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NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Louisville

Navigating the Gauntlet - Florida St. & Duke

Bring the boom, fellas.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Here we stand, halfway through the Louisville Cardinal’s grueling four game stretch against ranked opponents, and the men in red and black and Coach Mack are 1-1. They didn’t play HARD against UNC, resulting in a 79-69 beatdown in the Yum Center that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. The team came out flat-footed and remained lethargic throughout, getting crushed on the boards 49-32 and allowing the Tarheels to snag a baffling 18 offensive rebounds. Roy Williams and crew clearly learned from their first tilt against the Cards and did an excellent job crashing the boards and pushing the pace.

Dwayne Sutton (19 pts, 7-12 fg, 8 reb, 2 blk, 2 stl) and Christen Cunningham (17 pts, 7-14 fg, 9 assts, 1 TO) were the only two Cardinal players who seemed to have any real interest in winning the game. Ryan McMahon and Khwan Fore both had arguably their worst games of the season, Jordan Nwora (11 pts, 3-9 fg, 7 rebs) was cold, and both Malik Williams and Steven Enoch (combined 9 pts, 8 rebs) got bullied on the block by smaller players on both ends of the floor. It wasn’t all bad (just mostly), as Darius Perry (8 pts, 2 assts) showed signs of life for the first time that anyone can remember, and the Cards did manage to more or less shut down one of the best offensive players in the ACC in Coby White (8 pts, 3-14 fg). Let the specialty *team color*-out home games die - they never go well.

Regardless, the Cards entered Blacksburg with a glint in their eye and fire in their bellies, as they came out swinging against the hot-shooting Virginia Tech Hokies. Christen Cunningham and Dwayne Sutton (17 pts, 6-8 fg, 9 rebs, 4 assts) again had solid games, and Ryan McMahon (17 pts, 4-5 3P, 5-5 FT) had a return to form, accounting for 12 straight points during a crucial second half stretch that effectively put the game away. Jordan Nwora still didn’t shoot well, but made aggressive plays when needed and put in a strong effort on the boards. The Cardinals as a whole shot the lights out from deep (48.1%, 13-27), exploiting VT’s weak perimeter defense that’s allowed opponents to hit 36.4% of their 3’s during conference play. An utterly decimated bench likely did VT no favors, but Louisville made the Hokies pay for their small lineup. A solid away win against a top 15 team does wonders in helping both the fans and team forget a poor showing.

The Cards hold steady in the rankings (13th-17th, take your pick) with two more big challenges ahead of them. Florida State’s most impressive conference win has been handily beating Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, but they’ve also had a few bad losses at Pitt and Boston College. The Noles are on a hot streak right now though, knocking off 4 straight conference opponents soundly.

Duke will be coming off round 2 of Duke-v-Virginia, and while they won the first matchup 72-70 at home sans Tre Jones, Virginia had an uncharacteristically terrible offensive game even accounting for the Blue Devils’ defensive prowess. Both teams are obviously good, so let’s take a better look at their playstyles and try to identify what the Cards will need to do to come out on top.

Note: After some fanagling, I think I should have the figures more appropriately sized and more accessible on mobile, though they lose the interactivity. Let me know how they look in the comments. All figures here are interactive on a typical computer and some larger tablets. Hover, zoom, select a specific area, and more to your heart’s content. I can answer any questions in the comments. For the tech-minded, I will always link to the code used to generate any figures/scrape any data at the end of the article.

All data accurate through 02/07/2019.

The Overview

First, let’s review the general playstyle of both Florida St. and Duke in comparison to U of L. Louisville is pretty average in terms of pace, coming in ranked 242nd in adjusted tempo with 67.2 possessions per 40 minutes, though this has increased to 69.7 in conference play. FSU plays at about the same tempo as the Cards (69.7, 68.3 in ACC play). Duke, like North Carolina, likes to up the pace, ranking 17th in the nation in adjusted tempo at 73. They attack the lane and try to play downhill in transition, a somewhat different tack from UNC where guys were looking to get the ball to Cameron Johnson for the transition 3.


