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Louisville Cardinals
After a roller coaster season, the UofL Cardinals are now ready to play in the NCAA Tournament. Anyone who claims to know what to expect from the Cards is plainly out of their mind, however. Is it going to be the team who beat Michigan State and UNC, and had Duke down by 23? Or will it be the team who looked so sluggish in losses to Syracuse and Boston College?

In this edition of Hoops Insight, I'll take an indepth look at how UofL has performed in their games against NCAA Tournament teams. First, here are the one page stats profiles for UofL in these games, and for the full season; I'll refer to these during the article.

UofL Stats Profile vs NCAA Tournament teams

UofL Stats Profile - Season to Date

The good: UofL was more consistent against NCAA teams than they were against non-NCAA teams. Although NCAA teams accounted for just under half of UofL's games (15 of 33), they only accounted for 2 of UofL's 5 best and 2 of UofL's 5 worst performances. The only really bad performances against NCAA teams were the losses to Syracuse and Kentucky, and UofL held leads late in nearly all of their games against NCAA teams.

There are several ways in which UofL has been just as good against NCAA teams as they have over the full season. First, UofL's adjusted margin per possession has been nearly the same against NCAA teams (+0.20) as their full season average (+0.21). This means that UofL is not just beating up on weak teams but falling short against good teams. This metric adjusts for quality of opposition, so a loss to, say, Virginia can be compared to a win over, say, Central Arkansas. If UofL's adjusted margin was much worse against NCAA teams, it would mean that there's something fundamental about the Cards that puts them at more of a disadvantage against better teams. 

Additionally, UofL has performed really well against the starting lineups of NCAA tournament teams. As table C in the one pager indicates, UofL has outscored opponents by +10 points in 304 possessions when opponents have all 5 starters in, for an adjusted margin of +0.30 pts/possessions. For the full season, UofL has posted an adjusted margin of +0.34 pts/poss against 5 starters. The Cards can go toe-to-toe with the starters on nearly anyone's team.

This performance against opposing starters is driven by UofL's starters, who are +23 in 154 possessions against NCAA teams (per table D). This is an adjusted margin of +0.44 pts/poss, identical to their full season number. The Cards have a lineup that can play with anybody, and it's the lineup that plays more than any other. 

The bad: While UofL has been able to outscore NCAA teams when playing against 5 starters, they've struggled quite a bit when playing against 4 or fewer.  As table C indicates, UofL has been outscored by 58 points when playing against 4 or fewer opposing starters. It's pretty unusual to see a team play better when opponents have more starters in, but that's happening here. 

This is virtually certain to be related to the fact that every one of UofL's most played lineups (besides UofL's starters) have been outscored when playing NCAA tournament teams. For example, Cunningham/McMahon/Nwora/Sutton/Enoch have posted an adjusted margin of +0.20 per possessions for the full season, but a horrendous -0.14 per possession when playing against NCAA tournament teams. The same lineups with Perry in for McMahon has an adjusted margin of +0.27 for the season but only +0.10 when playing NCAA teams.

The ¯\_(ツ)_/¯: UofL has been very dependent on shooting well against NCAA tournament teams. In 5 wins over NCAA teams (Vermont, Michigan State, Seton Hall, UNC, Virginia Tech), the Cards had an effective FG% of 56%, but in 9 losses their eFG% was only 47%. The odd thing is that UofL's eFg% doesn't have a particularly strong relationship with their opponent's strength in eFG% defense. For example, UofL played UNC 3 times, and posted eFG% of 60%, 50%, and 49%. This indicates that there is some significant randomness in UofL's shooting, and they are not necessarily doomed if playing a good defense.

UofL's defensive rebounding has been a strength against NCAA teams. In 12 of their 15 games against NCAA teams, UofL registered a higher defensive rebounding rate than their opponents typically allow. However, in most games UofL's defensive rebounding only exceeded their opponent's averages by a small margin. Only against Seton Hall, Virginia Tech, and at UNC did UofL perform substantially better than their opponent usually allows.

I've written recently about UofL's struggles at the end of games. As a positive note, this phenomenon is not any worse against NCAA teams than against non-NCAA teams. This means that it's not likely being caused by UofL getting overwhelmed by better players or athleticism. This also makes me less convinced that it's due to fatigue, as I'd expect players to be fatigued more when playing tougher opponents. I believe it's related to UofL's rotation and not playing their starters as much at the end of games, which is easily fixed.

What does it mean for UofL: A few key things stand out to consider when watching how UofL performs in their NCAA tournament games. First, UofL is incredibly dependent on their starters to carry them against strong teams. One potential benefit for UofL is that NCAA tournament games tend to have more commercial breaks than regular season games, which may allow UofL's starters to play a bit more. This group is so far and away UofL's best lineup that the coaching staff should consider creative ways to manage the rotation and keep this group together for as many extended periods of time as possible. I'd also urge the coaching staff to keep their starters in together to finish games, given the outsized importance of them against NCAA teams. Given that UofL held leads late in most of their games against NCAA opponents, it's reasonable to think they can hang in with any opponent for most of the game and hold a puncher's chance of winning.

To pull significant upsets and make a deep run in the tournament, Louisville will likely need to be matched up against teams who don't have a great eFG% defense, and who aren't very good at offensive rebounding. Unfortunately, the higher seeds in UofL's bracket (Michigan State, LSU, Duke) don't meet this criteria at all. It's likely going to take some very hot shooting from the Cards to make a run to the Sweet 16 or beyond.

 
I want to thank you for subscribing to my newsletter. At Hoops Insight, I hope to use data to find insights that reveal things you didn't realize about the Louisville Cardinals. I'm using play-by-play data to track what's happening, who's doing it, and who is in the game, in order to show you things the box score can't. For a primer on the stats I like to use, click here: http://hoopsinsight.com/stats-glossary. If you'd like to take a look at previous newsletters I've sent, check out my archive.

If you have any questions about things I'm saying, the data behind it, or if you just want to debate a point, feel free to contact me on Twitter at @hoopsinsights or email at sean@hoopsinsight.com. I'd love your feedback on the newsletter and how I can improve. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy my work.
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