When Virginia traveled to Louisville on Feb. 8, the Cavaliers were a bubble team in need of a signature victory. Louisville entered the game as one of the ACC’s best.
Tony Bennett’s team hasn’t lost since falling 80-73 to the Cardinals a month ago, while Chris Mack’s Louisville team hasn’t won a road game since Feb. 1. Louisville’s road struggles and Virginia’s hot streak have both teams in the ACC title picture heading into the final game of the season.
A Louisville win gives the No. 10 Cardinals (24-6, 15-4 ACC) at least a share of the ACC regular-season title, while No. 22 UVa (22-7, 14-5 ACC) needs to win and have Florida State lose to Boston College to earn a share of the league title.
While the Seminoles are heavy favorites to take down the Eagles, it’s been an impressive climb to the top of the league for the Cavaliers. Mack isn’t surprised to see UVa surging into March.
“When you go through a roster turnover and roles become a lot different, you really lean on the type of culture, the type of identity that your teams have taken,” Mack said. “That takes time. Although they were finding themselves offensively, their defense was on point from Day 1.”
Even with improved offense in recent weeks, Virginia’s defense deserves plenty of praise for the team’s seven-game winning streak.
The Cavaliers have held opponents to 50 or fewer points in three of those seven victories, including a 46-44 win over Miami on Wednesday. The Hurricanes shot 35.3% from the field and 24% from 3-point range. Interestingly, Miami only attempted two free throws on the night.
After a 78-point showing against Boston College, Virginia has failed to reach 60 points in its past four games, but the Cavaliers have won each game thanks to solid defense and clutch plays. The four wins have come by a combined 10 points.
Part of the dip in offense can be attributed to Tomas Woldetensae scoring just five points in the past three games. He failed to score against Duke and Miami. Woldetensae had been a catalyst for the offense, scoring 27 in the first meeting with Louisville and 14 in UVa’s 78-point effort against Boston College.
“The window closes sooner,” Bennett said of defenses adjusting to Woldetensae. “His time is not the same as he had before, but he’ll keep working. He’s made some nice passes. I got a feeling he’s gonna make some for us coming up here.”
When the guards make shots, Virginia’s offense can score 60-70 points and win without needing elite defensive showings. When the guards don’t score, the Cavaliers post 46-point efforts and struggle to win defensive battles. Understandably, subpar offensive showings put increased pressure on the defense to perform.
The Cavaliers’ defense had its worst showing of the season in the first matchup against Louisville. The Cardinals scored 80 points against UVa’s efficient defense and a Virginia team that usually operates at a glacial pace.
“I think, sometimes, teams that play Virginia they talk so much about tempo and pace and going to the electric chair,” Mack said. “We don’t worry about any of that. Our guys know that Virginia’s gonna walk the ball up. They’re gonna put you in the half court when they have the ball on offense. You’re not gonna speed them up, so we don’t worry about that.”
The Cardinals didn’t worry about tempo in the first meeting and put up 80 points in front of a raucous home crowd.
They hope they can replicate that type of result again on the road, where they’ve lost their past three games. Two of those losses came to teams in Clemson and Georgia Tech that likely aren’t headed toward the NCAA Tournament. The other came to Florida State.
“If the game ends up 7-6 at the end and we win, that’s all we’re concerned about,” Mack said. “If the game’s 105-102, which unless it goes 15 overtimes I doubt that’s the score, we don’t worry about that either. We just worry about trying to get really good shots, which is difficult to do against Virginia.”
With a win keeping ACC regular-season title possibilities alive for both teams, style points aren’t on anyone’s mind.