2012 Final Four: Previewing The Louisville Cardinals, Who Look To Pull Off A Massive Upset

March 24, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Louisville Cardinals guard Peyton Siva (3) celebrates after the game in the finals of the west region of the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament against the Florida Gators at US Airways Center. The Cardinals defeated the Gators 72-68. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewickel-US PRESSWIRE

Louisville fell into two separate serious slumps this season, but here they are, preparing for an end-all, be-all Final Four game with the hated Kentucky Wildcats. How can the Cardinals pull off the upset? And if Russ Smith isn't hot, can Louisville score enough to keep it close?

In 1987-88, Larry Brown's Kansas Jayhawks fell out of the polls in the middle of a five-game losing streak in late-January and never re-entered them. They won four of their last seven and bowed out in the semifinals of the Big 8 tournament. They limped into the NCAA Tournament at 18-11, happy to earn just a 6-seed in the East Region.

In 1996-97, Lute Olsen's Arizona Wildcats went just 11-7 in the Pac-10 and lost their last two games of the regular season.

Last winter, Jim Calhoun's UConn Huskies, a one-man band on offense, lost seven of their final 11 regular season games and were potentially staring a 6- or 7-seed in the face before making a dramatic run to the Big East Tournament title.

Perhaps it is good that the NCAA Tournament selection committee stopped looking at "Last 10-12 games" as a qualifier, as momentum is not always too predictive.

This year's Louisville Cardinals certainly further this viewpoint a bit. In dealing with quite a few injuries throughout the regular season, they suffered not one, but two solid slumps after 2011 turned into 2012. After starting 12-0, they got their doors blown off at Providence (90-59) in the middle of a January stretch that saw them lose five of seven. They rebounded to win six in a row (though, granted, the winning streak coincided with a weak portion of the schedule), then finished the regular season by losing four of six; they lost to South Florida at home on February 29 (a loss that probably got USF into the Field of 68), and lost at Syracuse to finish the regular season just 22-9, with no marquee Big East wins of which to speak. (Their best conference wins according to Ken Pomeroy: UConn at home, West Virginia on the road, Seton Hall on the road.) Their resume in no way suggested that, four weeks later, they would be preparing for a Final Four matchup with the hated Kentucky Wildcats.


More: NCAA Gets Dream Matchup | Kentucky Is Giant Favorite | Final Four Schedule


But here they are, winners of eight straight. They received only a little luck in their draw -- they took out No. 1 Michigan State but avoided both No. 2 Missouri and No. 3 Marquette in the Elite Eight, and now they get overall No. 1 Kentucky -- but after hanging tough against Kentucky in Lexington on Dec. 31, and after (pardon the awful cliche) finding themselves in recent weeks, they have to be incredibly confident as they prepare to make the trip to New Orleans.

Louisville (30-9)


UL
Opp.
Pace (No. of Possessions)
66.9
Points Per Possession (PPP)
1.03 0.91
Points Per Shot (PPS)
1.21 1.09
2-PT FG% 47.7% 41.7%
3-PT FG% 31.7% 30.3%
FT% 68.8% 66.6%
True Shooting % 51.9% 47.2%




UL Opp.
Assists/Gm 13.5 11.4
Steals/Gm 8.9 7.1
Turnovers/Gm 14.1 15.6
Ball Control Index (BCI)
(Assists + Steals) / TO
1.59 1.19




UL Opp.
Expected Off. Rebounds/Gm 12.6 13.4
Offensive Rebounds/Gm 12.8 12.9
Exp. Rebounding Margin +0.7

Louisville's stats just about match what you think you know about the Cardinals. Their defense is incredible; 0.91 points per possession is good if you are playing Eastern Kentucky or Morehead State, much less if you are posting that average for an entire season. Their are above average on the boards, but they shut you down by forcing turnovers, poor shots and more turnovers. Opponents not only shot 2-pointers worse than three teams (Northern Colorado, Indiana, Creighton) shot 3-pointers for the season, but they also shot 3-pointers worse than teams like Southern Utah, Radford and Bryant. Louisville has the defense thing down, and they are as well-equipped as anybody to shut down Kentucky's penetration-and-alley-oops offense.

The offense? It's ... fine. But we'll get to that below.

