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The Big Preview: Virginia travels for a huge matchup against No. 5 Louisville

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NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Virginia Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

The KFC Yum! Center has been kind to the Virginia Cavaliers over the past few years: they’ve beaten Louisville there four straight times, plus last year’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games were held there. You know you wanna watch it again (and again and again).

And here’s a refresher of the Hoos’ improbable comeback against Louisville in 2018.

The Louisville Cardinals are 12-1 at home, with the lone loss coming against FSU. The Cardinals are 19-3 overall and ranked eighth on KenPom (and fifth in the polls). This will be, perhaps, the biggest test Virginia has faced this year.

The Cardinals are led by preseason ACC Player of the Year Jordan Nwora. Nwora is a good shooter, and an even better scorer. He’s shooting almost 44% which puts him 56th nationally. He’s one of four Cardinals shooting better than 35% on at least two attempts per game. That’s why they are fourth nationally in three point shooting.

That may not be the shot that head coach Chris Mack wants Nwora taking, but he has the range, so it will be important that the Hoos don’t give him space outside. Braxton Key will likely get the first shot at guarding Nwora, who may be too big and strong for Virginia’s younger wings.

It isn’t just Nwora though. This team won at Cameron Indoor a few weeks ago with only six points from Nwora. They had four other guys in double figures, led by 19 from freshman David Johnson.

That’s one-on-one against Duke’s Tre Jones, one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. Johnson is one of four top-100 guys Mack brought in this year, although only Johnson and Samuell Williamson are getting much run. That’s because this is a deep, veteran team.

Almost the entire rotation is juniors and seniors, including graduate transfer Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble (that’s how he’s listed on Louisville’s roster), who’s been starting at PG since ACC play began.

This was a big bucket in this game. Louisville had led the entire way, but Duke came storming back in the second half, with much of the effort coming off of Louisville turnovers, perhaps the Cardinals’ biggest weakness. They’ve got a lot of ball-handlers, but also four guys who turn it over on roughly one-quarter of their possessions.

Kimble’s play has pushed Ryan McMahon to the bench. McMahon doesn’t bring much to the table other than shooting, but when he’s on he still gets big minutes. He played 33 minutes against NC State last week and dropped 23 points on seven made threes. But he also played just 10 minutes against Boston College with four points and zero made threes. Still, he’s one of the best shooters in the country (currently 23rd nationally at 46%) and must be accounted for when he’s on the court.

You can’t go under a screen against McMahon. That’s just lazy defending. Virginia’s big men, of course, hedge on that screen, preventing McMahon from getting that shot off. But he’s very good at spotting up on the wing, especially in transition. And, if you focus too much on him, they’ll hit you back door.

Once again that’s Jones getting beat. He’s watching McMahon and doesn’t realize his man is cutting until it’s too late. That’s what an elite shooter gives you, something Virginia’s offense could use right now. (Don’t worry too much, Carson McCorckle is coming in next year.)

The Cardinals have a pair of big men in Stephen (6’10 255) Enoch and Malik Williams (6’11” 245) who are similar players. Enoch starts, but minutes are split fairly evenly. Both are capable of knocking down the three, though neither are great at it, with Enoch at 28% and Williams at 33%. Both only attempt about one per game, but it is something to be wary of. On the inside their rebounding and block shot numbers are roughly the same and both struggle with fouls.

They don’t play nearly as fast as they did under Rick Pitino, but they’ll still get out and run. They are strong on the glass, so the wings will often release if they’re stuck on the perimeter and not crashing the glass. This is Nwora. He’s not in position to get on the boards, so he releases and ends up with an easy dunk.

This is, by far, the best team Virginia has faced this year. They might be the best team in the country. They knock down threes, they defend and they rebound. There’s depth and there’s also star power. Their perimeter players are better and more experienced than Virginia’s, but the Hoos may have an advantage inside.

If Virginia wins this game, it’ll be because they defend the perimeter very well and don’t give up open threes. And it’ll be because Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff and Braxton Key are able to dominate inside.