Any team that loses to an archrival and loses a key player for the season in the same week is going to be prone to some scrutiny. The legitimacy of Louisville has been in question throughout the internet. The now Behanan-less defending champs are 0-2 against teams in the KenPom top 50 (UNC and Kentucky) and 12-0 against everyone else. However, the fashion in which they have won their 12 games has them number one in AdjO and number seven in AdjD. Here’s a quote from Jeff Goodman’s article regarding the number one team (efficiency-wise) in the country to date:
“Harrell hasn’t looked the part of a potential lottery pick, Hancock has yet to resemble the player who won Most Outstanding Player honors in the Final Four, and Behanan looked lost on the offensive end against the Wildcats. Talented freshman guard Terry Rozier appears overwhelmed, and sophomore Mangok Mathiang isn’t quite ready to be more than just a role player yet.”
According to Goodman, nearly everything that could have gone wrong for Louisville to start the year has in fact gone wrong. That sounds like a really bad thing for Pitino’s squad, and yet they have still been the most efficient team in the country.
Simply put, there’s no way a team that is actually as good as Louisville’s numbers isn’t a big national title contender. The easy answer for why Louisville’s numbers aren’t indicative of team quality is strength of schedule. Remember, guys, it’s not about blowing out tomato cans.
Is it possible that Louisville’s style of play (pressure), which is ridiculously effective against bad teams, doesn’t translate against the UNCs and UKs of the world? First, let’s look at just how good/bad Louisville has been. To do this, I essentially used KenPom’s AdjO and AdjD to predict a score for each of Louisville’s opponents against an average college team. Then I compared this number to the actual result to get Louisville’s game performance (adjusted for competition). The formula is below:
(Game Off PPP – Game Def PPP) – (Opponent AdjO – Opponent AdjD) = Team Performance
It’s not really all that complicated, but basically returns how many points per 100 possessions a team performed better (or worse) than an average NCAA team. Take a look at Louisville’s results so far:
Louisville’s best game of the season was against Southern Miss, where the Cardinals were a ridiculous 60 points better than an average team per 100 possessions. Against teams outside the KenPom top 50, Louisville has been 39 points/100 possessions above NCAA average. Against Kentucky and UNC, Louisville was just 10 points/100 possessions above average. Again, in case you forgot, these numbers are adjusted for competition. A difference in “performance” between the top 50 and outside the top 50 would be signs that Louisville’s numbers are in fact inflated by crushing bad teams (call it the Bo Ryan Effect). We already knew that Louisville has been way better against bad teams, the problem is sample size. We don’t have nearly enough information on Louisville against the top 50. Instead, let’s focus on the bigger 12 game sample.
I went back to the past five seasons (2009-2013) to find teams that have been as good as Louisville at crushing “bad” teams (outside KenPom top 50):
Last year’s Indiana team was 43 points per 100 possessions above average against teams outside the top 50. Duke in 2011 was the only other team above 40. Both teams were significantly worse against teams in the top 50 (see graph at end) and had Sweet 16 exits. However, it should be noted that Kyrie Irving’s mid-season injury probably affects Duke’s numbers. The only team not to make the Sweet 16 was Kansas, who as you know got Farokhmanesh’d.
Next we can look at how recent NCAA tournament winners have done against good and bad competition. One thing to remember is that these teams naturally had to win (usually) five top 50 games in a row just to win it all, so there is going to be some bias here:
All five teams performed pretty similarly regardless of competition. Even with the natural bias mentioned above, there almost definitely is something to games against top 50 teams having extra predictive value. Note that this year’s Louisville squad has actually been five points per 100 possessions better than the champs against “bad” teams. A graph of all teams with at least 10 games played against both “good” and “bad” teams from 2009-2013 is below:
2011 Duke and 2013 Indiana are both well below the regression line, meaning they under-performed against good teams. However, Louisville’s two game sample takes the under-performing to a different level. The Cardinals will regress towards the mean as the season progresses in one way or another. A team this good against bad teams is extremely unlikely to be this average against good teams in the long run.
2010 USC was a fascinating team. The Trojans had the number one defense and and 286th offense in the country. Nikola Vucevic and company beat four KenPom top 50 teams by double digits, but lost five games in a row (all against teams outside the top 50) to end the season at 16-14. Of course the team was banned from the postseason, which must have played a big role down the stretch.
Is Louisville a title contender?
The short answer is “yes”. It might not be likely that Louisville wins it all, but then again it isn’t likely that any one specific team in the country wins it all. That’s what makes March fun. However, even without Behanan, recent history shows that teams that crush bad competition to the extent that Louisville has are at least top 10 teams. It’s pretty hard to argue that a top 10 team isn’t a title contender. The AAC isn’t exactly loaded with quality competition. All the Cardinals can do is continue to beat up on teams. Demolishing bad teams doesn’t automatically make you a Final Four squad, but it’s a lot better than not demolishing bad teams.