In a season filled with unpredictable college basketball upsets, No. 5 Louisville is one of the few teams to avoid a majority of the mayhem.
The Cardinals (20-3, 11-1 ACC) fell to Texas Tech as the No. 1 team in the country, but their other two losses came to ranked teams in Kentucky and Florida State.
Chris Mack’s team is 19-2 this season when it’s a betting favorite, and it’s riding a nine-game winning streak since falling to Florida State on Jan. 4.
Virginia (15-6, 7-4 ACC) hopes to break the winning streak and pull a rare upset against Louisville on Saturday.
“The ACC, anybody can beat anybody,” Virginia forward Jay Huff said. “I don’t think there’s a game that any of the ACC teams should be like, ‘Oh, we got this one.’ Everybody has beaten everybody this year. That’s all of college basketball. Obviously, Louisville is very good, but I think we have a great chance to beat them.”
For the Cavaliers, who sit firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the showdown with the ACC’s first-place team offers an opportunity.
By most metrics, a road win over Louisville would qualify as the team’s best win by a substantial margin.
It’s the type of victory that can be the difference between making the Big Dance or hosting NIT games at John Paul Jones Arena in a month.
To pull off the victory, the Cavaliers need contributions across the board. Braxton Key scored 19 points and poured in four shots from beyond the arc in Wednesday’s win over Clemson. Huff recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, and Mamadi Diakite nearly did the same in a 13-point, eight-rebound performance.
Beating Clemson required solid showings from a few players. As a team, the Cavaliers’ ball security shined through in their first game after a week-long break. Despite poor shooting in the second half, Virginia tied a season-low with just eight turnovers.
“We had a little more time to really attack some hard ball-handling sureness drills, and we did that,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
Practice paid off for the Cavaliers, who showed an improved offensive rhythm throughout the first half. Clemson shifted into a zone defense that halted that offensive rhythm, but Virginia made enough shots down the stretch to prevail with a victory.
After UVa opened up an early double-digit lead, Clemson rallied once it moved to its zone defense. For the Cavaliers, who have played eight consecutive games decided by single digits, it felt odd when the Tigers were down by so much. It came as no surprise to the team when Clemson made a second-half surge.
“How many times have we been in that position?” Huff laughed. “I think we’re almost used to it by now. We almost expect it. If a team doesn’t come back, we’re like ‘Is something wrong here?’ Every time I go to church or something like that, someone will come up to me and say, ‘You make my blood pressure rise a little bit.’ I don’t know, we just like to make it entertaining.”
Both teams perform well in tight games. Virginia currently is 8-4 in games decided by 10 points or fewer and Louisville has posted a 6-1 mark in those games. The Cardinals, however, blow people out even more frequently than they play tight contests. They’ve won their last four games by double digits, including three wins of at least 17 points.
ACC Preseason Player of the Year Jordan Nwora has excelled during those four games, averaging 20.5 points per game on 46% shooting and 46.4% shooting from 3-point range. He scored 37 points in Louisville’s win over Boston College, which gives him two 30-point games in ACC action.
Virginia thrives in down-to-the-wire ACC contests. With Louisville’s talent and recent string of blowout wins, keeping the game close into the final minutes poses a challenge.
If the Cavaliers are up to the challenge, they’ll have a chance to secure their biggest win of the season.