Following Northwestern’s 62-51 win over UCF in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, head coach Joe McKeown said Louisville was a 1-seed “masquerading as a 2-seed.” Indeed, the Cardinals were the number one-ranked team in the country for most of January. They were ranked eighth in the final AP Top 25 Poll of the season.
It won’t be easy for NU, but a handful of 7-seeds have taken down 2-seeds before. Here’s a primer on what stands between the Wildcats and the Sweet Sixteen.
Led by back-to-back ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans, U of L has made 46.8 percent of its shots from the field this season, the best mark in the ACC. Though they don’t draw an uncanny amount of fouls, the Cardinals hit their free throws when they do make it to the line: they’re shooting 78.9 percent from the charity stripe this season, once again the best in their conference.
In stark contrast from Northwestern’s first round opponent, UCF, Louisville does a great job of holding on to the rock. While the Knights averaged 18.2 turnovers a game, the Cards only turn the ball over 12 times per contest, the lowest amount in the ACC and the 14th lowest in the country.
All of this has combined to help the Cards average 78.7 points a game, which is — you guessed it — the most in the ACC and the 14th-best mark in the country. They stay on offense by maintaining possession better than most teams do, then convert on opportunities at an advanced rate. To put it more simply, Louisville can put the ball in the hoop.
It should be noted that Louisville is either the best or second-best team Northwestern has played this year. At one point, they were the top-ranked team in the nation. You don’t get to the top of the rankings in as talent-heavy a sport as women’s college basketball with very many glaring weaknesses.
That said, the Cardinals are definitely weaker on the defensive side of the ball than the offensive. They rank 60th nationally in opposing shooting percentage, 102nd in scoring defense and 75th in rebounds per game. Given the tough competition the Cards have faced in the ACC, those numbers still aren’t horrible, but, clearly, they’re not quite as strong as their offensive rankings.
Players to watch
The heart and soul of the team and its only senior, there isn't much Dana Evans cannot do. Her time at Louisville has coincided with one of the program’s most successful stretches ever, as she is guaranteed to conclude her career at Louisville with the fewest losses and the best winning percentage of any four year player in program history. She’s projected to go early in the upcoming WNBA Draft, perhaps as the first guard selected.
Of late, though, Evans has hit a bit of a rough patch. She’s put up 15 or fewer points in each of the Cards’ last four games despite averaging 19.8 per contest on the season. If U of L is to make a run deep into the tournament, that will likely have to change.
Hailey Van Lith and Kianna Smith
There’s no doubt that Evans is the main attraction on Louisville’s roster. If the senior is Louisville’s hero, though, fellow guards Hailey Van Lith and Kianna Smith are, at the very least, worthy sidekicks.
They’ve both averaged 11.4 points a game so far in their first seasons with the Cardinals, and, while Van Lith rebounds at a higher clip than either of the other two, Smith is significantly taller than either, which gives her an advantage defending in the post. Louisville often presents as a smaller team, but, with the incredible ability of Evans and the guards around her, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
How Northwestern can win
Against a Louisville team that only Maryland can potentially rival as Northwestern’s toughest opponent of the year, the Wildcats’ margin for error will be slim. First and foremost, Veronica Burton will have to live up to her nationally acclaimed defensive reputation in guarding Evans. If Burton and her teammates are able to frustrate Evans and the Blizzard defense forces difficult looks for U of L’s talented guards, the ‘Cats may be able to keep up with the Cardinals’ high octane offense.
Against UCF, Lindsey Pulliam came to play and had one of her best offensive performances of the season. She’ll likely need to do so once again. Burton will need to put up more than her four first-round points, and the ‘Cats as a whole will have to stay out of foul trouble in order to both keep Louisville away from the line (where they thrive) and keep their starters in. Accomplish those tasks, or at least most of them, and the Wildcats could have an upset on their hands.