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The Big Basketball Preview: Louisville at Virginia

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Just over 48 hours after their loss to NC State, Virginia Basketball gets back to it with a home game against the Louisville Cardinals. Virginia and Louisville are having very similar years. Both teams have been solid defensively, but have really struggled offensively. This has led to some bad losses.

For Virginia, it began with a season opening loss to Navy. For Louisville, it was game two against Furman. The Cardinals have also lost to DePaul and Western Kentucky along with losses to ACC bottom feeders NC State and Pitt. On the other hand, Louisville handily took down Navy just six days after the Midshipmen knocked off the Hoos.

Last year’s Louisville team was led in scoring by graduate transfer Carlik Jones, from Radford. This year’s squad is led in scoring by another graduate transfer, Noah Locke from Florida. He is 6’3” 205, but almost entirely an outside shooter. He’s made 37% of his threes (roughly two-thirds of his attempts), and just 36% in total from the field.

Look how early he’s spotted up and waiting for the ball. The defender can’t commit, because he needs to stop the ball. That gives Locke enough space to get off the shot even against a bigger defender.

Locke leads the team in scoring, but at fewer than 11 points per game. Senior big man Malik Williams is second at just under 10. Williams is a much more efficient player, shooting nearly 50% from the field. Williams, though, shoots too many threes. He attempts 3 per game, but makes just 30%. Williams barely played last season, after several foot injuries suffered over a year or so. But in 2019, Williams averaged 8.5 points and 6 rebounds per game.

His minutes are up since then, with his production rising as well. He’s averaging 10 points and 9 rebounds per game. He’s also 6’11” 250 pounds and can both defend the post and block shots as a help defender.

Behind Locke and Williams, there are six guys averaging between 5.5 and 7.6 points per game. Five of those six also average around 18 minutes per game. The outlier there is PG Jarrod West, who leads the team in minutes played (and assists and steals). West is a graduate transfer from Marshall, who seems to have lost his starting spot. He hasn’t started the past two, though he has still played 20 and 28 minutes. Another grad transfer, Mason Faulkner, has taken the starting gig and has provided more production than West. Both came in as elite shooters who can also run an offense. West hasn’t shot the ball well this season (just over three attempts per game), but Faulkner has (36% on about 2.5 attempts per game). West is a better defender, and more capable of playing off the ball.

West, predictably, knocked down 4-4 from downtown in the loss to Notre Dame on Saturday following his demotion. This one was late in the shot clock, and a contested shot. Faulkner played 28 minutes in this one, with West playing 25. That means fewer minutes for Williams (22 mins) and some other bigger players. Notre Dame does not have a lot of size, so perhaps this was a matchup thing for Chris Mack. Didn’t work, as Notre Dame dominated the second half en route to an easy win.

Doling out playing time to this group of players has been tough on Chris Mack. He doesn’t have a very strict rotation, meaning guys might not know how many minutes they are going to play game in and game out. Sophomore Dre Davis, the third leading scorer, has played as many as 33 minutes and as few as 8. El Ellis, a JUCO transfer who is fourth in scoring, has played 30 minutes and has played 9. Even Williams, a fifth year senior, has seen his minutes fluctuate from 13 at a low to 30 at a high. Also, ten different Cardinals have started at least two games. Generally, players like to know their role, and its hard to do with so much fluctuation in the roles.

Does Mack have too many good players, and he’s attempting to match up based on opponent strengths? Or does he have too few good players, and he’s trying to find the right combination of players to be successful.

The Cardinals take a ton of threes. Over 42% of their shots this season have come from downtown. That’s in the top 25% nationally. But, as a team they shoot just 32% from downtown, which is slightly worse than Virginia. Eight different Cardinals attempt two treys per game or more, and only three are better than that 32%. That’s Ellis, Locke and Faulkner. Davis (22%), Jae’Lyn Withers (22%), Williams (31%) and Cross (31%) are the biggest culprits.

Withers was the leading scorer returning from last year, at over 10 per game. At 6’8”, and with a nice inside/outside game, he was one of the most efficient scorers in the ACC. He shot 38% from downtown (on limited attempts) and also almost 60% inside. Withers started the first eight games this season, but has steadily seen his minutes drop this year as he has struggled to finish both inside and outside. He’s down to just 51% on interior shots, his turnovers are way up and combined with the struggles from outside, has made him one of the least efficient rotation players in the ACC. He played just three minutes in a home loss to NC State.

Similarly, Samuel Williamson was an up and coming player for the Cardinals last season, averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds as a sophomore. He shot 55% on shots inside, though he also shot too many threes. This season, Williamson is averaging just 6 points and 4 rebounds per game, in fewer minutes. Is it the lack of consistent playing time that’s impacting his performance, or vice versa? At 6’7” 210, Williamson can be a matchup nightmare on the wing.

Another talented wing, highly touted freshman Mike James, tore his achilles in October and is out for the season.

In the Cardinals big win over Wake Forest, Williamson and Withers combined for 18 points on nine FGA in 46 combined minutes. But in their previous game, a disappointing loss to Western Kentucky, that duo combined for three points on eight FGA over 33 combined minutes. In the loss to Notre Dame, that duo had 15 points on 14 FGA.

Add in Davis and Cross, and it’s really been those wings whose play has determined the success of this team. When one (or more) of those guys are playing well (and getting extended playing time), the Cardinals are tough to beat. But if you can shut down those guys, the Cardinals become much easier to face.

Since both teams are tough to score inside on, and neither team shoots the ball particularly well from outside, it really feels like whichever team knocks down more treys will win. Really, you could say that about every Virginia game though.

Louisville has more guys who shoot, but Virginia has home court advantage and the outside shots should come from a smaller group of people. The Hoos need someone to get hot and do some damage, which should be enough to sway the game to Virginia.