This evening kicks off the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, with Louisville waiting until tomorrow to take on the twelfth-seeded upstart Oregon Ducks two hours from the UofL campus. Last weekend, in four days characterized by upsets, close calls, and defensive grinders, the Cardinals distinguished themselves by effortlessly carving up North Carolina A&T and Colorado St. on both ends of the floor. So where did Louisville’s two-game performance stack up among the Sweet Sixteen contenders?
Few teams scored as prolifically or won by such wide margins as the Cardinals did in their first two NCAA outings. Louisville trailed only Ohio State in scoring average, and they were the only two squads to eclipse 80 points per game. The Buckeyes dumped 95 on Iona last weekend––the most points in a single game thus far––before scoring 78 as they snuck by Iowa State. The third highest average was claimed, believe it or not, by Florida Gulf Coast, who posted just under 80 PPG against the top-25 defenses of Georgetown and San Diego State. Florida and Arizona rounded out the top 5 teams, of whom only Florida Gulf Coast measured lower than 16th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings.
In terms of margin of victory, Louisville posted the best figure in the Sweet Sixteen field after winning their first two games by 31 and 26 points, respectively. At 28.5 points, not only does their average margin of victory top the list for Sweet Sixteen teams, but it’s about twice the median margin of 14.5 points. Arizona and Michigan were the only other teams to win both games by 15 points or more. This is an encouraging sign for Rick Pitino’s team, who seemed to lack the killer instinct and explosive offense to thoroughly dominate quality teams for most of the regular season. On the other hand, it’s uncertain how well prepared the Cardinals will be for a late-game challenge from an elite opponent, considering they haven’t encountered a close score in the latter stages of a game since the beginning of March.
The Cardinals were near the top of the list in points per game allowed through the first two games, as well. Pitino’s team ranked third below Syracuse and Michigan State with 52 PPG allowed. The outclassed Aggies of North Carolina A&T only mustered 48 points against Louisville. Colorado St., the seventh-most efficient offense in the country, shot almost 48% in the Round of 32, but you’d have no idea since they had as many turnovers (19) as field goals and ultimately scored 56 points.
The Cardinals slid one spot once I applied a crude adjustment to the scoring defense figures to account for opponent quality. By assigning a multiplier to each opponent that was inversely proportional to its KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency, I tried to normalize the disparate defensive numbers and do justice to those teams who had to defend efficient-scoring teams last weekend. (You can see an expanded table with all values represented here.)
Michigan, Florida and Wichita St. were beneficiaries of this scheme, while Indiana and Louisville’s numbers suffered slightly. The Shockers in particular were rewarded for holding Pitt and Gonzaga––two top-11 offenses––to 62.5 PPG.
Louisville was the biggest loser in that process, simply because NCA&T fielded a dismal offense that ranked #309 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency, scoring 90.2 points per possession and averaging 62 PPG (#299 nationally). Holding the Aggies to 48 points was the equivalent of holding an average offense to 52, by my rough system. Obviously nothing to shake a stick at, especially considering the work the Cardinals did on a high-scoring Colorado St. team, but it just demonstrates the stout defensive standard the top half of the Sweet Sixteen field has set thus far. The Cardinals finished behind Syracuse, Michigan St., and Michigan, with Florida nipping at their heels. Once again, only one of those five (UM) failed to make the top 10 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency this season.
Syracuse, Florida, Michigan, Louisville finished in the top five in both margin of victory and “adjusted” scoring defense through two games. Obviously, it’s a tiny sample and doesn’t account for conventionally accepted predictive factors like offensive rebounding and turnover rates, but it’s something, anyway. Let’s see how things play out this weekend.