Louisville and what could have been
“We should be penalized, no question about it, but not this team,” Pitino said. “But the NCAA didn’t make that decision. We made that decision.”
Pitino was undoubtedly upset by the impact of the ban on two fifth-year seniors, graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, but he probably was also disappointed because he knew that this Louisville team had a chance to win it all.
How good of a chance? Combining ESPN’s two rankings, the Basketball Power Index and Strength of Record, we can get an idea of what Louisville might have been capable of in the NCAA tournament.
How good is Louisville?
Entering Wednesday’s matchup with Pittsburgh, Louisville ranks sixth in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), which is a forward-looking power rating that utilizes a team’s pace-adjusted scoring margin (and more) to measure how well a team has performed and how powerful it is likely to be going forward.
All three of these predictive systems account for the fact that Louisville leads the nation in scoring margin (16.6 points per game) and has played a fairly difficult schedule (ranked 64th by BPI) in the competitive ACC.
The Cardinals also lead Division I in net efficiency. They are outscoring opponents by 24.7 points per 100 possessions and are the only team in the nation in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Based on these numbers, Louisville is one of the strongest, most efficient teams in the nation, one with the potential not only to win an ACC regular-season title (the Cardinals sit one-game back of UNC), but the tools to win a national championship.
Could Louisville have won this year’s NCAA tournament?
Since Louisville imposed the postseason ban, there has been a lot of talk of “what could have been” of this squad. This team undoubtedly has the talent to make noise in the NCAA tournament, but what are the chances the Cardinals actually could have won it all in March?
To answer this question, we used Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology and BPI to play out the upcoming NCAA tournament with Louisville in the field.
For the purpose of this exercise, Louisville was slotted as a No. 4 seed, which is the seed Louisville most deserves based on its résumé according to ESPN’s Strength of Record (SOR) metric. Strength of Record accounts for whom a team played and where they played them (no scoring margin) to determine the “most deserving” teams. BPI is more a measure of the “best” or “strongest” teams in the country.
Louisville has some holes in its résumé (see its 3-5 road record), which is why it ranks lower in SOR than BPI, but all of the metrics above reveal that the Cardinals may be stronger than their record suggests.
Because SOR correlates more closely with the actual tournament field than BPI, it is the best measure of Louisville’s deserved seed, while BPI is the best predictor of how the Cardinals will perform once in the tournament.
Obviously the path of every No. 4 seed differs based on the other teams in its region, so for this exercise Louisville was slotted as the No. 4 seed (replacing the one already there) in each region and the tournament was played out four times to produce an average projection of Louisville’s fate in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
As a No. 4 seed in the current Lunardi bracket, BPI projects Louisville has about a 59 percent chance to make the Sweet 16, a 20 percent chance to make the Final Four and a 6 percent chance to win it all.
For perspective, playing out the tournament with the current field (excluding Louisville), there are nine teams with a better chance to make the Sweet 16, six teams with a higher chance to make the Final Four and five teams (North Carolina, Villanova, Virginia, Oklahoma and Michigan State) more likely to win the championship.
No team has greater than a 15 percent chance to win the title, so in a year without a clear-cut favorite, could the Cardinals have come from that 6 percent chance to win the national championship? The only thing we know is we’ll never know for sure.