It may only be December, but Virginia kicks off ACC play tonight with a trip to the KFC Yum! Center (I giggle every time) and #6 Louisville. The Cardinals are coming off of a huge 73-70 win over Kentucky, and boast one of the most impressive non-conference resumes with wins over Wichita State and #15 Purdue in addition to Big Blue. Louisville’s (11-1) lone blemish this season came in a 66-63 loss at the hands of now #4 Baylor in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Not too shabby.
Last season, the two ACC “rivals” met twice, with Virginia winning both games. At Louisville, the Hoos stifled the Cards in a 63-47 victory in which Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill each had 13 points and the Hoos held Louisville to 21% shooting from the field in the first half. In the return game in Charlottesville, Virginia once again dominated, winning 68-46 on Senior Night when Mike Tobey went off for 15 points and 20 rebounds and Caid Kirven hit the “senior night three”.
One thing is certain regarding tonight’s matchup: you will see a lot of phenomenal defense. Louisville enters the game with the most efficient defense in the country, according to KenPom. Virginia ranks second in defensive efficiency and is holding opponents to a paltry 47.2 points per game, which is tops in the nation. So how does this play out?
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino relies heavily on his one-two punch at guard featuring junior Quentin Snider and sophomore Donovan Mitchell. Both guards average over 28 minutes per game, and have combined for 35% of Louisville’s shot attempts this season. Scoring wise, they’re just about even with Snider contributing 11.9 points per game and Mitchell with 11.8. Snider far-and-away leads the team with 47 assists (the next closest is 27) and a 2.93 assist-to-turnover ratio. Neither player is shooting lights out with Snider and Mitchell shooting 35% and 36% from the field and 33% and 30% from three, respectively.
Snider is coming off of a huge game against Kentucky in which he shot 53% from the field on 10-for-19 shooting and scored a career high 22 points. At 6-2, 175, Snider isn’t physically imposing, but he can find space to get off a shot. Mitchell is comparable in height at 6-3, but carries more weight at 200 pounds (for reference, London Perrantes is listed at 6-2, 197). David Levitch and VJ King appear to be the first guards off the bench for Pitino, averaging 8.8 and 13.8 minutes per game, respectively. Levitch registered 12 minutes against Kentucky, whereas King only had three. Both have shot the three ball well this season, but in limited attempts as Levitch has connected on 6-of-11 (54%) tries and King has made 8-of-15 (53%) from beyond the arc.
Louisville starts a trio of big men with 6-9, 230 lb. Jaylen Johnson, 6-10, 230 lb. Mangok Mathiang, and 6-7, 200 lb. Deng Adel all averaging over 20 minutes per game. You may remember Mathiang as the fella who hit the game winner against Virginia two seasons in Louisville’s lone victory over the Hoos since joining the conference. He sat out last season with an injury, but has returned to the lineup and is averaging just over six points and seven rebounds per game and shooting 42% from the field. Adel is the third leading scorer for the Cardinals with 10.4 points per game, with Johnson right behind him with 9.8 points per game. Much like the Cavaliers, the Cardinals have a balanced attack with no player averaging more than 11.9 points per game and seven players averaging over six points per game.
Off the bench, Pitino has the 7-footer Anas Mahmoud and 6-10 Ray Spalding at his disposal. All five big men - Johnson, Mathiang, Adel, Mahmoud, and Spalding - have length, but none of them weigh over 230 pounds, meaning it will be important for Jack Salt (247 lbs.) and Jarred Reuter (243 lbs.) to use their muscle inside, while Mamadi Diakite and Isaiah Wilkins could get a lot of burn in that stretch-four type position. The Cards like to play a two guard, three forward lineup, which will be interesting for Virginia that has used a lot of guard play so far this season. Marial Shayok and Devon Hall will be crucial in this game, especially offensively. Kyle Guy will likely see a lot of playing time for his hot shooting hand, and it will be necessary to have another option on that end of the court.
Defensively, Louisville is averaging seven blocks per game, led by Mahmoud who has 22 on the season. Taking the ball inside on Louisville is like trying to score on several Stretch Armstrongs. Do not recommend. In addition to the blocks, the Cardinals are forcing their opponents into turnovers on 22% of their possessions. On the possessions where they don’t force you to cough it up, Louisville has limited teams to an effective field goal (eFG) percentage of just 44%. From beyond the arc, Louisville’s opponents are shooting just 28% eFG. In order to be successful tonight, Virginia cannot settle for long, outside jumpers, and they have to limit transition and force Louisville to play at their pace.
Game tips off at 7pm on ESPN2.