FSU, Louisville, and Duke are all fine allowing teams to set their half-court offense. FSU has occasionally showed a similar half-court press similar to that of UNC, though they haven’t had as much success with it in conference play (force a TO on 19% of plays in ACC play, 8th in the conference). They also tend to cough the ball up quite a bit (19.4% TO rate in ACC play).


Identifying the Keys

That’s all neat, but how can Coack Mack and the Cards take advantage?


  • Be aggressive and get to the charity stripe. FSU fouls a lot, particularly the 7’4” Christ Koumadje, 6’10” Mfiondu Kabengele, and 6’1” David Nichols. They send opponents to the line frequently, where the Cards have been very good this year. They sent Pitt to the line 46 times. Kabengele is also one of the best all-around players in the ACC despite coming off the bench, touting a 60.8 TS% and taking nearly a third of his teams shots while on the floor. He’s rangey, rebounds very well, draws fouls, and is a very good shotblocker. He’s easy to predict - once the ball touches his hands, it’s going to end in a shot or foul, he almost never passes. Taking him out of the game early by being aggressive on the offensive end would be huge.
  • Be aware of who’s in the game. FSU’s offense is odd in that each player outside of Kabengele and Terrance Mann are really only effective from one area on the floor, and they don’t seem to play to those strengths particularly well. In FSU’s losses, they don’t really turn the ball over any more often or rebound poorly - they just get forced into taking stupid shots. PJ Savoy shoots nearly twice the 3s of any other FSU player while only hitting at 31.8%, for instance. This is where we’ll see if players paid attention to the scouting reports or not.
  • Force weaker playmakers to actually hit shots. Trent Forrest and MJ Walker have struggled to hit anything during conference play (43.5 and 47.0 TS%, respectively), but both do a fair job of getting to the line and converting. The Cards need to force the ball into their hands and put the onus of making actual shots on them.
  • Terance Mann is good. Make him work for everything. The Cards have generally been decent at shutting down key players (yes, I’m ignoring when Trey McGowens went absolutely nuts). The is a team without a ton of good offensive options if Mann and Kabengele aren’t hitting.

tl;dr: FSU’s defense sends teams to the line the second most in the conference - take advantage. Force the ball into role players’ hands and bait them into taking low percentage shots that they seem all too willing to take. Don’t let Terance Mann or Kabengele pop off, keep a hand in their face. I wouldn’t hate seeing the occasional double team either of them.


  • Force them to utilize the bench. Duke really only plays 7, and Jack White is a fair step back in talent from Cam Reddish or RJ Barrett. DeLaurier fouled out in only 7 minutes against Virginia. Marques Bolden isn’t nearly the offensive threat as the other starters. Force those guys to step up.
  • Keep Zion off the offensive boards. He’s a very good rebounder in general, but averages over 3.5 offensive boards a game. He’s also very good at immediately going back up with the ball. Nwora and Dwayne need to be as tough as they’ve ever been.
  • Take care of the ball. Duke blocks an insane 17.9% of opponents’ shots and snag steals on 13.9% of possessions. Those numbers can’t hold if the Cards want a shot at winning.
  • Loosen the damn rims, Kenny. Syracuse and Gonzaga both had success from deep, so work the perimeter and get the shooters open. Shot selection will be key.

tl;dr: Look, Duke is good. Good enough that ESPN feels they deserve their own player rankings for whatever reason. But they are a terrible 3 pt shooting team. Syracuse beat them by forcing them to shoot 43 (!) 3s, and they only hit 9 of them. Stuff the lane, double Zion down low, and force the tough shot. Have to shut down at least one of Zion or Barrett.

A 1-1 split again is likely what most fans (myself included) expect, but how great would it be to see Duke replaced on the front page of ESPN for at least a few hours?

Go Cards, Beat Everyone.

Technical Notes: All stats were pulled from using the wonderful sportsreference python API created by Rob Clark or scraping with BeautifulSoup followed by some parsing. All data visualizations were created with plotly, yet another python package. All code can be found in a Jupyter notebook file on my Github.

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