The story on Sunday in the NCAA's Elite Eight was an injury to Kevin Ware and how his team responded to beat Duke, 85-63.
The Cardinals have the feel of a team destined to win the tournament now, but the same could have been said two weeks ago for a much more basketball-related reason.
Louisville is the best defensive team in the nation this season, and that's a good place to start when you're looking for the team that will ultimately win the national title. The Cardinals' chances should multiply when you consider that they are the best defensive team in college basketball of the last 11 years.
Eleven seasons is certainly an odd selection of time, but that's the number of years we've had a proper way to measure the true value of a defense. Ken Pomeroy, whose site judges teams based on adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies, tabs the Cardinals as the best defensive team since 2003, when he started tracking tempo-free college basketball statistics.
Reason to believe in Pomeroy's numbers is how well they have predicted a champ. As I documented before this tourney began, the last 10 champions have all finished in the top 20 in Pomeroy's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies.
Here are those numbers for the Final Four teams:
|Adj. Off. Eff.||Rank||Adj. Def. Eff.||Rank|
A look at this data tells us that Wichita State and Michigan do not fit the criteria, Louisville is deservedly the favorite and Syracuse has a chance.
The proper response from Michigan fans at this point would be: "How did those numbers work out on Sunday? The game is not played on paper!"
Entering the Elite Eight, the Florida Gators were at the top of Pomeroy's ratings—Louisville is now No. 1. Michigan, obviously, had few problems disposing of Billy Donovan's club.
But for much of the season, it would have been fair to identify the Wolverines as a pretender because of their inability to consistently get stops.
John Beilein changed that by inserting Mitch McGary into the starting lineup. McGary went from a solid backup big man to one of the most dominant bigs in the country almost overnight.
In McGary of March, the Wolverines not only got a great finisher to help out Trey Burke on offense—he's averaging 17.5 points per game in the tourney—they also got a rim protector and elite rebounder.
To measure McGary's defensive impact, consider that Michigan is holding opponents to 0.92 points per possession in the tournament. This is a much different team than the one that allowed 1.02 points per possession during Big Ten play and lost six out of 12 games entering the tournament, including a real stinker at Penn State.
Another Final Four team that did not get much pre-tourney love because of late-season struggles was Syracuse, losers of seven of 11 to finish the regular season.
If defense truly wins championships, consider the Orange the favorite strictly based on what Jim Boeheim's team has done to date in the tourney.
Syracuse has allowed only 0.72 points per possession on its way to the Final Four. It has helped that opponents are shooting an unsightly 15.2 percent from three in the tourney and it has been almost just as tough to score in the interior. Indiana star Cody Zeller can attest to that after shooting just 3-of-11 against the Orange and getting five of his shots sent back in the Sweet 16.
There is less of an art to three-point percentage defense—some (Pomeroy included) would suggest there's a smidgen of luck involved—but interior defense is a good judge of D. The mark of a champion is one that can keep its opponents under 45 percent shooting.
Here is how each team has fared when it comes to field-goal percentage D in the tourney and for the entire season. (Tournament percentage is listed second.)
|2-point FG% D||3-point FG% D|
The Orange have hardly matched their domination on the offensive end, scoring less than a point per possession in two of their four tourney wins. Michigan, in comparison, has scored 1.15 points per trip during the tournament.
Syracuse is the inverse of Michigan, which should make for an interesting semifinal.
On the other side of the bracket, Wichita State's defense has been excellent in this tournament when the Shockers were not playing Gonzaga, the one elite offense they have faced.
Everyone will write off the Shockers this week, and they're used to that already. But if there's a good reason to do so it's that they had to get really hot and make five straight threes down the stretch to beat the Zags. It's going to be tough to repeat that against the best defense of the last 11 seasons.
The Cardinals have that title because not only can they force misses, they force turnovers better than any other elite defense in recent memory.
If Wichita State fans want a sliver of hope, it would be that Louisville's defense looked slightly un-Louisville-ish in Indianapolis. Coming into the Sweet 16, Louisville had forced a turnover on 32.4 percent of opponent possessions during the Big East tournament and the first two games in the NCAA tournament.
Louisville forced only 23 giveaways combined against Oregon and Duke. The Ducks became the first team since Notre Dame on Feb. 9 to top a point per possession. That could have been reason for concern heading into the Elite Eight.
Duke, a team that had the necessary balance to win the title, looked to be a legitimate threat to derail the Cardinals' title hopes. The Blue Devils had beaten Louisville 76-71 on Nov. 24 in the Bahamas.
That was a Louisville team that was without swat-master Gorgui Dieng. A Dieng-less Louisville is like a hockey team trying to play without its goalie. The big man allows Smith and Peyton Siva to gamble without too much risk as he can save the day on the back end of the press.
Dieng had four blocks against the Blue Devils on Sunday, and Coach K's crew was held to 0.92 points per possession, their second-lowest total of the season. The Cardinals' 1.25 points per possession were the most against Duke's defense all season.
That performance dropped the Blue Devils out of the top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency. They can blame losing on missing shots all they want, but the game was won and lost on the defensive end.
So which of the defenses that are left will reign supreme in Atlanta?
I would go with the best D of the Pomeroy era.
*All advanced stats used in this piece come from KenPom.com or were calculated by the author.
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