7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Florida State -2, Over/Under: 140.5
First Place in the ACC is on the line tonight in Tallahassee, as the No. 11 Louisville Cardinals battle the No. 6 Florida State Seminoles from Donald L. Tucker Center. Oh what a difference a week has made for Louisville (23-5, 14-3 in ACC), who just this time last week, were looking to right the ship following back-to-back losses on the road at Georgia Tech (58-64) and Clemson (62-77), snapping their season-high ten-game winning streak. Of course, this put their reign at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference in serious jeopardy, but a return to form coupled with a loss by Duke means that the Cardinals have been fortunate to maintain their positioning within the league table. Chris Mack’s charges turned around and whopped Syracuse (90-66) and North Carolina (72-55) by a combined Forty-Two Points, and with a win tonight can stretch their slim lead in conference play to 1.5 games. One of the older teams in the country, this group has been nothing short of solid on both ends of the court, ranking Second in the ACC in Points Scored (74.6) and Third in Points Allowed (66.1), along with First in Three-Pointers (8.9), Three-Point Percentage (40.4%), Defensive Rebounds (27.1), and Total Rebounds (38.2). Depth has been key for a team that goes roughly nine players deep, all but two of which are Seniors and Juniors, led by Jordan Nwora (18.3 PTS, 44.8% FG, 41.6% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 1.3 AST, 23.4 PER), who overcame a poor stretch during that aforementioned two-game losing streak which lead to Mack actually pulling him from the Starting Lineup for a game. The Junior Forward ranks second in the ACC in Scoring (18.3), but managed just Seven Points on a combined 2-of-11 shooting in the losses to the Yellow Jackets and Tigers, which is in stark contrast to his production during the ten outings that preceded them, averaging 17.3 Points on 42.5% shooting from the field, including a stellar 45.9% from beyond the arc, 7.4 Rebounds, and 1.4 Assists. He, along with the rest of his teammates, certainly looked themselves against the short-handed Tar Heels, blasting them by Eighteen Points over the weekend. Nwora totaled a team-best Eighteen Points on 7-of-15 shooting (46.7%), including 3-of-7 from downtown (42.9%), Eleven Rebounds and a pair of steals, while Junior Center, Malik Williams (9.1 PTS, 50.0% FG, 29.0% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 25.7 PER), put in a productive shift in what was just his second start of the campaign, posting Seventeen Points on an efficient 8-of-11 shooting (72.7%), Nine Rebounds, Two Assists, and a Block. The 6-11 Williams has been on a roll over the past six outings, averaging 13.3 Points on 54.7% shooting, and 6.8 Rebounds, while fellow big man, Steven Enoch (9.5 PTS, 52.5% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 21.7 PER), has dealt with a tender ankle. With the latter possibly returning to action for tonight’s venture to Tallahassee, it will be interesting to see how much Mack plays both Bigs together, particularly against the Seminoles in an attempt to combat their size and length. They didn’t need him against North Carolina, as the hosts slowly built a 36-23 lead at halftime, dominating a reeling team that has had to make do with their ninth different Starting Five, with an insane eighty-three missed games to Scholarship Athletes, which is easily the highest figure in the country. In the end, Louisville shot 46.7% from the field, including 9-of-25 from three (36.0%), held Carolina to a miserable 39.6% shooting overall, including just 6-of-22 from long range (27.3%), outrebounded them 36-29, and harassed them all night, forcing Seventeen Turnovers. This is how they’re going to have to play if they wish to deal the Seminoles a major blow in the race for the ACC Title, though they’ll have to do so on a very quick turnaround, while also learning from the mistakes that they made in their previous meeting this term. Back on January 4th, the Cardinals were dealt their first and only defeat at KFC Yum! Center, 65-78, as they struggled to keep up with Florida State’s torrid pace, mustering a meager 38.7% shooting overall, while committing more Turnovers (16) then Assists (12). In fact, if you took away Nwora’s career-high Thirty-Two Points on 11-of-15 shooting (73.3%), the rest of the team would have accounted for a pedestrian Thirty-Three Points on a dreadful 13-of-47 from the field (27.7%). Since Mack took over last season, Louisville hasn’t beaten Florida State, with last year’s trip to Tallahassee ending in a tightly-contested 75-80 loss that required Overtime to decide the victor. With that said, if they do make it out of this encounter with the ‘Noles with a win then one would have to like their chances of securing their first ACC Championship since joining the conference back in 2013, with their Home Finale against Virginia Tech followed by the Regular Season Finale at reigning National Champion, Virginia.
