When he met with reporters at Louisville basketball media day, pace was coach Chris Mack’s promise.
The Cardinals head coach lauded the addition of new assistant Ross McMains, brought on board in part to help implement a pace-and-space offense that would mirror those McMains had seen in his extensive international basketball experience.
“We’re gonna be a team that pushes the basketball and plays with pace,” Mack said.
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As the Cardinals (2-1) prepare to host Detroit Mercy on Saturday, it’s far too soon to draw any conclusions about the way — or the pace at which — they’re playing. Louisville hasn’t logged two full weeks of the season yet. Mack, halfway through a university-mandated six-game suspension, hasn’t coached a game. And assistant coach Mike Pegues, the acting head coach, is in the early stages of minutes management. Rotations aren’t set, and a Louisville roster loaded with newcomers remains in the feeling-out process.
But are the Cardinals off to a fast-paced start?
Most signs point to yes.
The standard metric for measuring pace in basketball is tracking possessions. A team that plays fast creates more possessions by shooting earlier in the shot clock and, in theory, by creating turnovers when it speeds up an opponent.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s tempo data at KenPom.com, Louisville averages 70.2 possessions per 40 minutes. That ranked 197th in the country through games played Tuesday. A snail’s pace, right?
In Pomeroy’s ratings, which like the NBA’s pace numbers track possessions in a regulation game, national leader Charleston averages 77.1 possessions per 40 minutes. The last-place team — no surprise, it’s Virginia — averages 63.7.
That’s a sizable variance — for comparison, about eight possessions separate the NBA teams in first and last place in pace — that lands the Cardinals close to the middle of the pack.
And possessions are only one part of place.
“I think when you think of pace, you think of how quick the shot goes, and that’s just a small percentage of times,” Mack said at media day. “We’ve got to be able to commit to running the floor.”
On that score, Louisville so far is doing what it set out to do.
According to data tracked by Synergy Sports and supplied to The Courier Journal, 23.5% of Louisville’s offensive possessions through three games have been in transition. That’s up from 14.9% over a much larger sample size last season. That increase has helped shave the length of the Cards’ average possession from 17.9 seconds last season to 14,8 through three games this fall.
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They probably can’t push like that over the long haul, particularly as the competition stiffens.
But it’s an early indicator that Louisville is sticking to a preseason point of emphasis.
And that’s not the only one.
The approach is called pace-and-space, and the Cardinals are making an effort at spreading the floor, though with mixed results. Louisville is shooting 29.6% from 3-point range, a marginal drop-off in a small sample size from a season-long 30.8% in 2020-21.
But U of L is shooting 27 3-pointers per game, significantly up from last season’s 17.4.
“It's those 3s that go up when the ball never gets to the point that I don't like, and we don't want those 3s,” Pegues said after Louisville launched 24 long balls against Navy on Monday, making 10. “We want feet-set threes after a paint touch and if we can get those, by all means, we want to shoot those.”
Three-point shooting isn’t the only way to get space on the floor, but it’s the most common. When an offense forces defenders to react to shooters, it creates the opportunity to blow by a hard-charging defensive closeout and get into open space in the middle of the defense.
Ultimately, Louisville probably will need to make more 3s to keep defenses from crowding the middle.
But cutting loose from long range is at least a show of commitment to the style, and between the increased attempts from distance and the expanded transition opportunities, the Cards so far look bought into trying pace and space.
The goal is to be a team that’s up-tempo, dangerous on the perimeter and efficient on offense. The latter is off to a rocky start. The Cards are 73rd at KenPom.com in adjusted offensive efficiency.
At media day, Mack said the pace-and-space approach had been “a learning process for our guys” early in practice. That’s clearly still the case.
But though a week, at least, Louisville is taking some fast first steps.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville basketball: Is UofL team playing up to Chris Mack's speed?