NCAA Tournament Step Five: Previewing Louisville

Well, we've already taken out one pair of sisters this March. - USA TODAY Sports

The Bears are one win away from an improbable shot at a national championship. What will it take to get there?

For the fourth time in the tournament, the Bears have seemingly been given a gift by the basketball gods, as a lower seeded team upset a higher seeded team before facing our Bears. And for the fourth time I'm going to write a preview arguing that Cal's opponent has been underseeded.

Louisville earned a 5th seed on the back of a 3rd place finish in the Big East. Like everybody else other than Baylor, they were unable to compete with Notre Dame or UConn. But they compounded that forgivable sin by dropping games to Kentucky, Colorado, DePaul, South Florida, and Syracuse. Those five losses were mostly pretty close, and so when you look at their pre-tournament record of 24-8 (11-5) it seems like it easily could have been a few games better.

In any case, the Cardinals will arrive in New Orleans as the Cinderella darlings of the tournament, no matter how badly Shoni Shimmel and Jeff Walz want to believe that the entire world is against them. In fact, it appears now that the nation as well as the experts are now on the Louisville bandwagon.

Players To Watch

In rough order of how important/impactful each player will be

Shoni Schimmel, 5'9'' junior guard: If you watched Schimmel running around the court like a demon against Baylor and Tennessee, jacking up threes and throwing in backwards layups, you might be a little disheartened. The question is if Cal will face post-season world-beater Shoni Schimmel, or regular-season high-volume inefficient shooter Shoni Schimmel. She shoots under 40% on the year and averages more than three turnovers a game, so it's hardly fait accompli that she will score 20+ points in another Louisville offensive explosion. It's Cal's job (and, I'm guessing, Layshia's job?) to prevent that from happening.

I want Brittany Boyd to pick her pocket, beat her down the court for an and-1 layup, and then draw the technical foul on Schimmel when she inevitable starts jawing. I'm not asking for too much, am I?

Sara Hammond, 6'2'' sophomore forward: Louisville's leading inside scoring threat and best rebounder by a fairly significant margin, and probably the only player that can go toe-to-toe on the boards with Brandon and Caldwell. She can be a bit foul prone, and if Cal can get her stapled to the bench it would go a long way.

Antonita Slaughter, 6'1'' junior guard: The one who made like a bajillion threes against Baylor. She's not really a pure 3 point gunner - 58% of her shots come from behind the arc, and her season percentage puts her somewhere between Layshia Clarendon and Mikayla Lyles. She could hit six 3s, or one. If she's tightly defended and can't get a ton of shots off, she's probably not going to have a huge impact on the game. I'm assuming it will be Afure's assignment.

Jude Schimmel, 5'6'' sophomore guard: She's like Shoni except she takes significantly fewer shots. But she's a solid shooter and a decent point guard when/if Shoni isn't dominating the ball.

Bria Smith, 5'10'' sophomore guard: Look, another solid shooting, solid passing guard! That's kind of their thing. Once you get past Shoni, nobody blows you away. But nobody is a liability either. Everybody can hit a shot, force a turnover, or draw a foul.

Monique Reid, 6'1'' senior forward: An efficient inside scorer and rebounder who seems to play inconsistent minutes depending on matchups and game flow. Cal's inside players should be able to keep her off the glass.

Sheronne Vails, 6'4'' junior center: A low usage post who will come in if/when Hammond gets in foul trouble. Not really a scoring threat, and again, Cal's inside players should be able to keep her off the glass.

Courtnee Walton, 6'3'' freshman forward: Saw minutes against Baylor as another body to throw at Griner, then didn't play against Tennessee. She'll see minutes if Louisville faces foul trouble, but I'm guessing Walz would prefer to tighten the rotation if he can.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Sagarin Predictor: Louisville by 2.7. Ahh, what do they know anyway?

Cal

L'ville

Advantage

Cal eFG% vs. L'ville eFG% Def

45.6 (83)

38.5 (160)

C

Cal eFG% Def vs. L'ville eFG%

37.6 (106)

49.0 (18)

L

Cal Off TOV vs. L'ville Def. TOV

18.8 (18)

29.0 (3)

L

Cal Def. TOV vs. L'ville Off TOV

22.0 (199)

22.0 (123)

L

Cal RB% vs. L'ville RB%

60.7 (3)

52.0 (100)

C

Cal FT Rate Off vs. L'ville FT Rate Def

16.4 (64)

16.8 (101)

C

Cal FT Rate Def vs. L'ville FT Rate Off

17.7 (151)

15.9 (88)

L

Cal PPPO vs. L'ville PPPD

.999 (16)

.805 (60)

C

Cal PPPD vs. L'ville PPPO

.812 (68)

.999 (16)

L


The offense has the advantage in every category except Louisville's ability to force turnovers and Cal's ability to lock down the defensive glass. It's worth noting that, for all the publicity Louisville got for upsetting Baylor and Tennessee, their defense wasn't great in either game. Baylor and Tennessee together averaged about a point a possession. It was their offense that carried them to New Orleans.

Those two bolded categories at the bottom? Points scored/allowed per possession on offense and defense. Cal and Louisville have identically productive offenses, and nearly identically productive defenses. The two teams have virtually identical strengths of schedule as well. From a pure efficiency standpoint, you can't separate these teams.

Ah, but efficiency isn't style of play or strategy, is it? Because these are two very different teams. Cal's offense is about rebounding and turnover prevention. Louisville's offense is about great shooting and points off turnovers. Cal's defense is a disciplined man-to-man that wants to prevent 2nd chances. Louisville plays some full court press and lots of trapping zone in order to force turnovers.

So what style of game will it be? Which team will have the more successful transition offense? Can Cal stop Louisville from getting off high percentage looks? Can Louisville keep Cal off the glass? Even though these teams are evenly matched, I think the chances of a double digit win for somebody are fairly high because of the chances of one team imposing their type of game on the other. And so in that regard what each coach does to prepare their teams will be paramount.

Keys To The Game

Turnover Margin: Immovable object, meet irresistible force. Louisville is arguably the best turnover forcing defense in the country. Cal is a top 20 team in terms of ball control, and they have been playing even better than that in the tournament. If the Cardinals aren't forcing turnovers, they're going to be in trouble on defense, because Cal should be able to get good shots, and the very much should be able to get offensive rebounds.

But perhaps just as important is how many turnovers Louisville commits. Schimmel is prone to some over-exuberance with the ball, and those types of mistakes fuel Cal's potent transition game. The team that wins the turnover battle will have a significant advantage.

Calm but aggressive defense: While watching Louisville play Baylor and Tennessee, I saw two different types of mistakes against the Louisville offense. The first was being too passive - not closing out shooters and allowing the Cardinals to rain shots from behind the arc. And when Baylor and Tennessee both found themselves down double digits in the 2nd half, they started chasing Louisville around in a very undisciplined manner, and Louisville thrived off of that by moving the ball and finding open players to attack the paint.

Louisville's offense at times looks like pure chaos, designed to confuse defenders and create mismatches or missed assignments. You have to match their intensity and effort without losing the structure of the defense.

BONUS EXTRA SPECIAL FINAL FOUR 4th KEY TO THE GAME

Destroy them on the glass: Baylor pulled down 17 offensive rebounds (44% of their missed shots). Tennessee pulled down 12 offensive rebounds (33% of their missed shots). Cal is a better rebounding team than Baylor. Cal is a significantly better rebounding team than Tennessee. Cal is even more significantly better on the glass than Louisville. Destroy them on the glass.

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