Meanwhile, the opportunity has arrived for Florida State (23-4, 13-3 in ACC) to make a play for their first ACC Regular Season Championship since joining the conference back in 1991. Coming into tonight’s meeting with Louisville, the Seminoles are just a half-game back in the league table, and with a win tonight would not only move ahead of the Cardinals, but also carry any tiebreaker should something happen down the stretch. With four games remaining in the Regular Season, this particular group should go down as arguably the best in Leonard Hamilton’s eighteen-year tenure in Tallahassee; they’re six wins away from matching last year’s win total of Twenty-Nine Victories, a school record, and one away from winning their fourteenth in conference, which would also be a school record. As we hinted at earlier, size, length, and physicality are the hallmarks of this unit, which has been one of the most difficult to matchup with in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2019-2020. No team in the league has totaled more Steals (7.9), Blocks (6.0), and Turnovers (15.4) than the ‘Noles, all the while permitting a scant 40.4% shooting from the field in league play, which places them at Second in the ACC in that particular category, tied with their opponent tonight. Just ask Louisville, whom they handled with startling ease when they met back in early January; in addition to completely shutting down everyone not named Jordan Nwora, the visitors also put together one of their most productive offensive showings of the season, shooting a blistering 55.2% from the field, including 21-of-35 from within the arc (60.0%) and 11-of-23 beyond it (47.8%). Think about it folks, Hamilton’s charges smoked them by Thirteen Points and finished with four fewer Field Goal Attempts, nine fewer Free-Throw Attempts, and two fewer Rebounds. Senior Guard, Trent Forrest (11.5 PTS, 45.3% FG, 28.6% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 4.2 AST, 2.0 STL, 19.1 PER), continued his vexing of the Cardinals with Twenty Points on a stellar 9-of-11 shooting (81.8%), Three Rebounds, Five Assists, and Two Steals, building upon his averages of 14.8 Points and 5.0 Assists against that particular opponent. Fellow Guard and all-around athletic wonder, Devin Vassell (12.9 PTS, 48.4% FG, 42.6% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.5 STL, 1.1 BLK, 24.7 PER), added Fourteen Points, Six Rebounds, Three Assists, and a Steal. However, the hero of the day was Junior Guard, M.J. Walker (10.5 PTS, 35.9% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 1.9 REB, 1.5 AST, 12.7 PER), who exploded for a season-high Twenty-Three Points off the Bench largely on the strength of catching fire from the perimeter where he accounted for nearly half (5) of his side’s Eleven Three-Pointers. When we last saw them, Florida State was forced to rally back from a 27-32 Halftime Deficit on the road at North Carolina State, eventually escaping Raleigh with a hard-fought 67-61 victory. With the Wolfpack still riding high from their upset of the Blue Devils earlier in the week, the Seminoles fell into a hole early, but to their credit got back in front thanks to some aggressive play on both ends of the floor, with Hamilton even incorporating some Zone Defense, which is something that has been rather rare during his time with the program. The visitors outscored the hosts 40-29 in the Second Half, with the aforementioned Walker scoring all of his Twelve Points during that period of time, while also outrebounding them 23-17 and relegating them to a scant Three Free-Throw Attempts. With Walker saddled with foul trouble in the First Half, and Vassell struggling for Eleven Points on 4-of-11 shooting (36.4%), Freshman Forward, Patrick Williams (9.3 PTS, 46.4% FG, 34.1% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.0 BLK, 19.4 PER), provided the necessary impact, coming off the Bench to score Twelve Points and Six Rebounds. Any coach will tell you that if you want to erase a deficit then the easiest way to do so is by getting to the Charity Stripe, which is something that the visiting side quite a bit on Saturday Night, netting 18-of-29 attempts (62.1%), dwarfing that of the home side which simply couldn’t get the benefit of the doubt from the officials, shooting just 9-of-13 (69.2%). Walker and Williams alone shot 11-of-15 from the Stripe (73.3%), with the latter contributing to the Seminoles’ considerable advantage on the glass, where they bested the Wolfpack 38-30, including 15-9 on the offensive end. Fellow Forward, Malik Osborne (6.1 PTS, 46.4% FG, 26.5% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 18.4 PER), led the team with a career-high Twelve Boards, five of which were of the offensive variety.