Is Louisville Bad At Closing Basketball Games?


Understatement of the year: UL basketball fans are concerned about whether Louisville is bad at closing basketball games.

We’re currently sitting at 21-5. We ascended to the number one ranking in the country and proceeded to lose 4 out of the next seven games by a combined 16 points. Overall, we’ve lost 5 games by a total of 21 points.

There are at least two ways to look at our losses: 1) We’ve had a chance in each game, or 2) We simply can’t win close games.

If you’re like me, you’ve literally lost sleep over this. You’ve been on Card Chronicle trying to convince people it is just bad luck and then calling people sh**bergs when they still disagree. You probably got in a fight with your wife 3 days after the ND game because you were on Card Chronicle arguing with scorpiocard about whether he’s a sh**berg or you’re a girly man while your wife wanted you to help put your kids to bed,.

Oh, you didn’t do any of those things? You’re probably convinced that UL is actually bad at closing games, too. Fair enough.

C.L. Brown wrote a story about how bad we’ve been in the last 5 minutes of our five losses. Undoubtedly, we’ve been bad in those losses. That’s why we lost. Any breakdown of those losses is going to show we played worse in those games than we did in games where we blowed out the other team. If we hadn’t been bad, we would have won and instead of having the game lumped with the other bad games, it would be lumped with the good ones that we won.

The stats guys, and our coach in waiting (Brad Stevens), say close games are a toss up. Teams aren’t "better" or "worse" at closing games than they are at scoring and stopping other teams from scoring for the rest of the game.

Last week, I emailed Ken Pomeroy and asked him what he thought about this closing games business. His response was what I expected: He hasn’t found anything that predicts "closing games" and he stopped looking. We know he thinks they’re a toss up, but there could be something, right? Having one efficient scorer, good free throw shooting, offensive rebounding, something?

(I also asked him if he cares about convincing sh**bergs that he’s right about the statistical approach to basketball; he doesn’t). Smug sonofabitch is so convinced he’s right he doesn’t even care if you believe him.

That wasn’t enough for me, so I went through the play-by-play statistics for every game this season and looked at how we did after the 4:00 minute official time out in close games throughout the entire year.

Here are the results:

1) 1) Our average lead at the under 4 timeout was 15.85

2) 2) We were trailing in only 3 games at the under 4 timeout: by 4 to Syracuse, 3 to Nova, and 1 to Duke

3) 3) In 7 games, we were either tied or leading by less than 10 points at the under 4 timeout: Northern Iowa 3, Illinois State 2, Memphis 6, UK 7, Georgetown tied, Pittsburgh 6, Notre Dame 5

4) 4) In the other 16 games, we were winning by 10 points or more.

The main question is whether we play worse in the last few minutes of these close games than we do during the first 36 minutes of these games and during the 40 minutes of the blowout games.


1) 1) We shoot 49.9% from 2 throughout the entire season. During the last 4 minutes of close games, we shoot 48.5%. Pretty much a wash.

2) 2) We shoot 32.3% from 3 on the year. During the last few minutes of close games (win or lose) we shoot 1-13 or 7.7%. In case you’re wondering, 7.7% is not good but due to the small sample size of 3s shot in close games, it is not statistically significantly different from the rest of the season (chi-square = 2.467, p = .12).

3) 3) We shoot about the same on FTs in the last 4 minutes of close games (71.2%) as the rest of the year (70.0%).


1) 1) Other teams shoot 43.8% against us from 2 during the first 36 minutes of close games and 40 minutes of blowouts and 48.4% during the last 4 minutes of close games (not statistically different)

2) 2) Other teams shoot 31.8% from 3 against us usually, and 44.4% during the last 4 minutes of close games (not significantly different- again probably due to small sample sizes).

3) 3) We usually have excellent free throw defense (64.3%), but this leaps to 72.8% during close games.

So, what does this mean?

It appears that we’re shooting worse from three point range and our opponents are shooting better from three point range in close games. Maybe that’s it. Except, 8 of the 12 threes we gave up were in the Pittsburgh, UK, and Illinois state games, which we won. As mentioned, we’ve made only one 3 in the last four minutes of close games- against Villanova- a game we lost.

Ken Pomeroy subscribes to the theory that 3 point defense is random. Teams aren’t better or worse at defending the three. They’re just better or worse at limiting shots. His theory is that teams don’t take bad threes against good defense- they take 2 point shots instead, which is where quality of defense shows up.

He’s never seen Russ Smith play basketball.

From a basketball standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to me, but from a statistical standpoint, you can’t argue with it. Basically, the percentage teams shoot against you in the first half of the season is not correlated with the percentage they shoot against you in the second half of the season (corrected for SOS).

I know some people believe that we played bad defense on that kid who scored 12 points in 50 seconds from Notre Dame. If that’s what you think, I can’t help you, because that kid is unlikely to make all four of those shots in 50 seconds if you gather up the 5 fattest and laziest among us to guard him (I call Center- Pretty sure they have to run less).

It isn’t free throw shooting either, at least not our free throw shooting. Perhaps it’s our free throw defense (although, most of this was in the Villanova game, when they shot 14-17 down the stretch).

People will say "you can’t quantify basketball IQ." That’s nonsense. Of course you can. What does someone with low basketball IQ do? They turn the ball over and they take bad shots. Now it’s quantified. Something else you think? We can quantify that, too. Everything that exists is quantifiable. You just have to reason through it.

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