Livin’ on more than a Prayer

Oregon-LouisvilleWhen you look at the top-scoring teams in the country, it seems like you have to scroll down forever to get to Louisville; the Cardinals are tied at 41st in the country with Santa Clara in points per game at 73.6.  You have to go even further down—all the way to 107th—to find the Cardinals in field goal percentage at 44.5%. That’s just below Oregon’s 44.7%, and additionally, Louisville was 219th in three-point percentage on the regular season. How, then, can Ken Pomeroy rank Louisville’s offense 10th in Division I basketball?

There are a few good answers to that question. Though Louisville shoots a low percentage from the floor, there are other components to offensive efficiency. The Cardinals, for instance, are 9th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage at 38%. That means that Louisville rebounds nearly two of every five of its own misses! It’s almost okay for them to shoot poorly.

Rebounding. Check. But the Cardinals are actually not so good with ball security, ranking 101st in turnover percentage. Turnover percentage is a more relevant stat that TO per game because it controls for a team’s pace of play. Faster teams will naturally turn the ball over more times per game because they’ll get more chances to cough it up. Louisville is but average in this category.

So far, it’s hard to figure out how Pomeroy has them rated so highly. With an average turnover rate and below average shooting, even a great offensive rebounding percentage doesn’t seem like enough to rank them so highly. Enter strength of schedule. By looking at all the season stats from teams that Louisville has played, we can assess how good those defenses were. It turns out that Louisville played a bunch of teams that tended to stymie the opponents’ offenses. Louisville’s schedule featured the 12th best group of defenses in college basketball.

Now we start to see why that Cardinals offense might be more potent that it looks on the surface. In its two Tournament games thus far, when given the chance to play against inferior competition, Louisville shot 56.9% from the floor, and 43.5% from three. If they’re open, the Cardinals can put it in the peach basket.

But having arguably the 10th best offense overall doesn’t add up to a top seed all by itself. Louisville has one of the best defenses in the country, and here’s why. Good defense starts and ends by reducing the opponent’s efficiency, and Louisville does that well. Opponents shoot just 39% from the floor against the Cardinals, leading to those opponents scoring less than one point per scoring attempt (factoring in free throws, the most efficient shot in the game). Among the 16 teams left in the tourney—quite the selection of talented teams—Louisville is fifth in opponents’ points per scoring attempt. Not a fantastic shot blocking team, the Cardinals must be really good at forcing tougher shots. Oregon is not a great shooting team—though recently they have tried to convince us otherwise—and things could get ugly if the Ducks’ shot selection is not top notch.

Oh, and one more thing. Louisville forces turnovers at a ridiculously high 27.4% rate, good for second in the country.  More than a quarter of opponents’ possessions conclude with handing the ball right back to the Cardinals for free. This is another area where a Louisville strength lines up with an Oregon weakness. The Ducks turn the ball over like it’s a hot potato. Their 21.2% turnover rate ranks them 265th in the country, and like with shooting, things could get ugly if Oregon is as careless as it has been the last two Tournament games.

So how do the Ducks win a game like this? Well, it would definitely help if Dotson went 5-6 from deep again, but counting on lights-out shooting performances from a team that has shot 126th in the country overall is a bit optimistic. Oregon can win by doing other things, so long as it doesn’t shoot itself out of the game or give the ball away for free.

If Oregon wins, I’d bet this guy is your player of the game.

Louisville has some weaknesses. Despite an excellent offensive rebounding rate, Louisville is ranked 175th in defensive rebounding. My old coach, who also happened to be my dad, once posed the following logic to me. A guy that grabs as many offensive boards as defensive boards could be a guy that just works his ass off on both ends, or he might not know how to box out leaving himself with equal chances of a rebound on either end. Louisville could very well be an athletic rebounding team, but not a technical rebounding team. Oregon, on the other hand, is ranked in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. If Oregon really is more technically sound on the glass, then the Cardinals’ offensive rebounding advantage could be turned around on them.

Additionally, I mentioned that Louisville’s typical opponent was a better-than-average defensive team overall. Well, it turns out Oregon is also a better-than-average defensive team. Pomeroy estimated that Louisville’s opponents gave up 96 points per 100 possessions on average. Oregon gives up just 87 points per 100 possessions according to Pomeroy’s formula, which adjusts for competition. That’s 9th in the country! Louisville should not such an easy time scoring as it did against North Carolina A&T or Colorado State, and when they miss, the Cardinals should not have such an easy a time getting a second chance.

Here is how Louisville did against Pomeroy’s top 30 defenses.

Opponent

Def Rank

PF

PA

Wins

Losses

Duke

23

71

76

0

1

@Memphis

26

87

78

1

0

Syracuse

10

68

70

0

1

@Villanova

29

64

73

0

1

@Georgetown

4

51

53

0

1

Pitt

16

64

61

1

0

@Syracuse

10

58

53

1

0

Cincy

14

67

51

1

0

Villanova*

29

74

55

1

0

Syracuse*

10

78

61

1

0

Oregon

9

???

???

???

???

Totals and Avgs.

16.4

68.2

63.1

6

4

This is definitely an impressive chart for Louisville. A +5.1 point differential against what amounts to all Tournament teams is nothing to scoff at. But among these matchups, Louisville did struggle with the likes of Villanova, losing in their first matchup of the season, and it struggled in a three-point victory over Pitt. Oh, and it lost four games. Impressive doesn’t mean perfect.

One last thing to look at, as I promised I would in my article yesterday, is luck, or better put, “Luck.” Pomeroy’s luck statistic basically compares a team’s win-loss record to its average point differential. Teams that outperform their average point differential in the win column are said to be “lucky.” I don’t think Pomeroy actually believes all of the discrepancy is due to luck, and nor should we. There are things teams can do to win close games, where the point differential is only a few points. Oregon performed well in close games this season, as evidenced by its +6.3% luck rating. Louisville, on the other hand, performed a little below average at -3.3%. Oregon definitely got some favorable outcomes, as the Washington game in the Pac-12 tourney comes to mind, but it probably does something to help itself in the clutch, too, and I think it has something to do with execution.

In five of the last six seasons, Dana Altman’s teams have finished better than their point differentials would suggest, implying an ability to win close games that goes beyond lucky timing. It could very well be that the man at the helm for the Ducks has his players thinking situationally, and has them just as prepared to execute in the clutch as any other time in the game.

It will be an uphill battle to beat the top-seeded team in the country, but Oregon has the defensive firepower to give the Cardinals fits and keep the game close. And the Ducks just might have an advantage in a close game.

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3 Responses to Livin’ on more than a Prayer

  1. Austin Buell says:

    So we need to control the glass on both ends

    • Matthias Kullowatz says:

      Well, that’s more of an expectation. We need to do that, and turn it over a little less often than usual, and shoot a little better than usual. Rebounding is the thing we need to count on, if that makes sense.

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