Louisville On The NCAA Tournament Bubble After ACC Tournament Exit, May Slump

A rough month for Louisville came to an end Thursday at the ACC Tournament in Charlotte. It lost, 9-8, in 12 innings to Georgia Tech in the decisive game of pool play for both teams.

With the loss, the Cardinals were eliminated from the ACC Tournament and now begin an anxious wait for Selection Monday.

Louisville didn’t just stumble down the stretch – it fell flat. The Cardinals went 4-11 over the last five weeks, getting swept three times and then going 1-1 in the ACC Tournament. In the process, they fell from the ranks of ACC title contenders to seventh place in the standings and their RPI dropped to No. 74, well outside the typical range for an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament.

A terrible month, culminating with a loss Thursday when they blew three late leads, has left the Cardinals (28-22) in a precarious position. Their streak of eight-straight NCAA Tournament appearances is in jeopardy.

As is the case for any bubble team, there are pieces of Louisville’s resume that say it is a tournament team. It went 17-17 in ACC games (counting the ACC Tournament, as the selection committee does), swept North Carolina State on the road, won series against Duke, Florida State and Virginia and split a series at Notre Dame – all of which are NCAA Tournament teams. It went 2-1 against SEC foes, including a win against Vanderbilt. It went 13-13 against teams that rank in the top 50 of RPI and 17-19 against the top 100. Only eight teams in the country have more top-50 wins than Louisville.

But the Cardinals are in trouble for a reason. They are 9-13 away from home and have a mediocre strength of schedule (58). They did very little in non-conference play – aside from Vanderbilt, they might not have faced a non-conference foe that is an NCAA Tournament team. And, of course, they have not left a good final impression with their play over the last month.

Some of Louisville’s predicament can be attributed to the ACC’s decision to expand its conference schedule to 12 weeks and 36 games, while also limiting the total number of games to 50. Much of the ACC seems to have depressed RPIs as a result, as just Notre Dame (10) and Miami (19) rank in the top 20. To make matters worse, Louisville had four of its ACC games cancelled – one by poor weather at Notre Dame (a decision the Cardinals expressed their displeasure with by holding a practice on the field) and a series against Pittsburgh due to Covid-19 issues for the Panthers – leaving them a few games short.

Louisville has also been hit hard by injuries all season long. Righthander Glenn Albanese, its Opening Day starter, has made just four appearances this year – though he is expected to be ready to return in some role next week. Righthander Jared Poland (five appearances) and lefthander Michael Prosecky (four appearances) are also among the pitchers who have been limited.

Louisville’s offense hasn’t always been able to pick up the slack, although it did its part during the ACC Tournament, scoring 23 runs and bashing 11 home runs. Catcher Henry Davis, a potential top-five draft pick, has been excellent all season long, hitting .370/.482/.663 with 15 home runs and 10 stolen bases. The rest of the Cardinals’ veterans, however, haven’t been as consistent. 

But those circumstances are not unique to the Cardinals and they likely would have overcome them if they could have avoided getting swept three times in the last month. Instead, their fate is in the hands of the selection committee.

If Louisville gets in the NCAA Tournament it will be because of its top-50 wins, its 17 wins against ACC competition, possibly the ranking of the regional advisory committee and maybe an acknowledgement by the selection committee of RPI’s limitations when evaluating ACC teams in a unique season. If it is left out, it will be because of its poor RPI, its losing record away from Jim Patterson Stadium and the way it played down the stretch.

The Cardinals have a Rorschach test of a tournament resume and there’s enough data on either side of the argument for the selection committee to justify its choice. 

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