The fighting Cardinals of Louisville will head into their final game of February Wednesday night having lost four of their last five games and five of their last seven. In three of their last four losses the team held a double-digit lead in the second half. In their lone win over the past three weeks, they nearly allowed a seven-point advantage to dissolve in 17 seconds.
Our natural inclination when things don’t go the way we want them to is to attempt to find a suitable explanation for why. For some reason that makes it all easier to process.
My assumption is that if you’re reading this, you have your own idea or ideas that explain how Louisville went from a top 15 NET team with a 23-point lead over the best team in the country to one that is currently trending towards a 7-9 lead. Your idea is probably right. At least partially.
In the days since U of L’s 12-point loss to Virginia, four explanations — whether coming from fans or local media or national media — have either risen or remained above all the rest of the noise. Let’s look at each one of these popular narratives and see how rooted in truth they are.
1. Duke broke this team
Definitely the most popular explanation from the world outside Louisville, and also the one most likely to define this team if the next four weeks go poorly.
The take has become so popular that Christen Cunningham addressed it in his postgame comments after the Virginia loss (he also used “hot take” and used it correctly, which is wonderful).
“It’s just a mentality,” Cunningham said of his team losing its mental edge in recent weeks. “For the first 24 or 25 games of the year, we were that team. Somehow we’ve gotten away from it. I don’t know if it’s — the hot take is the Duke game shot everybody’s confidence. If that’s the case, then that’s soft. We have to move past that. It’s just a mentality that we had at the beginning of the year. We have to get back to doing what we do, being tough and being able to withstand runs when you’re playing good teams. It’s hard to beat them the whole game without allowing runs. You’re up 10 and they cut it to four, it’s OK. You just have to go back out there and keep playing.”
Look, I think you’re naive if you don’t think that what happened against Duke stuck with this team longer than a typical loss and played at least something of a part in the last 17 seconds of the Clemson game. If you want to argue that the Duke meltdown on its own wouldn’t have had the same effect if it hadn’t come on the immediate heels of the late game collapse against Florida State, I can buy that too.
But “Duke broke them” is conveniently (and lazily) all-encompassing in the same way that “Virginia broke them” was a year ago and still is today. Louisville lost a competitive road game against a good NC State team days after that Virginia loss, and then went to the ACC tournament and whipped up on a Florida State team that eventually came within five points of going to the Final Four.
The Duke loss was bad. Seeing and hearing about it relentlessly over the succeeding week(s) may have been even worse. There’s no question that it messed with the team’s psyche to a certain degree. But completely broke them? I think that’s overreaching a tad.
If they lose out or only beat Notre Dame from this point forward, then we can revisit this.
2. This team is simply regressing to the mean
Another popular explanation in recent days has been that there’s actually nothing wrong with Louisville. This team is simply the same one we thought it was going to be heading into the season (unranked, picked to finish 11th in the ACC), and has been proving that to be the case over the last three weeks.
This is a real phenomenon in college basketball. A few years ago, Ken Pomeroy did a study which revealed that in more seasons than not, the preseason AP poll has matched up closer with the final AP poll than the poll which takes place in the middle of January.
We evaluate teams heading into a season, we react to the early data, and sometimes those reactions prove to be overreactions. Often times when the dust settles, teams wind up being much closer to what we thought they were going to be at the beginning of a season than it appeared they were going to be at the season’s midway point. Take, for example, the rankings of Kentucky and Tennessee right now, or of Michigan and Michigan State.
Clearly, Louisville is trending towards its preseason projections more now than it was at any point in January. Even so, I don’t think “this is who they’ve always been” suffices as an all-encompassing explanation here either.
For starters, U of L’s wins are too strong. A team that was “always more or less an also-ran in the ACC” doesn’t beat Michigan State when the Spartans were at full strength, it doesn’t go to Chapel Hill and deal North Carolina its worst home loss under Roy Williams. You know what else it doesn’t do? It doesn’t build a 23-point lead over Duke, or lead Florida State by 10 in the second half on the road or Virginia by the same margin at home.
