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Louisville-Virginia Tech preview: Cards, Hokies battle for first place in ACC

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It’s a bigger-than-expected showdown inside the Yum Center Wednesday night.

Louisville Cardinals (7-1, 2-0) vs. Virginia Tech Hokies (8-1, 2-0)

Game Time: 6:35 p.m.

Location: KFC Yum Center: Louisville, Ky.

Television: ACC Network

Announcers: Mike Monaco (play-by-play) and Dan Bonner (analyst)

Favorite: Louisville by 5

Officials: Jamie Luckie, Clarence Armstrong, Raymie Styons

Series: Louisville leads, 35-8

Last Meeting: Louisville won, 68-52, on March 1, 2020 in Louisville

Series History:

Probable Starting Lineups:

Statistics:

Virginia Tech’s Season to Date:

Relevant Videos:

About Virginia Tech:

Widely considered to be playing the best basketball of any team in the ACC at the moment, Virginia Tech enters Wednesday night hoping to snap a 16-game losing streak against Louisville and defeat the Cardinals for the first time since 1991.

The Hokies entered 2020-21 with understandably modest expectations. They ended Mike Young’s first campaign in Blacksburg by losing 12 of their final 14 games, and were soundly defeated by woeful North Carolina in the 11-14 game on the first night of the ACC tournament. After the season, they lost leading scorer Landers Nolley, fellow starter P.J. Horne and top reserve Isaiah Wilkins to transfer. Even with a highly-touted recruiting class and a handful of key transfers, Virginia Tech was picked to finish 11th in the 15-team ACC heading into this year.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Virginia Tech’s stellar start has been the play of Keve Aluma, a 6’9 junior forward who sat out last season after following Young from Wofford. Aluma put up modest numbers in two seasons with the Terriers (who had a roster loaded with talented veterans while he was there), making his sparkling 16.0 ppg and 6.7 rpg averages all the more surprising. Aluma will take the outside shot if he’s left all alone, but it isn’t his strong suit. It’s his athleticism and his tenacity in the paint that have made him arguably the best post player in the conference up to this point.

Aluma has been a nightmare for opposing big men hoping to avoid foul trouble, and leads the ACC in free-throws attempted (54). He’s also second in free-throws made (35). It goes without saying that Jae’Lyn Withers, Dre Davis, JJ Traynor and everyone else in charge with keeping tabs on Aluma will need to be at their best on the defensive end.

Depth is the story of the VT backcourt, where the sophomore trio of Nahiem Alleyne (11.1 ppg), Tyrece Radford (10.8 ppg), and Jalen Cone (10.1 ppg) are all averaging double figures in scoring. Only Radford scored more than 10 a game last season. Senior Wabissa Bede, who led the ACC in assist/turnover ratio last season, is also back to run the point for Young. With more depth in the backcourt and more ball-handling options around him this season, Bede’s assist numbers are down fairly significantly (5.5 apg to 3.1 apg) from a year ago.

Bede had been sharing the point guard duties with talented Kansas State transfer Cartier Diarra, but Diarra opted out of the rest of the season on Dec. 15. His departure has meant more minutes for sophomore guard Hunter Cattoor, who has emerged as the primary backup at PG. Though he doesn’t do anything particularly flashy, Cattoor has dished out nine assists and turned the ball over just twice in Virginia Tech’s last three games. He picks his spots when it comes to taking outside shots, but he’s a very capable three-point shooter when he’s afforded an adequate amount of space.

While the bulk of Virginia Tech’s non-Aluma production this season has come from its backcourt, the Hokies have received a recent uptick in play from Delaware transfer Justyn Mutts. The 6’7, 230-pound junior was terrific against an undersized Miami frontcourt last week, finishing with 15 points, nine rebounds and three steals. Mutts can also step out and knock down the three, which will make him yet another tough assignment for Dre Davis, who has been pretty good in these situations in his young Cardinal career.

Mutts, to be fair, is also a very capable defender. Exhibit A:

Unlike the Buzz Williams Virginia Tech teams of the past, these Hokies are going to be fine with playing at Chris Mack’s pace. VT enters Wednesday at No. 309 in the country in tempo, just 16 spots ahead of the Cards. And even though they still shoot the three ball well enough (33.8 percent as a team), they don’t shoot it nearly as much as they did under Williams.

While they play a lot more guys and their backcourt is much, much deeper, stylistically, this Virginia Tech team actually looks a lot like Louisville. They don’t run a whole lot, they do the bulk of their damage inside the arc, and they’re a terrific defensive team in the halfcourt.

Where the Hokies have really killed teams — and where U of L can’t afford to be killed tonight — is at the free-throw line. In their three biggest wins of the season — Miami, Clemson and Villanova — Virginia Tech outscored its opponents by a collective 23 points at the charity stripe, and attempted 34 more free-throws than their opponents.

The Cardinal guards need to stop Virginia Tech penetration and the young U of L frontcourt needs to be physical with Aluma, but they all also have to be aware of how the game’s being officiated and will need to adjust their play accordingly.

Notable:

—Louisville has won 16 consecutive games against Virginia Tech, its longest active winning streak against a Division-I opponent. The Hokies have not defeated the Cardinals since Feb. 13, 1991.

—The winner of Wednesday night’s game will sit alone atop the ACC standings as the league’s only 3-0 team.

—Louisville has started with at least a 7-1 record through eight games for the 10th time in the last 13 years. The Cards have won at least eight of their first nine games on nine occasions over the past 12 years.

—Louisville has a 57-16 record in its conference home games over the last nine years. The Cards are 42-13 in ACC home games since joining the conference in 2014-15.

—Louisville has won 10 of its last 11 ACC home games. Dating back to last season, the Cards have won 13 consecutive home games overall.

—Chris Mack is 2-1 in games against Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young. The coaches split a pair of meetings when Mack was at Xavier and Young was at Wofford.

—Virginia Tech is looking for just its third 3-0 start to conference play since joining the ACC in 2004-05. The Hokies won their first three conference games in 2006-07 and 2018-19.

—Virginia Tech has recorded 21 steals in its last two games.

—Carlik Jones is the only player in the ACC to rank among the top 15 in scoring (8th, 16.4 ppg), rebounding (15th, 6.6 rpg) and assists (first, 5.1 apg).

—Virginia Tech’s game notes ask that media members refer to the team as “Virginia Tech,” “Hokies” or “Tech” - and not “Vah Tech.”

—Vah Tech currently sits at No. 33 in the latest NET Rankings, three spots behind No. 30 Louisville.

—Louisville has won its first home game of the new year five of the last six years.

—Louisville has a 42-13 record during the month of January over the last five years (.764).

—Wednesday will be Virginia Tech’s first true road game of the season.

—Through its first eight games this season, Louisville has produced nine runs of 8-0 or better, including a 10-0 run at Boston College in its last game. The Cardinals had a season-best 14-0 run against Evansville in its season-opener.

—Since 2004, Louisville is 125-0 when leading by more than 10 points at halftime.

—Louisville is 23-0 over the last two seasons when scoring at least 71 points, including 5-0 this season

—Louisville has won 162 consecutive games when holding an opponent under 50 points.

—Louisville has won 155 consecutive games when scoring at least 85 points in regulation.

—Louisville is one of just four schools which have won 20 or more games on the court in each of the last 18 seasons. Gonzaga, Duke and Kansas are the others.

Ken Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville 67, Virginia Tech 64