Virginia-Louisville 2.0: Expect adjustments on both sides
This is such an intriguing final game for a few reasons. First, though this is the second game between the teams this season, it can be viewed as the third different matchup. Louisville controlled the first half of the first meeting and led 37-27 at the break. Virginia came out and dominated the second half, though, by a score of 37-15 en route to a 64-52 win. It was truly a tale of two halves — two completely different gameplans and two completely different outcomes that led to one final score in the Cavaliers’ favor.
There should be significant adjustments on both sides in the second game. Here’s what could be expected.
Virginia goes to its big lineup early.
Two weeks ago, Tony Bennett was in a tough spot with his best player, De’Andre Hunter, stuck on the bench with two fouls midway through the first half. It turned out, in part, to be a blessing in disguise. Bennett paired guards Kihei Clark, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy with bigs Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff for the final 8:42 of the first half. Virginia whittled Louisville’s then-12-point lead to as little as four before the Cardinals stretched it back out to 10 by the halftime whistle. More importantly, though, Diakite and Huff gave an ice-cold outside shooting Virginia team a legitimate presence inside. Those two combined to score Virginia’s final 14 points of the half.
To start the second half, Virginia kept with its two bigs alongside Jerome and Guy and switched Key out for Hunter. In under five minutes, Louisville’s lead was cut in half. Though Diakite and Huff would interchange for the rest of the half, it was clear that tandem has been a major part of turning the game around. The Cavaliers outscored the Cardinals in the paint 38-4, and Huff and Diakite combined for 26 points.
Seeing that lineup work wonders wasn’t just important for that game. It helped nine days later when those five outscored Syracuse 40-9 in the second half. The Orange are the nation’s tallest team, and for Virginia to be able to counter with a similarly long lineup was extremely impressive. Expect Bennett to be more open to using Diakite and Huff in tandem moving forward, and especially on Saturday.
Louisville alters its defensive gameplan.
Chris Mack admitted following the previous game that Louisville’s focus was primarily on slowing down Jerome and Guy. That plan worked well, and for 20 minutes, it looked like a strategy that would pay dividends by the final horn.
It’s safe to say Hunter had other plans. The redshirt sophomore scored 18 points in an outstanding second half en route to a career-high 26 points. Hunter was essentially unstoppable from all areas of the court. He knocked down two three-pointers, got going from the midrange and muscled his way to the basket, resulting in several strong finishes and six trips to the free throw line.
Expect Mack to have a better gameplan to at least try to limit Hunter, whether that’s instructing his big men to help earlier or having his players try to put Hunter in spots he’s less comfortable. Few teams have been able to slow Hunter down this season, but Mack now knows that keying on Jerome and Guy — while successful in limiting those two players — didn’t result in his team coming out with a win.
Jordan Nwora plays a bigger role.
With 10 points in the first half — including a banked-in three at the halftime buzzer — Jordan Nwora looked to be on his way to a big game in what could be a season-changing win for the Cardinals. Instead, he made just two of his nine second-half shots as Virginia walked out of the Yum! Center with another victory.
One thing Nwora has focused on more in his team’s past two contests is forcing the issue toward the basket. He has shot 18 two-pointers and just nine three-pointers. Compare that with the six two-pointers and 10 three-pointers he launched against the Cavaliers. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, Nwora often plays the “four” position for Louisville, so while he can hit the three, his concerted effort to become a more well-rounded scorer recently has been a positive development; he had 20 points in a win over Notre Dame that snapped a three-game skid. Furthermore, Nwora has been a force on the glass, gathering 23 rebounds in the past two games combined.
Preview by Zach Pereles