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Trying to explain Louisville basketball’s road woes

Away from home shouldn’t be as scary a place in 2021, but it has been so far for the Cardinals.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With three games left to go in the regular season Louisville still needs to put in some resume work to guarantee its place in the field of 68 (72?). With the way that the Cards have performed on the road this season, winning games on the road against Duke and Virginia Tech, as well as a home tilt against Louisville’s Achilles heel, Virginia, seem like a pretty tall tasks.

The bizarre thing about Louisville’s road woes is that this is a season where any home court advantage is supposed to be hampered due to the lack of fans. As of January 22nd, as teams around the country were starting to get into the thick of conference play, home teams on average had only won 57.3% of the time. This was the lowest home court advantage figure since KenPom began tracking the statistic with the 1996-97 season, when home teams won 64.3% of their games.

Home court advantage was expected to be down this season without the help of crowds and student sections to make road environments unfriendly. And it was at 57.3% shortly after non-conference play had ended, which is usually more favorable to hosting teams as they load up on cupcakes at home. So, one can only assume that the home court winning percentages have only worsened since teams have gotten into conference play where they usually face more parity.

But if an archeologist in 3000 years looked back at fossils of Louisville’s 2020-2021 home and away records without considering this was the pandemic season, then they would probably think this was a fairly normal season for the Cards.

Louisville currently holds an outstanding 9-1 home record, which is the Cardinals’ sixth best home winning percentage since 2000. But they also hold a lousy 3-4 road record, which is the ninth worst road record the program has had since 2000. And if you take the difference between the home winning percentage and the road winning percentage, the disparity is over 47 percentage points, which is bad.

Here’s a breakdown:

This means that when this Louisville team goes on the road their odds of winning drop nearly 50%. Not great. This is the fifth worst disparity we’ve seen from any Cardinals team since 2000.

Side note: the most home-bodied Louisville team in this millennia was the 2006 squad, which won 86.4% (19-3) of their home games in contrast to winning just 11.1% (1-8) of their away games that same year. That disparity of 72.25% is incredible but also something I hope we never see again. And to make things even weirder, Louisville’s strength of schedule (SOS) was only 62nd overall that year.

So, why is Louisville’s road record so poor?

The first thing I do is look at Louisville’s SOS rating by KenPom, which currently ranks a modest 39th overall in the country. Not overly difficult, but also not too soft. So that doesn’t pop off the charts for me.

I then take a look at Louisville’s overall KenPom ranking, which is currently 46th as I write this just after midnight on Thursday. If the season ended today, then Louisville’s ranking of #46 would be tied with the 2006 squad (hello, again) for the program’s second worst ranking in the KenPom era. If you’re curious, the 2002 squad takes the cake with a final KenPom ranking of #61. It also just so happens that the 2002 team sits right behind the 2006 in terms of the largest home-winning-percentage to road-winning-percentage disparity with a 67.5% differential.

“So what? Subpar Louisville teams perform well at home and poorly on the road.”

Not so fast, my friend.

Where things get really interesting, especially between the 2002 and 2021 Louisville teams, is when you compare each team’s KenPom rankings to their respective SOS rankings.

The 2002 Cardinals only saw a nine-point difference between their KenPom ranking (61st) and their SOS ranking (52nd). The 2021 Cards currently have an even smaller gap between their KenPom ranking (46th) and their SOS ranking (39th).

In short, this could point to why the Cardinals are having difficulty this season in general as the team itself is up against an almost equally difficult schedule. Put this in contrast with, say, the 2014 Cardinals who had an overall ranking of 1st and an SOS ranking of 95th, and it’s not hard to understand why that team won a boat load of games.

This doesn’t exactly explain everything about why this Louisville team struggles so much on the road compared to home, but I do think it gets us pointed in the right direction.

After taking all of that into consideration, that’s when you have to bring in the intangibles: weird season, covid pauses, etc. And I think it’s more than fair to do, especially with this team who have been through as many interruptions as any other team in the country this season.

This seems like a team that relies heavily on the system Chris Mack has in place and when they get in rhythm schedule-wise, things really get going. Just look at how the team appeared to be rounding into form after they took down Georgia Tech handily, and were ready to handle a below-average Syracuse team in upstate New York just days later only to have the rug pulled out from under them.

Then look at how half of Louisville’s road losses, easily their two worst losses of the season, came right after being on pause due to covid. I don’t necessarily think that we could have beaten Wisconsin on that day in December, but it’s not like UNC came out swinging against Louisville this past weekend. Who knows if that was another road win we could have taken had the team been in a flow.

It will be fascinating to get more in-depth numbers after the season is over once we have a chance to look at how teams that faced significant covid pauses compared to those who didn’t. Virginia Tech looked pretty darn sloppy the other night after coming back from their pause, and the Goliath-looking Baylor Bears didn’t look all that great either after their pause either. None of that is coincidental.

Regardless, this team is going to have to get itself into form quickly if it wants to steal a win in Cameron Indoor or down in Blacksburg. And hopefully when they return for senior day against the most annoying team in the world the home fortunes continue.