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THE BIG PREVIEW: No. 2 Virginia hosts Louisville in important ACC matchup

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The Cardinals are the closest to the Hoos in the standings at 6-2.

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers are coming off one of the biggest wins in recent history after they handled the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils on Saturday in Cameron Indoor. No rest for the weary, however, as the Hoos now must get back to action. That begins Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena with the Louisville Cardinals in town. The Cardinals (16-5) are actually in second place in the ACC, 2.5 games back of Virginia with a 6-2 conference record. Their two conference losses are on the road against Clemson and Miami, and both came in OT. They’ve also won at FSU and at ND. In other words, they’re a good road team this season (unless they’re playing at Kentucky).

I’m not going to go into the shenanigans involving Louisville and Rick Pitino this offseason. If you don’t know, Google is your friend. Anybody who thought the offseason issues would impact their performance was sorely mistaken. The reason, of course, is that there’s a ton of talent on the roster. Top recruit Brian Bowen (the subject of the scandal) never made it to Louisville and has since signed with South Carolina. Still, a quartet of freshmen are each averaging about 12 minutes per game, but no more than five points per game.

Most of the damage is being done by the upperclassmen. The Cardinals leading scorer is junior Deng Adel. He’s averaging over 15 points per game, up from 12 last year. He’s pretty much the exact same player he was last year, but now he’s getting more opportunities. He only played in one of the two matchups last year (due to a suspension), but scored just eight points on 3-for-9 shooting and had three rebounds. Adel has scored at least nine in every game this year. He was largely up against Devon Hall last year, and figures to be again, assuming Hall is healthy enough to go.

Their second leading scorer is senior PG Quentin Snider. Snider also played in just one of the two matchups last year (due to a hip injury), scoring eight points on 2-for-5 from the field. Somehow, Snider’s usage rate has decreased this year, despite absence of NBA Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell. Maybe the reduced usage has helped. Last year, Snider was under 40% from the field, and took half his shots from downtown. This year, Snider has taken just 45% of his shots from downtown and he’s up to 44% FG. His three point percentage is the same, but now he’s finishing inside more and also getting to the line and converting his FTs (88% after 72% last year). The Hoos will probably play off Snider and dare him to shoot from outside.

The other member of the wings is sophomore V.J. King, who is supposed to be a scorer, but really hasn’t figured out what he can do. He’s shooting right at 40% on the year, and he doesn’t create shots for anybody else. He also doesn’t really play a whole lot of defense. He’s an explosive athlete, but he seems to disappear for long stretches. He’ll sometimes find himself on the bench in favor of Ryan McMahon, who is a shooter. That’s about all he does, though he’s a tough defender. He’s too small to consistently guard most ACC wings, but he’ll scrape and claw and fight every step of the way.

Louisville’s trademark under Pitino was a full-court 1-3-1 match-up press. New coach David Padgett is a Pitino disciple (played for and coached under). Even so, his Cardinals don’t run that press anymore. You may still see it in spurts (or something similar anyway), but they play a more conventional defense now. Mostly, it’s a fairly standard man-to-man, but they’ll also run some match-up zone. Considering the struggles the Hoos had against Duke’s zone, we can expect to see a fair amount of it. They ran it extensively in their game at Miami last week, but not at home against Wake Forest.

The match-up zone is basically a zone with some man-to-man principles. When the ball is in your zone, you are, essentially, a man-to-man defender. Unlike a standard zone defense, outside shots aren’t quite as open, because defenders tend to be closer to the guys in their zone. As with any zone, the best way to defeat it is to get into the paint. The Cavaliers’ MO is to do this with a pass (see below). It can also be done off the dribble (second video below, from Miami). Both are great examples of how you beat a zone.

Amazingly, despite not pressing, Louisville is playing at a faster pace than last year. That speed is almost entirely on offense. Their average defensive possession is actually longer than Virginia’s. They don’t force nearly as many turnovers without the press, so they end up playing defense longer. Offensively, they play at one of the fastest paces in the nation. Some of that is transition. They get up court and into their offense very quickly. That isn’t likely to be effective against Virginia. They also play a lot of 1-on-1, and will often take the first shot they see. That’s why they are 289th in assists per made FG, and just 73rd in offensive efficiency.

Seven-footer Anas Mahmoud is the top big man, though he’s been coming off the bench in ACC play. He’s an elite shot blocker and strong on the glass. But that’s about it. Freshman Malik Williams has been starting, but Mahmoud is still seeing starter minutes. Williams has a more diverse offensive game, but at 6’11, 225, he’s just too weak to bang inside. Ray Spalding is their answer to Isaiah Wilkins. They are both very good defenders, very good on the glass, and both are capable of knocking down an open jumper. They also both think they have three point range even though they don’t. Spalding is 3-for-14, Wilkins is 2-for-12.

Louisville has size, something the Hoos have struggled with at times this year. They also have depth, with 10 different guys who’ve seen double-digit minutes in an ACC game. That combination is what makes this game a challenge. The Hoos may be without several of their biggest contributors due to medical issues (see Devon Hall link above). If that’s the case, Tony will have to tighten up his rotations and change up some matchups. At home, I still like the Hoos, largely because I trust Tony over a first year head coach. Louisville has a lot of talent on offense, but the finished product isn’t there yet.