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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs Louisville

Can the Hoos close out the season with a win and lock up the top seed in the ACC?

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers welcome the Louisville Cardinals to John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday to close out the regular season. If Virginia can get the win, they secure the No. 1 seed in next week’s upcoming ACC tournament. The Hoos are currently tied atop the standings with UNC at 15-2.

Two weeks ago, the Hoos went into the KFC Yum! Center and knocked off then-No. 19 Louisville, 64-52. The game was notable for a number of reasons, beginning with the 10-point deficit Virginia faced at halftime. Also, Louisville shot a ridiculous 10-for-16 from downtown in the first half. If you make 63% of your threes, you’re going to be leading. Finally, Virginia (the No. 4 three point shooting team in America) shot just 2-for-17 (12%) from downtown. Conversely, if you make 12% of your threes, you’re not supposed to win.

The difference in that game was De’Andre Hunter. He was simply unstoppable, scoring 26 points on 9-for-11 shooting and going 6-for-6 from the free throw line. Amazingly, because of foul trouble, he only played 27 minutes. He missed much of the first half after picking up that second foul early on, but didn’t commit a foul in the second half. Imagine what numbers he might’ve put up if he’d played 35 minutes.

The Hoos also dominated inside, with Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff combining for 26 points and 12 rebounds. They did most of their damage in the first half, while Hunter was on the bench. Virginia fans are hoping this was a preview of things to come next year with Diakite and Huff as the primary front court options.

That same duo was on the floor for Virginia huge second half run against Syracuse on Monday. Over a roughly 12 minute period, Virginia outscored the Orange 40-19 with a lineup of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Hunter, Diakite, and Huff.

Against Louisville, Huff and Diakite impacted the game in so many ways. There were drives:

There was screen-and-roll:

There were post moves:

There were offensive rebounds:

And, of course, there were alley-oop dunks:

I don’t know about you, but that one is my favorite.

All told, Virginia had 38 points in the paint, while Louisville had four. Yes, four. The Cardinals average 28 points in the paint per game with their season low outside of the Virginia game being 16 points.

It seemed like Virginia’s defense was not great in the first half. After all, allowing 37 points in a half is almost unheard of for a Tony Bennett team. But, in reality, the defense wasn’t that bad. Louisville just knocked down a lot of tough shots, punctuated by a Jordan Nwora buzzer beating bank-shot:

Nwora led Louisville with 17 points and Ryan McMahon added 12. Nwora is Louisville’s top scorer and (probably) best player. He had 12 of his 17 points in the first half. McMahon is a shooter (and that’s about it) and went 4-for-4 from downtown in the first half and 0-for-3 in the second half. Nobody else on the Cardinals broke double figures.

The Cardinals are not a particularly big team, and were actually led in rebounding by 6’5 wing Dwayne Sutton. Then again, Virginia was led in rebounding by 6’2 Kyle Guy, so it was a weird game. Sutton scored the first eight points of the game for the Cardinals and did not score again.

Louisville has two big men, Malik Williams and Steven Enoch. Williams is the better defender, while Enoch is the better scorer, but neither are really true post players, at least on offense. They split time pretty evenly, as Enoch started the first 14 games and Williams has started the last 16. They both average just under 20 minutes per game.

Speaking of minutes, Guy played the full 40 in the last Louisville game, and Ty Jerome played 38 minutes. That’s despite neither of them being able to hit the broad side of a barn (combined 4-for-20 from the field and 0-for-11 from downtown) in the 12 point win. Yes, the game was closer that that throughout, but Virginia had a 10-point lead at the under-4 time out.

If Virginia is going to make runs in both the ACC and NCAA tournament, they’re going to need those two guys at full strength. Then again, both of them have been on fire since that game:

Guy/Jerome Shooting (Past 3 Games)

Player FG 3PT
Player FG 3PT
Guy 17/28 (61%) 16/23 (70%)
Jerome 17/27 (63%) 7/9 (78%)

Yes, it’s just three games, but those shooting numbers would be pretty good in warmups. They have gotten some rest over those three games because all three were blowouts. Also, by virtue of getting the double-bye in the ACC Tournament, the entire team is getting some extra rest. Between the Syracuse game on Monday and Virginia first ACC Tournament game, the Hoos will have played just one game in ten days.

Louisville followed up the Virginia loss with a loss to Boston College, but rebounded with a home win over Notre Dame. Over those two games, the Cardinals made just 7-for-46 (15%) from downtown. That’s not great and is well below their season number of 34%. But that still ranks just 170th in the nation.

Louisville dominated inside in both of those games, picking up 29 offensive rebounds (34% of their misses). They’ve also made 82% of their FTs, which is above their season number, but not by much. As a team, they shoot 78% (7th nationally). They also get to the line a lot, with several players above the national average FT rate.

In the last matchup, the Cardinals began the game by making tough shot after tough shot. In the second half, the shots weren’t dropping, but they didn’t really alter the game plan. In this game, they’ll likely forego the outside shot in favor of getting the ball into the paint. If they’re successful, that will open up opportunities in the paint, it’ll create chances at the FT line and it’ll free up McMahon and others for outside shots. That’s Louisville path to the upset. Easier said than done against the Pack Line.

Incidentally, the Cardinals also play the Pack Line under new head coach Chris Mack. It’s slightly different from what the Cavaliers play, and (obviously) isn’t as good, but the Cardinals rank 17th nationally in defensive efficiency. They really frustrated the Hoos in the first half, holding them to 27 points on 29 possessions. The second half was different, and that was largely Hunter. The trio of Hunter, Huff and Diakite scored 52 points on 29 shots. That’s insanely efficient.

If Virginia gets anything approaching that performance again, Louisville hasn’t got a shot. Especially since it’s unlikely that both Guy and Jerome will struggle as they did the first time out.

The game tips off at 4pm and will be broadcast on ESPN.