On Monday night in Atlanta the Louisville Cardinals may celebrate their third national championship. Among the teams in the Final Four Louisville is the only number one seed still standing and are the favorite to cut down the nets. While Rick Pitino's team is well rounded, superbly coached, and fairly deep, anointing them at this point would be ignoring what we have observed the entire season.
During the four month journey from the opening tipoff of college basketball to the start of the NCAA Tournament six different teams were ranked number. Louisville held that distinction for exactly one week. The Cardinals were ranked among the top five at the start of the season, and began the year 16-1. Upon earning the top ranking they promptly lost three games in a row.
When the brackets were announced on Selection Sunday Louisville and Indiana were declared the favorites. They were followed by Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga, Florida, Miami, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Georgetown. In other words, of the 10 favorites at the start of the tournament, only one is still standing. Give Louisville credit, Georgetown failed to win a game and Gonzaga could not get out of the first weekend. That being said, we have seen a bunch of favorites fall.
The Cardinals have won 14 straight games since a five overtime loss at Notre Dame February 9. They also fell to Duke, Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown during the regular season. The Cardinals have twice avenged the Syracuse loss including their victory over the Orange in the Big East Tournament Championship game. They knocked off Duke in a rematch with the Blue Devils on Sunday. They are number one in the Sagarin rankings and third in the RPI. However, unlike college football, champions are not made by polls or computers in college hoops. That's why Indiana (number two in the Sagarin), or Duke and New Mexico (first and second in the RPI) are no longer dancing.
Louisville ranks second in the NCAA in steals per game and turnover margin. Because they force mistakes by their opponents the Cardinals end up with transition baskets. They average more than 74 points a game while allowing only 58.1 a contest. Teams that hold onto the ball can beat the Cards.
Wichita State averages under 13 turnovers a game. Syracuse gives it away 12.4 times a contest. Michigan leads the NCAA with fewer than 10 giveaways a contest. When the Wolverines beat VCU, the team who leads the nation in steals and turnover margin, Michigan broke pressure and scored because of it. John Beilein's team had 12 turnovers in the game. Louisville forces 18.6 turnovers a game. If one of their opponents in Atlanta handles the press, not only will they hinder the Cardinals ability to get fast break points, but they will score easy baskets against Louisville.
The Cardinals want to play a fast paced game. Wichita State will do everything that they can to slow things down and consistently set up their defense. If Louisville beats the Shockers, Michigan has perhaps the best starting backcourt in the country and are ready to deal with full court pressure. If Syracuse is the opponent, the Orange and Louisville have played six halves this year. The Cardinals have won three of the six, SU two of the half dozen, and one half finished in a tie. Louisville may win the championship but they are not overwhelmingly better than their opposition.