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‘Hoos previews: Virginia looks to beat Louisville for for eighth straight time

Story by Zach Pereles

uva basketballIn 2016 and 2017, they tried with Rick Pitino. Last year, they tried with David Padgett. This year, they’ll try with Chris Mack.

The Louisville Cardinals simply haven’t been able to beat the Virginia Cavaliers, no matter who has manned the sideline, in the past three seasons. That’s accounted for seven straight wins for the Cavaliers — six in conference play and one in last year’s ACC tournament — who will look to make it eight straight when they head to the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday to take on the Cardinals for the first time this year.

No. 3 Virginia (23-2, 11-2) shouldn’t expect that eight consecutive win to come easily against an up-and-down No. 18 Louisville (18-9, 9-5), though.

The Cardinals have experienced just about every high and low over the past two weeks. The Cardinals blew a 10-point second half lead on Feb. 9 at Florida State and fell in overtime. Then they blew a 23-point lead with under 10 minutes to go against Duke and lost by two. They were two crushing defeats for a team that had won seven of its eight previous games.

The losses took the wind out of the sails a little bit for Mack’s team, but they managed to survive a pesky Clemson team, 56-55, for a nice bounce-back win at home last weekend. Louisville was unable to build on that, though: On Wednesday, they dropped a 69-49 decision at Syracuse.

After the game, Mack said that if there’s any hangover from the brutal collapse against Duke, his team needs to find a way to get over it — something it did against Clemson but not at Syracuse. Players denied that was the case.

The Cardinals can look like world beaters for one night — or at least one half — but can completely fall apart at any moment, too.

“To be honest, I can’t even tell you [why we’re so inconsistent],” Mack said Wednesday. “I think it’s just a slump. All teams have that. We just have to keep working, put it behind us and maybe get in the gym more.”

Make no mistake, though: For as inconsistent as the Cardinals have been recently, they are a dangerous bunch. Virginia will need to come prepared for a capable scoring team with three players who average double figures and three more who average at least 7.5 points per contest. Louisville has the nation’s 26th-most efficient offense and 21st-most efficient defense, per KenPom.

The Cavaliers ought to be prepared for a Louisville team looking to right the ship from recent uneven performances and get revenge for last year’s shocking loss at home. Last year in Louisville, Virginia scored five points in 0.9 seconds — capped by a banked three by De’Andre Hunter as time expired — to leave with a 66-65 win.

A week later, the Cavaliers demolished the Cardinals, 75-58, in the ACC Tournament.

Three Cavaliers to watch

Kyle Guy. A few weeks ago, Kyle Guy was slumping, and, combined with an injured Ty Jerome, Virginia’s offense was in a perilous position. The Cavaliers barely survived NC State in overtime, scored just 56 — its lowest of the conference season — against Miami and then lost to Duke by 10. Virginia needed one of its best shooters in program history to get going. Guy answered the bell. He scored 20 in an impressive win at North Carolina, dumped in 22 against his childhood favorite school Notre Dame and added 23 at Virginia Tech on Monday. In that span, he’s drilled 15 of 32 three-pointers and committed just two fouls. If Guy can continue his hot shooting, Louisville is in trouble.

Ty Jerome. Last year, Jerome was terrific in three wins against Louisville, recording 16 points and nine assists in the first game, 21 points in the second and 11 points and four assists in the third. Put it’s not just past games against the Cardinals that have Jerome on track for a big game. He comes into this contest having produced an offensive rating of at least 125 in three of the four games since he sat out against Miami with a back injury. High-level guard play in tough road environments is essential, and Jerome has shown time and time again he’s not afraid to shush a rowdy crowd with a big shot.

Jack Salt. Though Salt has seen his playing time decrease recently with the emergence of Mamadi Diakite and, when the team needs offense, Jay Huff, he could play a big role in this matchup against Louisville’s big front line of Steven Enoch and Malik Williams. Salt has made 11 of 13 shots over the past six games, and anything he can add offensively will be a big boost.

Three Cardinals to watch

Jordan Nwora. The Cardinals’ leading scorer, Nwora can get it going from anywhere on the floor. At 6-foot-7 he has great size for a ball-handler, and when he gets going, he can be hard to stop. He’s reached the 20-point plateau on 11 separate occasions. Though he plays power forward, he’s very much a stretch four: Nearly half of his shots come from three. He’ll present a tough challenge for De’Andre Hunter, Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite.

Steven Enoch. At 6-foot-10 and 260-pounds, Enoch is a load down low, but he’s also developed a bit of a perimeter game, shooting 46.2 percent from three on 26 attempts this year. A transfer from UConn, Enoch is a strong finisher around the basket and a very good rebounder on both ends. Though he and Malik Williams split time at the center spot, Enoch carries a significantly better offensive rating. Getting him in foul trouble could be a key: He fouled out in just 14 minutes against Florida State two weeks ago.

Ryan McMahon. Virginia still owns the top three-point defense in the nation, but McMahon will certainly test it Saturday. Over 80 percent of McMahon’s shots this year have been threes, and he’s gunning at a rate of roughly 4.5 deep-ball tries per game in ACC play (and hitting on 39.7 percent). He’s also a terrific free-throw shooter, having missed just three of 56 attempts all year. He has struggled a little bit of late, just like his team has, but Saturday is a perfect chance from him and Louisville to make a strong statement.

KenPom says: Virginia, 64-59 (66 percent chance of victory)

Final Notes

  • Virginia is 13-4 all-time against Louisville. Since the Cardinals joined the ACC in the 2014-2015 season, Virginia is 8-1 against them.
  • Louisville has plenty of experience in its rotation with three graduate students and three redshirt juniors seeing significant minutes.
  • Virginia has no players from the state of Kentucky, and Louisville has no players from the state of Virginia. Louisville grad transfer Khwan Fore did, however, spend four years in Virginia playing at the University of Richmond.
  • This is the first of two regular-season meetings between these teams. Louisville heads to Charlottesville on March 9.

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