Louisville's title run lifts it up final UPS standings, but team's success about more than numbers
By the time the streamers started falling from the Georgia Dome, one team stood apart from the others that came to the Final Four.
When all was said and done, the Louisville Cardinals distanced themselves from their Atlanta competition - both on the court, and in the UPS Team Performance Index.
With a gritty resiliency that could not be measured by just a boxscore, Louisville used a pair of double-digit comebacks at the Final Four to power it to its third national championship Monday night. In the process, it moved up to fifth in the final UPS Index of the season, further separating it from Michigan, Syracuse and Wichita State.
In conjunction with STATS LLC, UPS has created a proprietary algorithm that gauges six major statistics covering the spectrum of a team's on-court performance: effective field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage against, rebounding percentage, ball-handling efficiency, miscues and winning percentage.
From there, the data is normalized and an overall index is created for all 345 NCAA Division I teams. The scores are not meant to reflect a traditional power poll, per se, but measure a broad range of inside-the-lines excellence and overall balance.
The Cardinals ended the season on a tear, playing their best basketball when it mattered most. They won their last 16 games - including a run through the Big East tournament - and their only loss since Jan. 26 was a five-overtime setback at Notre Dame.
"It's just been an incredible run," said coach Rick Pitino, "with just the most wonderful young men I've had the pleasure to be around. I'm so proud of them."
One of the keys to their success was exceptional balance. Led by the tandem of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, Louisville was the top-ranked team from a major conference in the index's ball-handling category, measuring assists and steals. Feeding off the steady backcourt play in Pitino's sometimes frenetically paced system, the team proved to be solid, if not spectacular, across the board.
But perhaps even more than their talent and statistics, the Cardinals benefited from a tight-knit chemistry that made this title team greater than the sum of its individual parts.
"This team is one of the most together, toughest and hard-nosed teams," Pitino said. "Being down never bothers us. They just come back."
And come back they did - twice. The first time in the national semifinals against a rugged Wichita State team that gave the eventual champs all they could handle. The Shockers finished 27th in the index, powered by their dominating work on the boards all season long.
They came into the tournament as one of just nine teams in the country with a rebounding differential of over 8.0.
"Last year, we played the No. 1 RPI schedule in the nation, and this year we played a top-five schedule, and I don't think we could face a basketball team any better than Wichita State," Pitino said after his squad overcame a 12-point second-half deficit to eke out a 72-68 victory in the Final Four opener.
Things didn't get much easier in the championship game, where Michigan jumped out to a 12-point lead in the first half behind the hot hand of Spike Albrecht. The Wolverines, who finished 16th in the index behind an offense ranked in the top 10 in effective field goal percentage, were able to go point-for-point with Louisville for most of the game, but in the end, their defense let them down in an eventual 82-76 loss.
Of the five statistical categories in the index, Michigan ranked lowest in defense - 151st overall - and ultimately couldn't get a stop when it needed it most, particularly during a run that saw the Cardinals' Luke Hancock bury four straight 3-pointers to alter the momentum of the game.
"We feel bad about it," said Wolverines coach John Beilein. "There are some things we could have done better and get a win, but at the same time, Louisville is a terrific basketball team. We have not seen that quickness anywhere."
In order to advance to the title game, Michigan first had to get through Syracuse and its vaunted zone defense. The Orange finished fifth in the index in effective field goal defense and had been downright suffocating in the tournament. Coming into Atlanta, they had not allowed a tournament opponent to shoot over 40 percent from the field and held two of them to under 25 percent.
But while their defense held up, their offense - which ranked a pedestrian 156th - was nowhere to be found in a 61-56 defeat.
"Our offense was not good in the first half or the second half," said coach Jim Boeheim. "Second half, we got our defense going a lot better, and got back in the game in spite of our offense."
Gonzaga wound up in the index's top spot for the season, followed by Stephen F. Austin, Florida and Indiana. On the court, however, it was the Cardinals who were the last team standing, no doubt toughened by a competitive Big East schedule, hitting on all cylinders when the stakes were the highest and driven by a camaraderie that was second to none.
"I had the 13 toughest guys I've ever coached," Pitino said. "I'm just amazed they could accomplish everything we put out there."
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