Date: Wednesday, March 3
When No. 16 Virginia Tech (15-5, 9-4) and Louisville (13-5, 8-4) take the court in Cassell Coliseum on Wednesday, they’ll be battling for the inside track at a double bye in next week’s ACC Tournament.
If the season ended today, both the Hokies and the Cardinals would automatically advance to the quarterfinals in Greensboro. However, with two games left before the end of the regular season, everything is still up in the air. Tech currently is only a game-and-a-half up on eighth-place Duke, who still has an outside shot to make the top four. In between, there is a log jam of teams trying to skip the first two days of competition.
The Hokies were able to get back on track following their long hiatus due to COVID-19 with a record-breaking 38-point victory over Wake Forest on Saturday. Tech went on a 25-1 run, starting late in the first half and extending into the second, and never looked back for its largest ACC win in program history.
Later on Saturday, Louisville was able to secure its most important win of the season. The Cardinals prevailed in overtime over red-hot Duke to push themselves ahead in the mess that sits in the middle of the conference.
The win didn’t come without a cost. Louisville only got three games from its starting center Malik Williams this year before losing him for the season. Williams missed the first 15 games of the year with a foot injury which he reinjured against the Blue Devils. The six-foot-eleven senior averaged over eight points and six rebounds last season.
Williams also didn’t play against the Hokies when these two teams met back in early January. The Cardinals relied on their starting backcourt to lead the way as they have most of the year. Carlik Jones and David Johnson each scored 17 points, while redshirt-freshman Jae’Lyn Withers surprised in the paint with 16 points and 12 rebounds. The Hokies got a shot to win the game at the buzzer from Hunter Cattoor, but it rimmed out and Tech lost 73-71.
The Hokies’ biggest contributor in that game was sophomore guard Jalen Cone, who had a career-high 23 points, including six made three-pointers. Unfortunately, Mike Young won’t have the young three-point specialist available against the Cardinals or in Saturday’s season finale at North Carolina State. Cone injured his ankle against Miami before Tech’s COVID break, and the Hokies hope to have him back for the ACC Tournament.
Without Cone sniping from beyond the arc, Tech will rely on its star in the frontcourt, Keve Aluma. Since his worst outing of the year against Syracuse, Aluma is averaging 20.7 points and 10 rebounds per game in his last six contests. Aluma had just 11 points in the first meeting with Louisville and will look to post a better game at home in Blacksburg.
Tech also will have redshirt-sophomore Tyrece Radford for the third straight game after his return from suspension. Radford looked to be close to full strength against the Demon Deacons on Saturday with 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
Radford, Aluma and Justyn Mutts will be leaned on heavily to get to the rim for easy buckets against this tough Cardinals defense. Louisville currently ranks 34th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency and is holding opponents to just 30.5% shooting from beyond the arc.
These teams were supposed to play in Blacksburg in mid-February, but the game was postponed due to positive tests inside the Cardinals’ program. Shortly after, a positive test was found in the Hokies’ program and that led to the long layoff.
Now, these teams meet in the final week of the year, looking to polish off their resumes for the selection committee. According to Joe Lunardi, the Hokies are currently projected as a seven-seed in the NCAA Tournament while the Cardinals claim one of the last four byes and sit on the ten line. Louisville could lock up a spot in the Big Dance with a victory on Wednesday, and Tech looks to continue to push their way up as Selection Sunday nears.
This game doesn’t only have implications on the postseason race, but the Hokies will also be trying to break its longest active losing streak against an opponent. Louisville has won the last 17 matchups against the Hokies dating back to 1991. Overall, the Cardinals have won 36 of the 44 games between the two programs.
If Tech was ever to break the streak, this would be the most important one to pull off, as there are major ACC and NCAA Tournament implications riding on this game.