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‘Hoos previews: Virginia looks to clinch ACC regular-season title outright with win over Louisville

UVA basketballThe No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers (25-2, 15-2 ACC) have the chance to extend several significant streaks on Saturday when they welcome the Louisville Cardinals (19-11, 10-7 ACC) to Charlottesville for the regular season finale.

Virginia can win the ACC regular-season title outright with a win over Louisville. Currently, Virginia is tied atop the conference standings with North Carolina, but the Cavaliers hold the tiebreaker with a head-to-head win over the Tar Heels. It would be Virginia’s second straight ACC regular-season crown, something that hasn’t happened since Ralph Sampson roamed The Grounds in Charlottesville.

It would also give Virginia an eight-game winning streak heading into postseason play. The Cavaliers haven’t lost since a Jan. 9 meeting with Duke. And finally, it would serve as Virginia’s ninth consecutive win over Louisville, a streak that goes all the way back to 2016.

But it’s also set to be a special day at John Paul Jones Arena for other reasons. It’s Senior Day for Jack Salt, whose time as a Cavalier predates almost all of Virginia success, including that long streak over Louisville. Salt, a fifth-year senior, has played in nearly 120 games as a Cavalier. The ovation he receives during Senior Day festivities will certainly be a loud one.

While Virginia is looking to continue its good play, Louisville is looking to stop its poor play. The Cardinals had a strong start to ACC play, winning seven of its first eight conference games, including an impressive win at North Carolina. Since then, though, they are just 3-6 and have lost three of their past four contests, including a 64-52 loss to the Cavaliers two weeks ago.

It’s not like Louisville hasn’t been close, though, over the second half of ACC play. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Cardinals held late leads over Florida St. and Duke and lost both; the lead over the Blue Devils was as large as 23 in the second half. But they have also produced some duds, such as a recent 66-59 loss to lowly Boston College. While Louisville is still comfortably in the NCAA Tournament, a win over the nation’s second-ranked team would certainly do wonders for the team’s seeding and its confidence, too.

Three Cavaliers to watch

De’Andre Hunter. Much like the game itself, De’Andre Hunter’s performance at Louisville was a tale of two halves. He accrued eight points but also two fouls in the first half, and he was stuck to the bench for much of the opening period. In the second half, though, Hunter put together the best 20 minutes of his Virginia career, pouring in 18 points and locking down defensively on Louisville’s Jordan Nwora. He has played at a high level of late, and he’ll look to help the Cavaliers seal the conference regular season crown with another big day.

Mamadi Diakite. With 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks in the first meeting, Diakite played an instrumental role in keeping the Cavaliers within striking distance during the first half and then helped them dominate the second half. Diakite also helped hold Louisville’s big men, Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, to just 2 for 16 shooting combined. Diakite’s versatility should once again be on display against a guard-heavy Louisville team.

Kyle Guy. Coming off an incredible 8-for-10 three-point shooting performance at Syracuse, Guy will look to keep rolling from beyond the arc. He struggled in the first matchup, missing all five of his deep balls. In the three games since, though, he’s made 16 threes. If he can keep his hot streak going, Louisville could be in trouble.

Three Cardinals to watch

Jordan Nwora. With 33 points and 23 rebounds in his past two games combined, Nwora is coming on strong on both ends for Chris Mack’s bunch. He had 10 points in a big first half last time out against the Cavaliers, but he made just two of nine shots in a brutal second half, The Cardinals’ leading scorer by a wide margin, Nwora needs to find a way to get going for his team to have a chance.

Malik Williams. Coming off a 16-point performance, Williams will look to make amends for a poor first matchup with the Cavaliers in which he scored just three points. Chris Mack chided his big men for struggling against Virginia two weeks ago, so look for Williams or fellow big man Steven Enoch to be better on Saturday as the Cardinals try to pull off the upset.

Dwayne Sutton. A 6-foot-5, 215-pound guard, Sutton could be the primary defender against De’Andre Hunter on Saturday. Sutton has struggled a bit on the offensive end recently — he hasn’t scored in double digits in nearly a month — but Louisville is at his best when he is, too, and the Cardinals will need him to play well Saturday on both ends.

KenPom says: Virginia, 69-55 (90 percent chance of victory)

Final Notes

  • Virginia is 14-4 all-time against Louisville and 8-1 in ACC action against the Cardinals.
  • Louisville has plenty of experience in its rotation with three graduate students, three redshirt juniors and a true junior 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.

Preview by Zach Pereles

augusta free press
augusta free press