7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Vriginia -7.0
It’s sure to be a defensive clash between ACC foes in Charlottesville tonight, as the third-ranked Virginia Cavaliers host the ninth-ranked Louisville Cardinals in a meeting of top-ten teams. After a 63-52 loss to Duke that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate, Louisville (19-3, 7-2 in ACC) has rallied to win four consecutive contests, as they continue to round into shape as we head towards March. Rick Pitino’s teams often play their best basketball this time of year, and these Cardinals are no different; starting the season an uncharacteristic mess defensively, they have gradually climbed into the nation’s top-twenty in many categories, particularly in scoring defense (58.8 points). The team reached a turning point last Saturday against North Carolina, in which the rallied back from a dreadful first half, to comfortably run away with the victory in overtime. Battered on the boards and shooting less than 30.0% from the field, the hosts trailed by as many as eighteen points, before going on a tear in the second half to tie the game 60-60 at the end of regulation. At that point, Pitino’s charges outscored the visiting Tar Heels 18-8 in the extra period, in front of a raucous crowd. Despite shooting just 33.8% over the course of the game, the Cardinals capitalized on a number of fronts, including nineteen North Carolina turnovers, a staggering twenty-one offensive rebounds, and healthy sixteen-point advantage from the free-throw line. In fact, they practically took up real estate at the charity stripe, attempting a staggering forty-four free-throws as the Heels committed a ridiculous thirty-three fouls. Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier were huge that day, accounting for a combined forty-four points, twenty-five rebounds, and four steals, while Chris Jones added seventeen points, including 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc (60.0%). Pitino has relied greatly on these three players, to point of near exclusivity, and he will need them to be sharp once again tonight.
Despite playing in their third different conference in as many years, the Cardinals have adjusted quite well to life in the ACC, and as we spoke of earlier, they have their vastly improved defense to thank for it. In conference play, Louisville has allowed 65.4 points (3rd in ACC) on 40.9% shooting from the field (3rd in ACC), including 46.0% from within the three-point arc (6th in ACC) and a scant 31.0% from beyond it (1st in ACC), all the while forcing 11.8 turnovers (5th in ACC), 7.1 of which are steals (2nd in ACC). Ironically, Pitino credits the change in play to studying their opponent tonight, as the Hall of Fame Head Coach points to the Cavaliers’ seamless transition in terms of Help Defending. Everywhere he’s been, the veteran skipper utilizes a plethora of looks on the defensive end of the court, ranging from a stingy halfcourt man-to-man scheme, to a difficult matchup zone, with a relentless full-court press incorporated to tax their opponent both physically and mentally. However, if you’re going to play that way, communication in paramount, and his kids have done a much better job of doing so over the past month, and it’s reflected on the stat sheet. In terms of points allowed over 100 possessions, the Cardinals have yielded just 86.1 points, fourth-fewest in the country. Take their most recent performance, a 63-55 win at Miami on Tuesday, for example; the home side could do little to challenge them throughout the night, as they were relegated to 34.0% shooting from the field, including 12-of-24 from inside the three-point line (35.3%), and just 6-of-19 behind it (31.6%). In fact, only two Hurricanes scored in double-figures, with Davon Reed the only one to score more than ten points. On the flipside, the trio of Harrell, Rozier, and Jones scored all but seven of Louisville’s points, with Rozier notching a game-high twenty-two. They’ve also improved quite a bit on the offensive end to boot, but we’re sure that Pitino would prefer them to develop a bit more depth heading into the postseason. As touchded upon earlier in this article, Louisville has relied immensely on Harrell, Rozier, and Jones to carry the scoring load. Together, the triumvirate have accounted for 47.6 points, which translates to 65.1% of the team’s total points. Add Senior Guard Wayne Blackshear to the mix and you have four players scoring 58.8 points, with no other Cardinal scoring over 3.3 per game. Furthermore, that dichotomy has become even more extreme during conference play; in the ACC, the big three have scored 52.0 of the team’s 71.8 points, equating to 72.4% of the total share.