Why Louisville basketball needs surging scorer El Ellis to get defensive

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

El Ellis had put up, and he couldn’t even tell anyone to shut up. 

It was Ellis — the Louisville men’s basketball guard noted for scoring surges and much-maligned defense — who made the key steal and layup that sent the Cardinals into overtime Tuesday against North Carolina. 

But he couldn’t pound his chest after beating the Tar Heels downcourt for the game-tying layup. 

And not just because the Cards went on to lose 90-83 in overtime

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Ellis couldn’t chide interim head coach Mike Pegues — who’s given him considerable grief about his defense — because he’d made a gaffe guarding the Tar Heels down the stretch. 

“Nah, I gave up a big back door (basket) late second half, so I can’t even point it out,” Ellis said after the loss. “But that steal at the end was pretty big. I know he’ll be proud of me about that one.” 

Pegues isn’t just proud of defensive effort from Ellis. 

He’s intent on getting it. 

Louisville's El Ellis shoots against North Carolina's Brady Manek, left, and Armando Bacot, right during overtime action at the YUM Center. Feb. 1, 2022

By points-per-game average, Ellis is Louisville’s third-leading scorer at 8.5 per game. But he is the team’s most gifted natural bucket-getter, able to drive by defenders like no other Card can to get all the way to the rim or pull up for midrange jumpers. He’s a streaky 3-point shooter to boot, capable of getting triples in bunches. 

And over the course of the season he’s shown an increased understanding of using screens and manipulating mismatches. 

Ellis routinely torched the Tar Heels on Tuesday by using high screens — many from forward Matt Cross — to force North Carolina into switches. That left forward Brady Manek or center Armando Bacot guarding Ellis on the perimeter on critical possessions, neither with the quick feet to keep him out of the middle of the court. 

It can be dazzling offense — “I was watching the show,” Pegues said — but it’s crucial for the Cardinals that Ellis not give back his buckets at the defensive end. 

Asked on this week’s ACC coaches Zoom call about the areas Ellis needs to improve on defense, Pegues opened his answer with, “How much time we got?”

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Pegues went on to reel off what he called “just a few areas” coaches have stressed to the junior-college transfer. 

Ellis needs to be be in the right spots in ball-screen coverage, Pegues said. As an off-ball defender, he has to be able to chase cutters who move without the ball and get in their space as they catch it; too often he gets picked off by screens he doesn’t get through. Ellis, Pegues said, needs to close hard to jump shooters with his hands high — but not so aggressively that he can’t recover if his man drives the ball against the closeout instead. 

And maybe most importantly, Ellis has to be better at guarding the guy with the ball. 

Louisville's El Ellis drives to the basket against North Carolina's Brady Manek. UNC went on to win in overtime 90-83. Feb. 1, 2022

Slender and listed at 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds Ellis probably is best suited physically to defend point guards or small wings, players who have the ball in their hands. But to play him major minutes in that role, Pegues needs Ellis to improve in it. 

“It’s amazing how quick El can be on offense and equally as slow on defense,” Pegues joked on his radio show this week. “I have no idea what happens to his feet on defense.” 

Ellis has admitted that as an explosive scorer in junior college he didn’t have to learn the opponent’s plays, that he was “just out there” at the defensive end. He needs to do more than that at Louisville, Pegues said, “because obviously we need his offensive firepower.” 

He made a key defensive play Tuesday, coming from off the ball with 17 seconds left in regulation for a blindside steal from North Carolina guard Caleb Love. Two seconds later, Ellis was laying in the bucket that would send the game to overtime. 

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It was an eye-opening example of Ellis’ speed, made possible by a crafty defensive play. 

The Cardinals need more of that. 

Pegues said after the Carolina game that Ellis has “carte blanche” when he’s on the court offensively, and in two games since Pegues took over for Chris Mack, Ellis has taken advantage. 

Louisville's El Ellis encourage the fans to get loud after being fouled own a shot during the overtime loss against North Carolina. Ellis led all scorers with 25 ponts. Feb. 1, 2022

He’s averaging 21.5 points on 18.5 shots in those games, against Duke and North Carolina. Among Louisville players this season, only Sydney Curry’s 19.6 points-per-40-minutes average is higher than Ellis’ 18.1. 

But Ellis can’t put up big numbers from the bench, and it’ll take more defensive growth to keep him on the court consistently. 

“Every game I’m just trying to keep my man in front,” Ellis said after the Duke game. “When I need to be in the box, I got to be there. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better as the season’s progressed, but I still got a lot of room to grow. And I’m just gonna continue to do that every game."