• David Cunningham

Greetings, and Hello, Louisville

This is my introductory article for The Key Play.


As Ewan McGregor, portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi, once famously said to General Grievous, "Hello there."


Hi, I'm David and I'm a new basketball contributor here at The Key Play.


Some things of note about me: I'm a senior studying Sports Media & Analytics at Virginia Tech from Yorktown, Va. Born and raised a Hokie by my parents, both of whom are Tech grads, I always knew I wanted to end up at Virginia Tech. And here I am.


I'm a huge Star Wars, Marvel and Lord of the Rings nerd, I love root beer and a Microsoft Excel geek. A cool story I love telling: when I was six months old, my parents brought me with them to the Tech-Florida State National Championship Game in New Orleans.


I've covered Hokies athletics as a student since stepping foot on campus in August of 2017 and I'm thrilled to join Joe and the team at The Key Play. You can expect previews and postgame columns throughout the Virginia Tech men's basketball season, with a few features and analytical pieces along the way.


And with that, let's get right to Louisville. As Théoden once said, "So it begins."


Louisville


Virginia Tech's series with Louisville has always been lopsided, with the Hokies having won just eight of 43 meetings. The Cards have won 16 consecutive games against Tech, with the last Hokies win coming almost 30 years ago on Feb. 13, 1991.


Coming off a second-place finish in the ACC in 2019-20, Chris Mack's Cardinals are ever so good — 7-1 overall and tied with Virginia Tech for first in the conference with a 2-0 record.


Like the Hokies' slip up against Penn State in early December in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Louisville was absolutely demolished by No. 12 Wisconsin, falling 85-48 in Madison. The Cardinals were short-handed against the Badgers and played without leading scorer Carlik Jones, who is averaging 16.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.


"He's a great player," Tech head coach Mike Young said Monday on the ACC coaches call. "Not a good player - a great player. He makes the right plays. He's unselfish. There's not a selfish bone in his body."


The former Radford Highlander transferred to Louisville in April and has led the Cardinals' resurgence as of late.


"He's very creative, he plays at his own pace and he generates a lot of offense for our team, whether he's scoring or setting a guy up," said Louisville head coach Chris Mack.


Since falling to Wisconsin, UofL has won three straight games at Pitt (64-54), vs. rival Kentucky (62-59) and at Boston College (76-64). It'll be a veteran matchup at the point guard spot between Jones and Wabissa Bede.


In the past, the Cardinals have been one of the more difficult matchups in the ACC for Virginia Tech because of their sheer size and athleticism, much like Florida State.


In last season's meeting, UofL scored 32 of its 68 points in the paint. John Ojiako started the game for Tech, one of the big's two, which shows how much size matters against the Cardinals.


In its last three games, Louisville scored 34, 32 and 36 points in the paint. The Hokies gave up 38 in the paint to Miami and 32 to Longwood.


Young & Co. are much lengthier this season and unlike the past, have options to match Louisville's inside strength. Three of the Cardinals' top six scorers are at least 6'8", so don't be surprised if Young matches size and Cordell Pemsl sees more minutes.


Expect a lot of help defense from Tech in an attempt to force the Cards to pull up from outside. UofL shoots around 34% from three-point range, which amounts to 157th in the country. The Hokies don't have to worry about Ryan McMahon this time around either, which is a plus. He scored 27 in the last two meetings against VT.


On the defensive end, Louisville has thrived this season, particularly as of late.


Per KenPom.com, the Cardinals are No. 22 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 34 in effective field goal percentage defense. The size really helps Mack & Co. thrive and is one of the main reasons why the Cardinals held Kentucky and Boston College below 35% from the field and 30% from three (25% for BC).


Virginia Tech sees about 35% of its points come from behind the arc, which ranks 65th in the country. The Hokies haven't been consistent in three-point shooting this season, hitting 40% just once (against Coppin St.) since the big win over No. 3 Villanova in November.


If Tech wants to pull off a win in the KFC Yum! Center, it has to be able to hit from deep when needed.


Other Louisville Names of Note


David Johnson, a 6'5" guard, is the team's second leading scorer with 14.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. The other part of the Cardinals' dynamic backcourt duo has scored in double figures in six straight games. In 22 minutes against the Hokies last March, he contributed eight points, six assists and four rebounds. He's also lethal from behind the arc, shooting at a 45% clip.


A 6'7" forward, Samuell Williamson averages 10.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He's been on and off in the scoring column for the Cards this season, though he did rack up 12 points on Jan. 2 at Boston College. A dynamic player that can step out and hit the occasional three-pointer, Williamson is someone the Hokies will need to keep a close eye on.


Jae'Lyn Withers is another lanky and crafty option for Louisville. A 6'8" forward from Charlotte, Withers has started all eight games for the Cardinals and averages 9.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. The most efficient scorer in Chris Mack's starting rotation, Withers shoots 57% and has scored at least two baskets in all but one game this season. He's Louisville's best rebounder, having recorded at least six rebounds in all but two games in 2020-21.


What to Watch For:


The Cardinals dominated the Hokies in two important areas in last season's matchup: rebounding (40-26) and turnovers (12 to VT's 16).


Louisville scored 13 second chance points to Tech's two, and in a game where the Hokies shot the ball poorly (38% FG, 33% 3FG), UofL added 19 points off turnovers.


Last game against Miami, nine of Virginia Tech's 11 turnovers came in the second half. The Hokies handled the ball extremely well in the first half but were careless in the late stages as the Hurricanes sped the game up.


"There's a nice gear for us around three or four," Young said after Tech's win over Miami. "But when we get up to five, we don't handle that very well. Our decision making isn't very good at that gear."


At the same time the Hokies were racing up the floor against Miami and giving away late Christmas gifts in the form of turnovers, they struggled on defense, allowing the 'Canes to shoot 55% from the field and 50% from deep.


If Virginia Tech can limit Louisville on the boards and protect the basketball, the rest should take care of itself. The Hokies need to keep the Cardinals in the halfcourt offense and not let them run in transition. The more turnovers and rebounds for Louisville, the tougher the path to victory for Tech.


Photo Credit: Adam Creech, Louisville Athletics

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