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s (20-1, 8-1 in ACC) rise to prominence that began last season shows no signs of coming to an end. What Tony Bennett has accomplished in six years in Charlottesville is nothing short of remarkable considering the state of the program before his arrival in 2009. Before he took the job, the Cavaliers had amassed just three twenty-win campaigns in the previous fifteen years. Under the young coach’s guidance, they have gone 95-30 over the past four seasons. This year, their only blemish thus far was a slim 69-63 defeat at home against Duke last Saturday, in which their tenacious defense was finally bested for the first time in 2015. The Blue Devils shot a stellar 50.9% from the field that night, including a remarkable 22-of-38 from within the three-point arc (57.9%), despite netting just 6-of-17 from downtown (35.3%) and committing a mere eight turnovers. Conversely, the hosts struggled to maintain consistency on the offensive end, only managing to knock down 41.3% of their attempts from the field, including a dreadful 3-of-13 from long-range (23.1%). Malcolm Brogdon contributed with a game-high seventeen points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field (46.7%), along with six rebounds and a pair of assists, but like the rest of teammates couldn’t find a way to get to the charity stripe, which has been a lingering problem for them all season. In the loss, Virginia attempted just ten free-throws, making good on eight of them, which was far fewer than their meager averages in conference play, where they attempt just 14.9 freebies, making 11.1 per game. In case you were wondering, that pegs them at tied for second-fewest in the ACC in both respective categories. Part of this is by design of course; Bennett’s charges play at a snail’s pace, averaging only 59.2 possessions per game, the second-slowest pace in the country. Fewer possessions mean fewer opportunities to get fouled, and even fewer trips to the free-throw line.
However, that’s not to say that this isn’t a solid offensive team. Virginia averages 68.3 points (154th Overall) on a stellar 47.2% from the field (37th Overall), including 50.3% from within the three-point arc (98th Overall) and 38.9% from beyond it (34th Overall), so by all means they are very efficient. Now if you extrapolated those numbers over 66.2 possessions per game, which is the national average, they would score a healthy 76.4 points per contest, which would put them at twenty-fourth in the country. On Monday, they strutted their offensive stuff at Chapel Hill, where they defeated North Carolina to the tune of 75-64, the first time they’ve tasted victory there against a ranked Tar Heels squad since 1981. On the night, the visitors shot a healthy 51.8% from the field, including 54.5% inside the paint, assisting on eighteen of their twenty-nine field goals. The trio of Justin Anderson, London Perrantes, and the aforementioned Brogdon accounted for forty-eight points, while Anthony Gill added another thirteen off the Bench. Slowing the pace also helps them lock down their opponents on the opposite end of the court. The defensive prowess of the Cavaliers is quickly becoming that of legend in the ACC, where they have allowed not only the fewest points in the league (54.2), but the fewest in the country as well (50.9). In fact, if they continue on this pace, they will become the first team since Princeton in the 1991-1992 campaign to go throughout the entire season holding their opponents below 50.0 points, and come on folks, that was an Ivy League team side. So let’s take a moment to run down the numbers, shall we? Bennett’s charges have yielded a scant 35.5% shooting from the field (2nd Overall), including 38.4% from within the three-point arc (3rd Overall) and 30.4% from beyond it (34th Overall), while outrebounding the opposition by a whopping 9.5 boards per outing. Ironically, they don’t force many turnovers at all, 10.1 per game, good for 316th in all the land. But this is where the slow pace comes back into effect; Virginia commits just 8.9 turnovers themselves, and because they are so disciplined they rarely send their opponents to the free-throw line, permitting the second-fewest freebies in the country (13.6), and the fewest free-throws made (8.7). And if you thought Louisville’s defense was serious, then you you’ll lose your breath over the Cavs’ 85.9 points allowed over 100 possessions, the third-best figure in the nation.