Game Time: 4:02 p.m.
Location: KFC Yum Center: Louisville, Ky.
Announcers: Jason Benetti (play-by-play) and Dan Dakich (analyst)
Favorite: Louisville by 7.5
Officials: Bert Smith, John Gaffney, Keith Kimble
Series: Virginia leads, 15-4
Last Meeting: Virginia won 73-68 on March 9, 2019 in Charlottesville
Probable Starting Lineups:
Even with its current three-game winning streak, Virginia enters the final stretch of the regular season at risk of becoming the first reigning national champion to miss out on the NCAA tournament since 2014 champ Connecticut was left out of the field of 68 a year later. At 15-6 overall, the Cavaliers currently sit at No. 57 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings, and have just two Quadrant 1 victories and four Quadrant 2/3 losses.
The story of Virginia’s season is fairly straightforward: The Cavaliers are the best defensive team in the country by a wide margin, but one of the worst offensive teams in the history of the ACC. Once again playing at the slowest pace in America, UVA is averaging just 56.3 points per game, good for 347th out of 353 Division-I teams. A large part of the reason for that is a team three-point shooting percentage of 27.5, good for 346th in D-I. That would be a tough look for any team in the sport, but it’s especially troubling when you shoot three-pointers on 37.3 percent of your possessions like Virginia does.
Where something will have to give on Saturday is in the battle of Virginia’s perimeter defense against Louisville’s perimeter shooting. As is customary with their trademark pack line defense, the Cavaliers want their opponents to take challenged shots from the outside. They’ve excelled at accomplishing that goal this season, forcing opposing teams to take threes on 44 percent of their shots, and connecting on only 29.4 percent of those attempts.
That defense will be put to the test against a U of L team that is fourth in the country in three-point percentage, and which comes into Saturday’s game especially hot from the outside. In its last 10 games, Louisville has made 45.5 percent of its three-pointers (95-of-209). It knocked down 14 of its 28 attempts from deep in Wednesday night’s win over Wake Forest.
If there’s good news for Virginia heading into the Louisville game it’s that senior guard Braxton Key is on something of a hot streak on offense. Though his lack of sizable increase in production has been a hot topic in Charlottesville since the first weeks of the season, Key is coming off a game against Clemson in which he hit 4-of-6 shots from beyond the arc and scored 19 points to go with eight rebounds. This followed up a 13-point, nine rebound effort in the monumental win over Florida State. If Key can force opposing defenders to respect his outside shot, it opens up a world of space for the Virginia offense.
The lone starter from last year’s national title team who’s still around is Mamadi Diakite, who pretty clearly has been UVA’s top performer this season. He leads the Cavaliers in scoring (13.5 ppg), shoots a team-best 40.5 percent from three, and is one of the best defenders in the ACC. Diakite was terrific in the first meeting with Louisville last season, scoring 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field. He currently ranks seventh seventh in the ACC in blocked shots (1.25), 11th in defensive rebounds (5.1), 15th in free-throw percentage (73.8), 16th in rebounding (7.0) and 17th in scoring.
Kihei Clark should be another name that’s familiar to Louisville fans. The 5’9 sophomore PG drives UVA fans crazy at times, but he’s without question Tony Bennett’s best bet when it comes to running the show. Bennett would seem to agree, as Clark currently ranks second in the ACC in minutes played (37.0). He’s also fourth in the conference in assists per game (6.0 apg), and dished out 10 of them in UVA’s win over Clemson on Wednesday. That’s the good. The bad is he hasn’t made a three-pointer since Jan. 11, and has committed at least one turnover in every Virginia game this season, and more than one in every game but two.
Junior 7-footer Jay Huff is another guy who hasn’t taken as much of a step forward this season as Virginia fans would like, but who you could easily see having a monster day against the Cards. That’s mainly because he was quite effective against Louisville in a more limited role a year ago. Defensively, Huff is one of the best rim protectors in the ACC, ranking fifth in the league in blocked shots (1.7). He’s also extremely skilled when it comes to defending the high ball screen, something Louisville has been utilizing more since the emergence of David Johnson.
