Louisville has rebounded nicely, haven't they? A little less than three weeks ago they'd dropped four of their last six games to finish at 10-8 in the Big East, good for seventh place in a 16-team league. Now here they are in the Sweet 16, and tonight they'll play Michigan State in Phoenix for a spot in the Elite Eight. Rick Pitino's team will enter that contest riding a six-game winning streak, one that includes capturing the Big East tournament title.
In fact now that I think about it, this is all looking very familiar. We've seen a team go through the Big East regular season in a solid but decidedly unspectacular fashion, catch fire at Madison Square Garden in March, and then ride the momentum all the way to a national championship. Can Louisville capture the same magic that Connecticut had last year?
The odds are not in Pitino's favor. Of course, the odds weren't in Jim Calhoun's favor last year, either. That's what made the Huskies' ride so amazing. Let's take a look at Louisville's chances.
The Cardinals' defense has been superb in the postseason
Pitino's men were strong on D all year long, but in the postseason they've really locked down. In the six games they've played since the close of the regular season, Louisville has held their opponents to just 0.86 points per possession, an outstanding figure that will surprise no one who saw this team defeat Cincinnati 50-44 in the Big East tournament championship game 12 days ago.
In part this success on defense has been a function of the Cardinals' ability to force turnovers, which they've done on 23 percent of opponents' possessions in the postseason. Still, even when those opponents manage to get a shot off, they're still not faring that well, averaging just 1.12 points per turnover-less, or "effective," possession. Teams playing against this defense in March are finding it extremely difficult to get the ball in the basket.
Interestingly, Louisville's defensive rebounding in the postseason has been almost as bad as what we saw from oft-criticized Syracuse in that department all season long. Since the close of the regular season the Cardinals have pulled down just 63 percent of their opponents' misses. If teams like Louisville and Syracuse continue to play great D without bothering to rebound, defensive rebounding's going to get a bad name.
There's no contradiction between being lucky and being good
People tend to get bent out of shape when luck is brought into a discussion concerning team performance, but if I were a coach I'd have no problem at all with getting some good breaks. And the Louisville defense in the postseason has benefited from some good breaks. The single most dominant aspect of the Cardinals' performance on either side of the ball over the last six games has been their perimeter defense. In that span opponents have connected on just 18 percent of their 3s. Is that partly a reflection of really good perimeter D? Of course. Pitino's has a well-earned reputation for putting an effective pressure defense on the floor.
But when opponents are missing no less than 82 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc, it's fair to ask how much of this is the product of really strong close-outs and how much is simple good fortune. After all, even the best defense will give up occasional open looks from the perimeter, whether in transition or off an opponent's offensive rebound. Has the Cardinals' ability to close out on shooters really improved that dramatically in the past 19 days? (Louisville's opponents connected on 32 percent of their 3s during the Big East regular season.) Or have the Cards additionally been mere spectators on some opponent 3s that, just like an opponent's free throw, didn't go down? The best information we have suggests it's mostly the latter.
The team is winning, but the offense is still struggling.
If you had to choose, you would naturally prefer to win with a "struggling" offense than to lose with a great one. Missouri's offense looked fantastic in their round of 64 game against Norfolk State, and the Tigers now have all the free time in the world to brag about their scoring.
Louisville, on the other hand, is still alive. In the Big East tournament and in two NCAA tournament games, the Cardinals have played 392 possessions and scored 387 points. The defense has improved but the offense is exactly where it was during Big East play: scoring less than a point per possession.
When an offense struggles it sometimes means the leading scorer is in a slump. Sure enough, Kyle Kuric his hitting just 28 percent of his 3s in the postseason. (On the plus side, Kuric's been on the floor personally for 358 postseason possessions and, incredibly, has committed just two turnovers.) The Cardinals' leading scorer is on fire, however, compared to Russ Smith. A little like Dion Waiters at Syracuse, Smith comes off the bench for Louisville ready to shoot: he's taking 32 percent of the team's shots during his limited minutes in the postseason. Know that if Smith is on the floor, he's about to fire up a shot, period. In the last six games, however, he's connected on just 20 percent of his attempts from inside the arc. The news isn't all bad for Louisville on offense -- Peyton Siva's performed capably in March -- but when featured players like Kuric and Smith are missing their shots it narrows your team's margin for error considerably.
In last year's tournament Connecticut didn't have to play a No. 1 seed; Louisville's playing one tonight.
We are in for a treat tonight, as the Cardinals will face a Michigan State offense that has already humbled some of the nation's finest defenses over the past two weeks. In postseason wins over Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Saint Louis, the Spartans scored 1.11 points per possession. That's an excellent offensive showing against any team, much less the killer-B defensive likes of the Badgers, Buckeyes, and Billikens. Now it's Louisville's turn to try to shut this offense down. It should be fun to watch these two units do battle on that side of the ball.
Then again the "treat" I'm describing will comprise just half of tonight's game. The other half will be supplied by the match-up between the Cardinals' offense and the Spartans' defense, and here Tom Izzo's team figures to have a decided advantage. I like Michigan State to win this game specifically because I don't think Pitino's team will be able to score enough points to beat a No. 1 seed.
I am also required to inform you, however, that you're looking at a guy who was sure Missouri could beat Norfolk State. Louisville is trying to duplicate a sequence that we know for a fact can lead to a national championship, and they're not done yet.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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