Ken Pomeroy Stats

UL Offense vs Kentucky Defense Ranks

UL Offense UK Defense Advantage
Efficiency 102 11 UK
Effective FG% 225 1 UK Big
Turnover % 217 297 UL
Off. Reb. % 56 104 UL
FTA/FGA 164 8 UK Big
Kentucky Offense vs UL Defense Ranks

UK Offense UL Defense Advantage
Efficiency 2 1 Push
Effective FG% 13 3 Push
Turnover % 20 34 Push
Off. Reb. % 18 236 UK Big
FTA/FGA 45 125 UK

Where the Cardinals are weakest

I am struggling to wrap my head around the idea that a Rick Pitino team ranks 272nd in Off. 3PT%, much less a Rick Pitino Final Four team. But they do. Louisville has, basically, one three-point shooter (Chris Smith, at 39.8 percent) and a couple of guys who occasionally get hot but shoot like they're always hot. Russ Smith and Kyle Kuric take over nine three-pointers per game and make just under one-third of them. Louisville ranks just 181st in Off. 2PT% as well -- this just isn't a very good shooting team. With Peyton Siva, he of high upside and incredibly silly mistakes, running the show, the Cardinals are quite turnover-prone as well. They make up for their deficiencies a bit with their work on the offensive glass (Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng are both excellent offensive rebounders), but the Cardinals have advanced as far as they have because of defense.

Meanwhile, injuries have severely limited their lineup versatility. They have one of the shortest benches in the country, with only seven current rotation players averaging better than 6.5 minutes per game, thanks in part to the fact that they lost Rakeem Buckles, Mike Marra and Stephan Van Treese for the season rather early on.

Where they are best

Have I mentioned their defense is fantastic? The Cardinals rank in the Top 20 in both Def. 2PT% (fifth) and Def. 3PT% (18th), they rank 53rd in Def. FT% (meaning they foul bigs and keep good free throw shooters off the line), and they are seventh in steals (Russ Smith is second in the country in Steal Rate) and 31st in blocks (Gorgui Dieng is 21st in Block Rate). They allow a few too many offensive rebounds, which could obviously be a problem against Kentucky, but they are sound in every other aspect of defense, and they have earned the No. 1 overall ranking in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings.

Louisville's Season to Date

  • Wins Versus Top 100 Teams (Team Rank is from KenPom.com)
    vs. No. 3 Michigan State, 57-44
    No. 8 Memphis, 95-87
    vs. No. 12 Florida, 72-68
    No. 16 Vanderbilt, 62-60 (OT)
    vs. No. 18 Marquette, 84-71
    vs. No. 19 New Mexico, 59-56
    vs. No. 26 Cincinnati, 50-44
    No. 36 Long Beach State, 79-66
    No. 37 UConn, 80-59
    vs. No. 39 Notre Dame, 64-50
    at No. 52 West Virginia, 77-74
    at No. 57 Seton Hall, 60-51
    vs. No. 57 Seton Hall, 61-55
    No. 62 Ohio, 59-54
    No. 64 Pittsburgh, 57-54
    at No. 64 Pittsburgh, 73-62
    vs. No. 67 Davidson, 69-62
    No. 78 Villanova, 84-74
  • Losses
    at No. 1 Kentucky, 62-69
    No. 6 Syracuse, 51-52
    at No. 6 Syracuse, 49-58
    No. 13 Georgetown, 68-71
    at No. 18 Marquette, 63-74
    at No. 26 Cincinnati, 56-60
    No. 39 Notre Dame, 65-67 (2OT)
    No. 49 South Florida, 51-58
    at No. 125 Providence, 59-90

Louisville really has played about five different seasons in 2011-12. They started out 12-0, then went 2-5, then 6-0, then 2-4, then 8-0. Their Pomeroy ranking started at eighth, fell all the way to 43rd in mid-January, rose to 27th, fell to 30th, and has now risen to 15th. They were 2-5 versus Top 20 teams but have won their last four since the postseason began. Odd, odd year.

Louisville Player Stats

Player AdjGS*/Gm GmSc/Min Line
Gorgui Dieng (6'11, 235, So.) 13.4 0.41 32.6 MPG, 9.2 PPG (53% 2PT, 67% FT), 9.0 RPG (3.3 OFF), 3.2 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 APG, 2.0 TOPG, 3.3 PFPG
Kyle Kuric (6'4, 195, Sr.) 12.1 0.33 36.2 MPG, 12.7 PPG (57% 2PT, 33% 3PT, 80% FT), 4.2 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 TOPG
Chane Behanan (6'6, 245, Fr.) 10.3 0.40 25.8 MPG, 9.5 PPG (56% 2PT, 18% 3PT, 59% FT), 7.4 RPG, 1.8 TOPG
Chris Smith (6'2, 195, Sr.) 9.7 0.35 27.6 MPG, 9.7 PPG (42% 2PT, 40% 3PT, 74% FT), 3.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 TOPG
Peyton Siva (6'0, 180, Jr.) 8.8 0.28 31.7 MPG, 9.1 PPG (45% 2PT, 24% 3PT, 74% FT), 5.6 APG, 3.2 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 3.5 TOPG, 3.0 PFPG
Russ Smith (6'0, 160, So.) 8.5 0.40 21.3 MPG, 11.6 PPG (38% 2PT, 31% 3PT, 77% FT), 2.5 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 2.0 APG, 2.3 TOPG
Jared Swopshire (6'8, 200, Jr.) 3.3 0.25 13.3 MPG, 3.4 PPG (44% 2PT, 21% 3PT, 69% FT), 2.9 RPG
Wayne Blackshear (6'5, 225, Fr.) 0.7 0.10 6.5 MPG, 2.0 PPG, 1.2 RPG
Elisha Justice (5'10, 175, So.) 0.3 0.06 5.1 MPG, 1.0 PPG
Kevin Ware (6'4, 185, Fr.) -0.2 -0.03 5.3 MPG, 1.0 PPG, 1.1 TOPG

