Although they haven't been as widely recognized for their play, the #16 Louisville Cardinals (16-3) are one of the best teams in the country. They only trail #2 North Carolina in the ACC and have looked strong in every game this season, as all three of their losses have come by a combined 10 points. Amazingly, the Cardinals' average margin of victory is 26.25 points. When Louisville wins, they win big, but when they lose, it's not by much.
After a strong start, the Hokies have recently become familiar with close losses. They lost by 2 in South Bend to Notre Dame and battled back from a twenty-point deficit against UNC but ultimately lost by 5. For a team that wasn't supposed to win many games in the ACC, Virginia Tech's 4-3 start feels infinitely more disappointing than it should be. They've held leads late in games but faltered down the stretch which has led to a few heartbreaking losses. Luckily, they have another chance to defeat a strong team at home against Louisville.
To win this game, the Hokies have to play defense like they did in the second half of Sunday's showdown against the Tar Heels (but not continue their play on the defensive glass...more on that later). Louisville averages 80.4 PPG, which ranks 40th in the NCAA and their 118.6 Offensive Rating ranks 6th. Stopping the Cardinals offense will mean keeping stud senior Damion Lee in check. A transfer from Drexel over the past offseason, the 6-6 senior has excelled on his new team. Lee is a dangerous scorer, leading his team with 16.6 PPG on 46% shooting. He isn't the most dangerous three-point shooter percentage-wise, but shows the ability to hurt teams that give him space.
Lee possesses impressive lateral quickness, which not only makes it difficult for a defender stay in position, but it also creates fast break opportunities off turnovers. He gets his hands on a lot of passes, which makes him a great fit in Rick Pitino's aggressive defense. In addition to his agility, he also has the vertical explosiveness to avoid shot blockers and finish at the rim. Lee is similar to Marcus Paige in his driving ability, although Lee shows more explosiveness and strength in his game. He's adept at drawing fouls, and with his strength, he can be an and-one machine.
However, Lee is a pure scorer rather than a distributor as opposed to Paige. When Lee has the ball, he has his eyes on the basket, averaging just 1.7 APG. In fact, the entire team doesn't rely on ball movement as the Cardinals rank 14th in assists in the conference. Aside from Lee, the Louisville offense isn't as explosive, but it is well-rounded and deep. Pitino can afford to go 9-deep into his rotation and expect solid production from his bench. However, the Cardinals do have a behemoth down low in Chinanu Onuaku. He's averaging 13.2 PPG and an outstanding 12.3 RPG in conference play.
Although Onuaka may be best known for experimenting with underhand free throws, he will be a tough matchup for the Hokies. He's listed at the same 230 pounds LeDay is but he is a hell of a lot stronger. Once Onuaka gets the ball on the low block, his defender might as well get into his offensive set. He physically dominates his defender in the post, and due to his strength, it is difficult for the defender to get position on him early in the shot clock to throw him off.
Teams will switch to zone often against Lousiville's half court set to counter Onuaku's strong post game. The Hokies have struggled in zone defense lately, not putting enough pressure on the ball as well as lacking eye discipline when tracking wing players off the ball. North Carolina and Notre Dame were able to generate open looks from the baseline and wings. Even when the Hokies do contain perimeter players, it leaves a big man vulnerable in the paint to inside passes or a cutter. They will need to play defense using their heads against a very speedy team.
The defensive glass has been trouble for Virginia Tech during conference play. On Sunday, you could hear the Cassell crowd groan and say to themselves "not again..." every time Brice Johnson grabbed his own miss (I was there, it was awful). It doesn't get any easier against Louisville and Onuaka. The Louisville rebounding machine has posted the 7th best Offensive Rebound Percentage in the country. The Hokies' rebounding issue has a lot to do with matchups after rotations. Someone will get beat off the dribble, which causes a rotation, and after a few passes, the shot goes up. Since the Hokies rotated, there will often be a size mismatch on the boards and Seth Allen will end up trying to box out Brice Johnson. Chris Clarke would help tremendously, but he's not healthy and Buzz isn't one to make excuses. The Hokies will have to play better initial defense to not allow the first and second rotations to happen.
As avid college basketball fans know, Louisville loves playing full court basketball. That means pressure basketball not only on offense, but on defense as well. Virginia Tech will face the same full court press they couldn't figure out against West Virginia back in December. The Hokies struggled inbounding the ball, handling it, or making simple passes that afternoon, turning it over a whopping 21 times. Like the Mountaineers, Louisville gets a lot of points off turnovers and force north of 14 per game. Virginia Tech was too sloppy against North Carolina, turning it over 14 times. A big factor in this game will be the turnover margin. If Virginia Tech gets slaughtered in that category, they don't have a chance of defeating the Cardinals.
When Virginia Tech does get into their half court sets, they will still have to figure out a way to beat a stifling Louisville defense. The Cardinals' defense allows just 58.8 PPG and on top of that they rank 2nd in the NCAA in Defensive Rating. In conference play, Louisville holds its opponents to just 40.4% shooting which ranks 1st in the ACC. Their top-tier defense is not only fueled by turnovers, but by their speed as well. Their speed allows them to slow down ball movement effectively and make it harder for offenses to beat them laterally. They make teams consistently settle for tough, perimeter looks. It is instrumental the Hokies are able to attack the interior.
Getting in the paint is something the Hokies have focused on doing, and it is imperative that they do so against Louisville. LeDay's three-point shooting allows more spacing for Allen and Hudson to penetrate, though Allen needs to cut down on his turnovers and improve his decision making. His 19.3% Turnover Percentage is much too high for the Hokies to have success. If there was a game for him to cutback on his turnovers, this is it. In addition, Allen and Wilson need to do a better job of finding teammates rolling to the rim to penetrate the middle of Louisville's defense. It will help get the offense in rhythm and break down the pressure the Cardinals will look to send at the Hokies.
Unfortunately, getting into the paint doesn't guarantee an open look. Onuaka is one of the best shot blockers in the nation with his 9.7% Block Percentage. The Hokies have had their shots blocked the second most time in the nation and the most times during conference play. I don't feel good about this matchup at all. Combining Onuaka's vertical ability, size, and instincts with the Hokies' inability to avoid shot blockers will lead to multiple run out opportunities for Louisville if the Hokies don't keep their composure and pass out of shots that aren't there. And if Louisville can get their fast break game going, it's curtains.
On Sunday, the Hokies played 1st place North Carolina. Today they face 2nd place Louisville, and on Sunday they place 4th place Pittsburgh. That's as close as you can get to death row. And Louisville may be ranked 16th by the AP Poll, but advanced sites like KenPom.com have them ranked as a top three team in the nation. I think the speed and pressure of Louisville will affect the Hokies to a point where their offense sputters for long stretches of the game. I also don't see the Hokies solving the Onuaku puzzle on the glass. The Hokies will battle as they've done every game and may even hold a late lead, but rebounding will once again be their downfall.
Hokies lose 74-66. I've been awful at predicting games so hopefully this works in the Hokies' favor.
*All gifs are courtesy of YouTube