor. Obviously, the defense takes a bit of a hit, though.
According to Pivot Analysis, a combined 30 of those 76 minutes occurred in the wins over Wake Forest and Pitt. Louisville was +20 in those minutes and scored 1.54 points per possession on offense.
El Ellis Picks Up His Paint Brush
Louisville’s home win over Pitt wasn’t exactly beautiful basketball, but the Cards got the job done, thanks to more guard-heavy lineups and another impactful performance from El Ellis.
Similar to the Michigan State game, Ellis paced Louisville with 18 points (6-of-10 FGA); he also shot 2-of-3 at the rim and attempted six free throws. Louisville featured Ellis in lineups with the combination of West and Locke.
It’s a small sample, but Louisville scored 1.35 points per possession in the eight minutes with West, Locke and Ellis on the floor — paired with Curry and either Davis or Williamson.
Ellis played seven additional minutes with West and Faulkner, although that span was less than stellar for Louisville (-3).
(Mack also played West with Faulkner, Locke, Davis and Curry.)
As a team, Louisville attempted 30 free throws, good for a season-high free throw attempt rate of 60 percent (50 FGA). Those 30 free throw attempts were the second most in a game for Louisville. During the win over Wake, Louisville got up 34 free throw attempts.
Here’s more of that Elbow split action from Louisville, which cycles back to Ellis. When things bog down, Ellis attacks with a live dribble.
True to form, Ellis is this team’s game-breaker on offense. He’s their best source of rim pressure. Ellis is the only guard on the roster averaging more than 4.0 fouls drawn per 40 minutes (4.6). From a shot distribution perspective, nearly 69 percent of his 2-point field goal attempts have come around the basket.
Ellis is shooting under 52 percent at the rim, which isn’t great. But this team just needs someone to crack a defense with the basketball, and Ellis has shown he can do just that.
Samuell Williamson Nails It
When Louisville took down Pittsburgh, Williamson put together one of his best games this season. (He was also good vs. Wake Forest.)
First, Williamson got things grooving by flashing to the nail and attacking a Pitt zone defense that gave Louisville some issues.
(I love when Williamson uses his frame/length to finish around the cup. He really adds another dimension to the offense when he tilts his game to the rim.)
One of the best ways to utilize Williamson in the half-court offense comes from Louisville’s go-to Buckeye action.
Here, Ellis lifts out to catch the initial pass, which triggers the possession, while West cuts off the back/flare screen from Curry, who quickly sprints over to screen for Ellis. As this ball screen takes place — and Ellis does a nice job stringing out the hedge from John Hugley — Williamson lifts from the corner and starts to run in the direction of Ellis.
When Williamson catches the ball, he already has a some momentum built up against a rotating/scrambling defense. Williamson draws help and finishes the play with a nifty pass to Curry for a layup. (Note: Once again, it’s the three-guard lineup that’s a catalyst for half-court rim pressure.)
The same thing happened in the Wake Forest game, too.
Louisville has a bigger lineup on the floor — with Williamson, Davis and Williams. However, Wake Forest has its double-center lineup — Walton and Khadim Sy out there as well — and Williamson takes advantage, blowing by Sy for the dunk.
This wasn’t the only time Williamson shook loose for a rack attack off that back-side corner cut out of Louisville’s Buckeye set vs. Wake.
Later in the second half, the ball screen action gets strung out this time, but Louisville remains patient and Williamson eventually flies by Jake LaRavia for another rim bucket.
This concept out of Buckeye is a key play for Louisville’s wings. Davis had his moments with the corner slash during his freshman season, too.
Unsurprisingly, Dwayne Sutton was also very good at using this action when the rugged forward played for Mack.
Other Sets From Louisville: Noah Locke, El Ellis, Spread Floor Integration
Here are a few looks at other offensive sets that Louisville’s used to create open/movement 3-point looks for Locke.
Veer action is the fake ball screen here from Williams, who diverts his route and instead sets a pindown for Locke.
Veer Pindown Flip Gut
Stagger weak-side pindowns
Horns Ram Pick-and-Roll Twist
West dribbles off the screen from Davis as Williams sets a down screen from Withers in the weak-side corner, who lifts to set a ball screen for West. This type of screen-the-screener ball screen can be referred to as “Ram” action
Horns Spain Pick-and-roll Shake
Horns Spain Pick-and-roll
Horns Out Flip Flare Strong Slip
Louisville is getting a lot of traction with a variety of different concepts from this base Horns Out package. On this possession, after Williamson comes off the flare screen from Williams, Louisville looks set to run Strong action (staggered pindowns) for Locke; however, Williams plays off that gravity with a basket slip
BLOB 1-4 Lift Twirl
Even as Louisville has altered its playbook and schemes this season, the Cards still have plenty of the tricks that Mack brought with him from Xavier. Similar to Louisville using Buckeye action, the Cards continue to run Corner Rip.
Corner Rip is a favorite of Mack’s: an old back screen set that routinely steals a look at the basket vs. an unsuspecting defense.
Of course, some teams and coaches — like North Carolina Central’s LeVelle Moton — are ready for the rip (back screen) action.
This awesome coaching/defensive recognition: NCCU was ready for one of Louisville's go-to half-court sets — hammer/back screen at the opposite block, watch @LeVelleMoton on the sideline. pic.twitter.com/us2dxp6SRE
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) November 19, 2019
After an unusual offseason, it’s been an interesting first two months of the season for Louisville — from starting the year without Mack, to working in a new-ish system with lots of new players. That’s not easy. Still, the Cardinals have been able to, mostly, hang their hat on defense and look to grind out wins.
Hopefully, though, the offense, which is now starting to see what does or doesn’t click, continues to improve. Even with a down year in the ACC, the offense will need to become more efficient for Louisville to ascend and lock up Team No. 2 status, behind Duke.
For that to happen, Louisville will need to find more ways to create rim pressure, which starts with the play of El Ellis.