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The Big Preview: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Louisville Cardinals

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These two “rivals” are facing off for the first time this season

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Louisville Cardinals officially joined the ACC in the summer of 2014, replacing Maryland. In doing so, the ACC named Louisville as the Virginia Cavaliers’ official cross-division “rivals,” meaning that the two teams would play annually in football and biannually in basketball.

In football, the series is fairly even (3-2 in Louisville’s advantage). But in basketball, the Cavaliers have had the edge in a big way. In eight games, Virginia has won seven of them. The one win for Louisville came on the final day of the ACC season in 2015, in a game that meant exactly nothing to a Virginia team that had already clinched the ACC regular season title.

Last year, Virginia swept the Cardinals, winning by 10 at home and coming away with one of the most improbable wins ever in the road game. Maybe you remember. The Hoos trailed by 4 with less than a second remaining. This happened.

None of that really matters now. That team was coached by David Padgett, a Rick Pitino protege. Padgett is out now, with former Xavier coach Chris Mack installed as the head coach. Under Pitino and Padgett, Louisville was a run n’ gun team, playing full court press, forcing turnovers and getting easy buckets. Under Mack, they are more of a traditional team. In fact, Chris Mack’s teams run the same Pack Line defense that Tony Bennett’s teams run.

The Cardinals are ranked 18th in the AP Poll, 22nd in the coaches poll, and 19th on KenPom. They sit at 18-9 (9-5 ACC). That includes wins over UNC (5th on KenPom), Michigan State (4th). It also includes losses to Indiana (48th) and Pittsburgh (86th). They are also coming off an ugly 20 point loss to Syracuse (38th).

In their loss to Syracuse, Louisville scored just 49 points (0.73 points per possession). That’s very bad, and it’s emblematic of their season. The Cardinals offense is solid, ranking 26th nationally. But there isn’t any one thing they do well. They shoot a lot of threes (65th in percentage of shots taken from downtown), but they don’t shoot it particularly well (109th). They aren’t a particularly good offensive rebounding team (150th), nor do they take care of the ball very well (151st).

Their one strength is free throws. They get to the line a lot (44th in FT rate) and they make their freebies (9th, at over 77%). Junior guard Ryan McMahon has made 53/56 FTs (94%) this year. Yes, I hope I just jinxed him. McMahon takes over 80% of his shots from downtown, making 36%. He doesn’t bring a whole lot else to the table.

Louisville’s leading scorer is sophomore Jordan Nwora, a guy who barely played last year. In two games against the Hoos last year, he played just 11 minutes and scored 5 points. This year, he’s leading the team with over 17 points per game. He’s also the leading rebounder with over seven per game. He’s not the most athletic or explosive guy, so he ends up shooting a lot of threes. He’s making 37% from downtown, which is solid, but far from elite. But a lot of those aren’t great shots. When he’s set and open, he is a deadly shooter.

He isn’t even open on this one. Because of his ability to hit outside shots, he is able to get inside and score. Here’s an example against Clemson’s David Skara.

Skara is a solid defender. He stays in front of Nwora, but isn’t strong enough to stop him from getting inside and getting an easy bucket.

Here’s another example from the same game. In this case, it’s semi-transition. Skara is so concerned about Nwora’s ability to shoot that he picks up well behind the three point line. That gives Nwora too much space to drive into the lane and get an open dunk.

Nwora is 6’7” 225, so it’s pretty much a perfect matchup for either DeAndre Hunter or Braxton Key. Both of those guys are much quicker than Skara, so Nwora hopefully isn’t able to get those easy buckets. That could mean he’s forced to settle for outside shots. That’s usually not good for Louisville, although he was 5-8 from downtown in their upset win over UNC. If he’s able to get hot from downtown, it could be trouble.

Nwora usually plays the four in a small-ish Louisville lineup that includes three guards. Most lineups include one true “big”, either sophomore Malik Williams or UCONN transfer Steven Enoch. Both will play inside a bit, but are also comfortable on the outside. Williams has taken over 40% of his shots from downtown (making just 32%) and while Enoch only attempts about one trey per game, he actually leads the team at 46% from outside.

Both big men will block some shots (Williams is elite, whereas Enoch is merely good), but both are also foul prone. Neither averages even 20 minutes per game and they are almost never on the floor together. Williams has been starting, but he’s a better matchup for Mamadi Diakite than Jack Salt. Tony Bennett isn’t going to change his lineup to matchup with Chris Mack’s, but it makes sense to have Salt in when Enoch is in and Diakite for Williams. We’ll see what Tony decides. Salt is a good enough defender to both Williams regardless of where he is.

Over the last decade or so, some very good point guards have run through Louisville. That includes Peyton Silva, Russ Smith, Donovan Mitchell, Quentin Snider and others, the current starting PG is a graduate transfer from Samford. Most of those guys were four and five star recruits. Cunningham was a two-star guy, ranked as the 115th PG in the class. Credit to Cunningham for turning that into a stellar three year career at Samford, and a chance to play closer to home for his senior season (he’s from Lexington). Cunningham is very strong in the open floor, where he can finish or dish.

An interesting part of this is Darius Perry, who was a 4-star recruit (and the 54th ranked recruit in 2017), is backing up Cunningham. Perry is just a sophomore, but he simply hasn’t developed at all. He’s shooting just 32% from downtown, where he takes over half his shots. Plus, his assist to turnover ratio is 1.1, which is not good for a PG. (Ty Jerome ranked 23rd nationally in A/TO at just under 3. Kihei Clark is at 1.8, which is also not good for a PG. Cunningham is at 2.5.) Perry also isn’t a very good defender and fouls too much.

Another bigtime recruit who really hasn’t panned out for Louisville is V.J. King. King was actually a 5-star guy and the 23rd ranked player in 2016. He’s actually regressed as a player since his freshman year, which is largely related to talent around him. King has made just 3/24 from downtown, after making 42% as a freshman. He’s still dangerous when he can take the ball to the basket, but because of his struggles from outside, nobody guards him outside. King has essentially lost all his playing time to UNC-Asheville transfer Dwayne Sutton. King has played a total of 23 minutes over the past six games, which includes 10 minutes (mostly garbage time) against Syracuse.

Sutton, on the other hand, has been a revelation for the Cardinals. He’s second on the team in both scoring and rebounds and has been their most efficient scorer. He’s shooting 38% on almost four attempts per game from downtown, and he’s over 53% on the inside. Quite the opposite of King, Sutton has improved every year of his career, even moving from the Big South to the ACC. The ideal lineup for the Hoos would be to have DeAndre Hunter on Sutton, while Braxton Key guards Nwora. In the most likely starting lineup, Ty Jerome would likely be on Sutton.

Another graduate transfer has been starting at SG, Kwone Fore. Fore spent his first three years at Richmond, where he was solid if unspectacular. He’s struggled with the move to high-major ball, and has been one of the least efficient perimeter players in the ACC this year. He’s a strong defender though, which is why he’s in the starting lineup. He’ll likely be matched up with Kyle Guy on both ends when he’s in. McMahon will get a lot of those minutes, because Louisville will need to hit some outside shots

That’s what’s going to decide this game. Against Syracuse the other day, the Cardinals made 6/28 (21%) from three. In their upset over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, they made 13/27 (48%). Obviously, those are a bit extreme. But this team isn’t good enough inside to beat a good team if they aren’t making their outside shots. In building a 23 point lead over Duke last week, they made 6 of their first 14 from downtown (43%). In blowing that lead, they made just 3 of their last 13 (23%). Keep in mind that Virginia is #1 in the nation in three point defense.