Without a lot of competition, Louisville is the most interesting team remaining in this year’s NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals are in the Sweet 16 for a fourth straight season, but are not the powerhouse that they were in years past. In fact, while Louisville is an excellent defensive team again, their offense is nothing short of mediocre.
What should we expect from an elite coach with far less than his best squad as they compete in Syracuse this weekend?
When Rick Pitino was asked early in the season why his team was struggling on offense, he noted that Russ Smith and Luke Hancock were no longer on the roster. The duo combined for more than 30 points a game last season and knocked down 138 three pointers. When Chris Jones was dismissed from the squad a month ago, the Cardinals lost their fourth-leading scorer from last season, and number three point producer this year. (Jones averaged just under 14 points per game this season.)
All of those losses have amounted to a nearly 13-point drop in production: 81 PPG last year (12th in the NCAA) to 68.8 PPG this year (138th in the nation).
The offensive struggles have not meant a ton more losses; Louisville went 31-6 last year and are 26-8 this year. But they have been bad news for bettors backing the Cardinals. During their Final Four run last season, Louisville went 20-15 against the spread. This season, the Cards are 12-19-2, the worst mark among teams still playing. In their last ten games, Louisville is 3-7 against the spread; as a favorite, they are 1-6 ATS since early February.
On Friday, Louisville will take on North Carolina State. The eighth-seeded Wolfpack upset Villanova last weekend and are 2.5-point underdogs against the Cardinals. NC State is 17-13-2 against the number this season and 9-2 in their last 11 games. The Pack are also 4-1 as underdogs since January.
The data suggests a low scoring game. NC State is nowhere near as good as Louisville on defense, but they are respectable. Their offense is solid but not spectacular. The Pack have played 14 games that have gone over and 13 that stayed under. To the shock of nobody, Louisville has been involved in 12 overs, 17 unders, and one push.
When the teams played in Kentucky on Valentine’s Day, NC State upset the Cardinals 74-65. The Wolfpack not only covered as a dog, but won outright, and the game went over the total. Jones, who is no longer on the team, was the Cardinals leading scorer. Louisville shot 33-percent for the game while NC State hit at 45-percent and was +10 in rebound margin.
It would be easy based on all of our information to like NC State. But, as discussed earlier this week, coaching is a huge factor in the Big Dance. Pitino is 52-17 in NCAA Tournament games. This season, Louisville avenged two losses in the ACC’s imbalanced regular season. After dropping a game to UNC early in their conference schedule, the Cardinals beat the Heels in OT three weeks later. They also repaid Virginia for a loss in early February by downing the Cavaliers in Kentucky in March.
On top of that, the Cardinals battled Miami and Pitt twice, sweeping the season series.
This is not Louisville’s best team. They aren’t particularly fun to watch and will probably run into a more talented squad sooner rather than later in the bracket. That team is not NC State.
Because 2.5 points is not a lot, and their margin for error is small, buy the points, and bet Louisville on the moneyline -145. You’ll enjoying cheering for the team with better coaching, which tends to win these games.
(Photo credit: MKultra (Red White Scrimmage) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)