FSU put Jay Huff in multiple ball screens in possessions down the stretch vs UVA. Huff executed on 4 straight hedges, stalling out the ball screens and forcing late-clock isolation: pic.twitter.com/wnfUS037Tf— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) January 29, 2020
Offensively, what Huff lacks in bulk he makes up for in versatility. He can score in the paint with an effective baby hook, and he can also knock down the outside shot at a fairly reliable clip. Huff is also skilled when it comes to getting opposing big men into trouble, something that will almost certainly be a part of his gameplan against Louisville’s two-headed center team of Steven Enoch and Malik Williams.
With all due respect to Huff, the biggest “where the f—k did this guy come from” candidate for Saturday is Tomas Woldetensae. The junior from Italy has been all or nothing for the Cavaliers in his first after transferring in from a junior college. He’s averaging just 5.4 ppg on the season, but hit seven threes and scored 21 points against Wake three games ago. Kody Stattman (4.6 ppg/3.4 rpg) and promising freshman Casey Morsell (4.3 ppg) are the other guys who will see solid minutes for the Hoos.
After going 8-1 in ACC road games last season, UVA is 5-3 in league road games so far in 2019-20. The experienced Cavaliers should feel pretty comfortable inside the KFC Yum Center. Virginia has won six straight games inside the building, including three last year — their win over Louisville, their Sweet 16 win over Oregon, and their thrilling Elite Eight win over Purdue.
—Virginia has won nine consecutive games against Louisville. The streak marks U of L’s longest active losing streak.
—Louisville’s 11-1 ACC record represents its best start to a conference season since winning 11 of its first 12 Metro Conference games in 1992-93.
—The Cards’ current nine-game winning streak is its longest in league play since the 2007-08 season.
—Virginia is 7-3 all-time vs. the Cardinals in games played in Louisville, including a 4-1 mark inside the KFC Yum Center.
—Virginia is 6-1 overall inside the KFC Yum Center, a mark that includes Sweet 16 and Elite Eight wins in last year’s NCAA tournament.
—Louisville has started with at least a 20-3 overall record through 23 games for just the second time in the last 26 years.
—Louisville has failed to reach the 60-point mark in eight of its 11 games against Virginia since joining the ACC in 2014-15.
—Virginia is 10-0 this season and 97-2 under Tony Bennett when holding opponents to fewer than 50 points.
—Virginia has three wins this season when scoring fewer than 50 points. It’s the first time the Cavaliers have achieved that feat since 1981-82
—Louisville has a 53-16 record in its conference home games over the last eight years (.768).
—Louisville enters Saturday ranked No. 7 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings. Virginia is No. 57.
—Louisville has made as many as nine three-pointers in a game on 14 occasions this season, including nine of its last 15 games and each of its last two.
—Virginia is shooting just 27.5 percent from three as a team. Only seven teams in Division-I are worse.
—Virginia is 2-1 against ranked opponents this season, with both wins coming against top-10 foes (then-No. 7 North Carolina and then-No. 5 Florida State).
—Louisville is 15-0 this season when holding opponents to 68 points or fewer, and 5-3 on the year when teams score more than 68.
—No team with a sub-200 offense on Ken Pom has ever received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Virginia enters Saturday ranked No. 276 in the category.
—In its last 10 games, Louisville has made 45.5 percent of its three-pointers (95-of-209).
—Louisville is 17-0 when leading at halftime this season, and 3-3 when trailing at the break.
—Virginia’s current three-game winning streak is its longest this season since starting the year 4-0.
—Virginia enters Saturday ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (50.4), No. 1 in field goal percentage defense (35.6), No. 3 in personal fouls per game (13.3), No. 5 in fewest fouls (279), and No. 26 in three-point field goal percentage defense (28.9). By a wide margin, the Cavaliers are first in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings.
—Louisville enters Saturday ranked No. 8 in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.373), No. 16 in scoring margin (+12.9), No. 29 in rebound margin (+6.3), and 31st in scoring defense (63.0).
—Louisville has won 161 consecutive games when holding an opponent under 50 points.
—Louisville has won 153 consecutive games when scoring at least 85 points in regulation.
—Louisville is one of just two schools which have won 20 or more games on the court in each of the last 19 seasons. Gonzaga is the other, but Duke and Kansas are both one win away from joining the club.
Ken Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville 59, Virginia 49