2015-16 Louisville Cardinals: A "What If?" season

Likely the best team to not make the NCAA Tournament in the modern era, the Cards were another in a line of Rick Pitino-coached title contenders until self-imposing a postseason ban

This is the 1st in a series of 4 articles about the 2015-16 Louisville Cardinals. Part 2 is coming on Thurs Nov 5, Part 3 on Mon Nov 9, and Part 4 on Thurs Nov 12. Check out my archive for my previous articles and others in the Hoops Hindsight series.

On February 5, 2016, the news broke. The University of Louisville was self-imposing a 1 year postseason ban related to an NCAA recruiting investigation. At the time the Cardinals were 18-4, ranked 19th in the country, and had just beaten #2 North Carolina. The news was especially difficult for the two seniors on the team, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. Both players were grad transfers from mid-major schools (Drexel for Lee, Cleveland State for Lewis) and were hoping for a postseason run with a major program. It wasn’t to be as neither they nor the rest of the Cardinals got their March Madness moment.

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Forgotten excellence, especially on defense

The postseason ban has made 2015-16 a bit of a lost season in Louisville basketball history, but this was a very strong team. They finished the season rated 7th in KenPom’s ranking system, and would likely have earned a top 3 seed. They finished the season 23-8, with all 8 losses coming to teams in the KenPom top 50 and 7 of the 8 coming on the road. The only team they lost to by more than 8 points was eventual #1 seed Virginia.

In true Rick Pitino style, this team made their hay on the defensive side of the ball. They ranked 2nd per KenPom in defensive efficiency, and specialized in making halfcourt possessions extremely difficult. They were 350th in length of opponent possession, forcing opponents deep into the shot clock. They allowed the 7th lowest percentage of opponent shots in transition, and were 10th in effective FG% allowed in non-transition opportunities. While this team had length around the rim (10th in block rate), they weren’t great at defending there; they ranked 113th in frequency of opponent shots there and 97th in opponent FG% at the rim. Instead, they clamped down on 2 point jumpers, with the 3rd lowest opponent FG% on these shots. Synergy rated the Cardinals in the 99th percentile on defense, and in the 100th percentile when playing man defense. The Cards were versatile, rating in the 95th percentile or better against transition, pick & roll ballhandlers, isolation, post-ups, and offensive rebounds.

The Cards were more pedestrian offensively, ranking 42nd in offensive efficiency per Kenpom. Their biggest weapon was offensive rebounding, where they ranked 8th; by comparison they were 77th in effective FG%, 110th in turnover rate, and a ghastly 294th in free throw rate. That offensive profile is a bit surprising when you consider that the Cards had 2 eventual NBA guards in Damion Lee and Donovan Mitchell, but neither of them drew free throws at a high rate.

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Not rebuilding, reloading

This was an unusual season for Louisville under Pitino in that they returned very few contributors from the prior season. Ken Pomeroy measures something called “minutes continuity”, which he details here, and Louisville ranked in the bottom 25 of the country for minutes played by returning players. Only 3 players on the 2015-16 roster had played more than 8mpg the prior year for Louisville, and one of those (Mangok Mathiang) suffered a foot injury in December 2015 and played only 10 games.

You’d expect a team with that many new faces to start the season with uneven performances as they learned to play together, but the Cards actually played quite well early on. Using adjusted plus/minus (click here to read about stats I reference) can account for opponent strength when evaluating performances, and Louisville was great early on (albeit against a pretty easy schedule). UofL had an adjusted plus/minus (a.k.a adjusted margin) of at least +25 points per 100 possessions in every game but one through December, excluding garbage time. Their worst performance came in a November win over a terrible Saint Louis team. Their only two losses prior to conference play were by 4 points to Michigan State and 2 points to Kentucky, who both ranked in the top 6 in KenPom that season. The relatively soft early schedule clearly helped the new team gel together.

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A completely different team at home and on the road

The team’s lack of experience together did reveal itself during road performances. The Cards were 4-7 in road games, with an adjusted margin of +17 pts/100 poss. In the frienly confines of the Yum! Center, the Cards were 20-1 with an adjusted margin of +35 pts/100 poss. Keep in mind, my calculation for adjusted margin already accounts for home court advantage (an adjustment of about 3 pts/game), so that a 7 point win at home against a team would be equal to beating that team by 4 points on a neutral court or 1 point on the road. For as good as they were at home, they were very disappointing on the road, although that’s not completely unexpected for a team with so little history together. in an upcoming article, I’ll highlight some of the causes of this disparity in performance.

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The more guards, the better

By season’s end, 4 of the top 5 Cardinals in minutes per game were perimeter players: Damion Lee, Trey Lewis, Quentin Snider, and Donovan Mitchell. It was pretty clear that the Louisville coaching staff knew they had a very talented backcourt, and leaned heavily on them. Excluding garbage time, Louisville played lineups with 3 or more guards 83% of the time. Sounds smart, right? The problem is that in almost every game Louisville spent the game building a lead with 3+ guards and squandering it in the limited time they used 2 guards.

Louisville used 2 guard lineups in 24 of their 31 games during the 2015-16, totaling 313 non-garbage time possessions. During those 313 possessions the Cards outscored opponents by 6 total points, with an adjusted margin of +7 points per 100 possessions. These 2 guard lineups outscored opponents in just 7 of the 24 games, and had only 4 games where they outscored opponents by more than 3 points. They were outscored in 11 of the 24 games, and were outscored by more than 3 points in 6 games.

For comparison’s sake, Louisville played 3 or more guards in all 31 games, totaling 1538 non-garbage time possessions. They outscored opponents by 362 points, with an adjusted margin of +33 points per 100 possessions. They outscored opponents in 23 of their 31 games, were outscored in 8 games. There were 8 games where the lineups with 3+ guards accounted for the entire margin of victory (meaning 2 guard lineups were outscored, but 3+ guard lineups outscored the opponent enough to get the win), and only 4 games where 3+ guard lineups accounted for the entire margin of loss (meaning 2 guard lineups outscored the opponent, but 3+ guards got outscored enough to lose).

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I hope you enjoyed this re-introduction to a team that has been largely forgotten due to a postseason ban. In my next article, I’m going to dive deeper into some of the wildly divergent home/road splits that this Louisville team had, what was causing them, and how the coaching staff could mitigate some of it.