* AdjGS = a take-off of the Game Score metric (definition here) accepted by a lot of basketball stat nerds. It redistributes a team's points based not only on points scored, but also by giving credit for assists, rebounds (offensive & defensive), steals, blocks, turnovers and fouls. It is a stat intended to determine who had the biggest overall impact on the game itself, instead of just how many balls a player put through a basket.

  • Highest Usage%: R. Smith (35%), Behanan (21%), Siva (20%), C. Smith (18%)
  • Highest Floor%: Dieng (40%), Behanan (39%), C. Smith (39%), Siva (39%)
  • Highest %Pass: Siva (70%), C. Smith (51%), R. Smith (42%), Swopshire (36%)
  • Highest %Shoot: Kuric (50%), Behanan (42%), Swopshire (41%), Dieng (39%)
  • Highest %Fouled: Behanan (19%), Swopshire (15%), Dieng (14%), R. Smith (12%)
  • Highest %T/O: Dieng (11%), Behanan (11%), R. Smith (8%), Swopshire (8%)

That Russ Smith occupies more possessions than almost anybody in the country but averages only 11.6 points per game tells you quite a bit about why Louisville's offense has been so hit-or-miss this season. He has been, at times, perfectly efficient -- 19 points on 13 field goal attempts in the Elite Eight versus Florida, 24 points on 16 FGAs versus Memphis, 30 points on 20 shots versus Kentucky -- but when he falls into a funk, he falls into a funk. Even as the Cardinals were winning the Big East Tournament, Smith was struggling to find the basket. In four games at The Garden, he scored just 30 points on 8-for-35 shooting (23 percent). He even shot just 1-for-7 in the Round of 64 against Davidson. Since then, however, it's been mostly Good Russ. In three games, he has scored 47 points on 14-for-35 shooting. He is rarely a high-percentage shooter -- 38 percent on two-pointers, 31 percent on three-pointers -- but when he is getting to the line and limiting the turnovers, he can be perfectly effective. He scored five quick points as Louisville was cutting Florida's late lead, and he made two free throws with 16 seconds left.

Still ... the less Smith dominates Louisville's offense, the better Louisville's offense might be. Chris Smith and, despite a three-point shooting slump (16 for his last 64), Kyle Kuric are quite a bit more efficient with the ball. But running the offense through Smith and Siva puts quite a bit on the table and takes quite a bit off. Siva has been fascinating -- he was great in the Big East Tournament, averaging 13.8 points on 46-percent shooting and 5.8 assists; but his propensity for either getting into foul trouble (15 fouls in four NCAA Tournament games) or handing the ball to the other team (five turnovers versus Michigan State, four versus Davidson) limit his effectiveness.

In all, it is probably fitting that Dieng leads the way in terms of Adj. Game Score points. He takes fewer than seven field goal attempts per game but blocks the hell out of the ball and grabs boards. He is a fantastic defensive presence would should hold his own versus Anthony Davis and company. He had six blocks and five rebounds (and, yes, four fouls and three turnovers) the first time Louisville and Kentucky met this year.

Prognosis

If Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (24 points, 19 rebounds) had not gone off, Louisville very well could have taken the Wildcats out in Lexington on Dec. 31. Kentucky has certainly been the superior team for the season as a whole, but Louisville matches up reasonably well with them. If they can slow down Kentucky's backcourt (the first time around, they held Darius Miller, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb to a combined 4-for-23 shooting, but Kidd-Gilchrist made five of 12 3-pointers), and if just one offensive player gets hot (be it either Smith, Kuric, Siva ... somebody), they can keep this game within a winnable margin. Kentucky's floor is quite a bit higher than Louisville's, but with the way the Cardinals have been grinding out wins, their ceiling might be high enough to pull what would be a lasting upset. I wouldn't be willing to bet on it, of course, but judging by how my bracket did this year, I shouldn't be betting on anything.

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