This explanation would have worked better a season ago. That Louisville team may have gotten more of a bump than it deserved for beating a hobbled Notre Dame in South Bend and a good Florida State team in Tallahassee. Ultimately, the Cardinals wound up being a team that more or less beat everyone they were supposed to beat and lost to everyone they were supposed to lose to, and typically (the home UVA game being an obvious exception) did so decisively.
Has Louisville been closer to an unranked team and a double-digit squad in the ACC standings than a top 15 team and a threat to earn a double bye in the league tournament this whole time? Maybe, but that’s a tough sell.
3. The team has simply hit a wall
Even while acknowledging that there may be some truth here, this is the one I push back against the most.
The take is that because this team is loaded with players who either haven’t played this many minutes before or haven’t played at this high a level before, it’s late February and now they’re gassed. Jordan Nwora was a lightly-used reserve last season, Dwayne Sutton played more but not nearly as much as he has this year, Christen Cunningham and Khwan Fore have never played a full season against competition like this, Steven Enoch sat out last year and didn’t play this many minutes at UConn, and so on and so on.
To me, I think there’s only been one loss in the last month where you can point to fatigue as a primary culprit, and it had nothing to do with any season-long wear and tear. Florida State relentlessly hounded Christen Cunningham for 45 minutes during that game in Tallahassee. With Louisville unable to accomplish anything during the brief period its starting point guard was on the bench, Chris Mack had no choice but to play CC 43 minutes and hope he could fight through the fatigue. He was dead tired by the time overtime rolled around, and U of L’s struggles at the end of regulation and in the extra period were heavily influenced by that.
Outside of that, fresh legs haven’t appeared to be an issue. These dudes are all in incredible shape, and are just three weeks removed from winning a road game against Virginia Tech that took place just two days after a much-hyped home game against the most up-tempo team in the ACC, North Carolina.
It’s also worth noting that while Syracuse, Clemson and Virginia all play a very physical style, they aren’t full-court pressure teams who wear opponents down with their breakneck pace. If they were, and the Cardinals had appeared gassed early on in the games against each, then maybe this theory would carry a bit more water.
4. They’re simply playing better teams
Louisville’s struggles, especially on offense, can be partially written off as the product of a significant step up in competition. According to Ken Pom’s efficiency numbers, the best defensive teams in the ACC are:
3. North Carolina
4. Florida State
This group makes up six of Louisville’s seven February games so far.
But once again, this isn’t an all-encompassing explanation. Most obviously, the explanation would have to conveniently ignore the fact that Louisville beat North Carolina by 21 points in Chapel Hill on Jan. 12. It would also have to once again gloss over the fact that the Cardinals held double-digit second half leads against Duke, Virginia and Florida State, and that it led Clemson by 8 with 27 seconds to play (and by 7 with 17 seconds to play).
Everyone knew there was a gauntlet coming in February and that an uptick in losses was probably coming with it. That said, it’s been the manner in which the losses have occurred that has been frustrating and confusing and left us all scrambling for explanations. In a strange way, “they beat us handily because they’re a better team and that’s all there is to it” would be an easier pill to digest than the one we’ve been handed consistently since the beginning of the month. I’d argue that it’s one which would leave us with less hope for a memorable March, but that’s a different post.
To wrap, if you have a singular theory as to why Louisville finds itself today in a position that’s less enviable than the one we were dreaming about three weeks ago, you’re probably both right and wrong. The Duke loss did have a negative effect on this team’s psyche, its limited arsenal of offensive weapons has been more apparent at times in recent games, and they’ve simply been going up against better teams than they faced in January. All of these items play a part in explaining a confusing and somewhat disappointing three-week stretch, but none of them can do the job on their own.
This team — and I feel like I always have to work this into any post or comment or whatever that comes off even remotely negative — is still in a much, much better overall spot than we could have ever anticipated back in October. Hopefully that becomes more apparent in the coming days thanks to some better results and more distance between the Duke game and the present.