The Virginia Cavaliers won the NCAA championship last season.
This year, there’s a chance the Louisville Cardinals could walk away the winner.
The two will meet Saturday afternoon in an Atlantic Coast Conference battle when the No. 5 Cardinals (20-3, 11-1) host the Cavaliers (15-6, 7-4).
Virginia has beaten Louisville nine straight times, with the Cavaliers’ last defeat to the Cardinals on March 7, 2015.
As for this season, Louisville, which is 13-1 at home, leads the ACC standings by a half-game over No. 7 Duke and No. 8 Florida State. The Cardinals are on a nine-game win streak and have impressed their opponents and other observers with their depth.
“I don’t know if anybody is better than Louisville,” Boston College coach Jim Christian said recently. “What makes them special is they have like nine starters.”
Virginia, which is 3-2 on the road, is in fourth place in the league. The Cavaliers are on a three-game win streak, and that includes an upset victory over the eighth-ranked Seminoles on Jan. 28.
The Cavaliers, known for their suffocating defense, have struggled on offense most of this season.
“Hopefully we’ve shown some grit,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Hopefully we’re moving the needle a little closer to having some composure down the stretch.”
Virginia badly misses three standouts who have moved on from last season’s championship team — De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. That trio averaged a combined 44.2 points per game.
Without them, the Cavaliers are now led by 6-foot-9 senior forward Mamadi Diakite, who tops the team in scoring (13.5) and ranks second in rebounds (7.0). Braxton Key, a 6-8 senior forward, leads Virginia in rebounds (7.4) and steals (1.6) and ranks second in scoring (10.7).
The backcourt is powered by 5-9 sophomore point guard Kihei Clark, who is averaging 9.8 points and a team-high 6.0 assists.
Virginia’s other frequent starters are Tomas Woldetensae, a 6-5 junior-college transfer known for his perimeter shooting; 6-3 freshman Casey Morsell, a tough defender from Washington D.C.’s Catholic League; and Jay Huff, a 7-1 junior center. Together, they are averaging 18.1 points and 10.3 rebounds.
Huff also leads the team with 1.7 blocks per game.
Over at Louisville, coach Chris Mack has done an incredible job since signing a seven-year, $28 million contract on March 27, 2018. He took over in the wake of the recruiting scandal that led to coach Rick Pitino’s departure.
But instead of rebuilding, Mack took Louisville to the NCAA Tournament last year, finishing 20-14 (10-8 ACC).
This season, the Cardinals have been ranked as high as No. 1, and they have the possible ACC Player of the Year in Jordan Nwora, a 6-7, 225-pound junior forward.
Nwora leads Louisville in scoring (19.3) and rebounds (7.4). He also ranks second in the ACC in scoring and ninth in rebounds.
Other Louisville standouts include 6-5 senior forward Dwayne Sutton, who ranks fifth in the league in rebounds (8.5); and 6-10, 255-pound center Steven Enoch, who is averaging 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds.
The other Cardinals players to watch are 6-foot senior shooting guard Ryan McMahon, 6-2 junior point guard Darius Perry and 6-foot grad transfer combo guard Lamarr Kimble.
McMahon, who is averaging 8.8 points, is considered the best three-point shooter in the ACC at 46.0 percent. Perry is averaging 6.0 points and a team-high 3.1 assists. And Kimble, a transfer from St. Joseph’s, is averaging 5.1 points.
–Field Level Media