September 24, 2018

Schedule preview: Conference slate can make-or-break men’s basketball

By Conner Farrell —

After keying in non-conference matchups for the 2018-19 men’s basketball season last week, our coverage continues with the conference side of the slate.

U of L tips off the first of 18 conference games on Jan. 6 when the Miami Hurricanes come to play in Louisville. Of those 18 contests, the Cardinals will square up twice with North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Virginia.

This will be first-year head coach Chris Mack’s opening run through the vaunted ACC conference that had nine teams in the 2018 NCAA tournament. Four of those schools advanced to the second weekend.

The meat of the conference schedule comes in the month of February when the Cards face off against seven of nine teams that made the NCAA tournament last season. It’s a fair chance those schools will be tournament teams again. Let’s break down three of those matchups.

At Virginia Tech Feb. 4

Virginia Tech will be the first road game of the difficult portion of the schedule in February. U of L played VT twice last year and won both meetings, including a high-scoring 94-86 thriller in the Ville.

The Cardinals have yet to lose to the Hokies since joining the ACC and hold a 5-0 record in their history together.

Since head coach Buzz Williams took over the program in the 2014-15 season, Virginia Tech has made the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. The program has not accomplished this since the 1984-86 seasons.

Williams has the program trending upwards. The Hokies rely on a high-scoring offense that ranked seventh in the nation in points-per-game(72.2) last season.

VT returns their leading scorer in All-ACC second team senior guard Justin Robinson, as well as potential ACC breakout player in guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The sophomore has been Williams’ highest rated recruit during his tenure as head coach.

This is no game to sleep on for Louisville and represents a quick turnaround, beginning the month of February with three games in seven days. Pencil this in your calendar as a potential trap game.

At Florida State Feb. 9

U of L and Florida State squared off three times last season with Louisville coming out on top twice. One of those times came in the ACC tournament when the Cards toppled the Seminoles 82-74.

FSU took a lot of people by surprise by making an appearance in the Elite Eight last season as a nine-seed in the NCAA tournament. This followed an up-and-down year where they finished at .500 in ACC play with a 9-9 record.

This season, Florida State may not have that element of surprise. The Seminoles return four of their starters, including a pair of senior wings in Phil Cofer and Terrence Mann who rank one and three in scoring for the team, respectively.

One statistic to note is the Seminoles’ shooting from beyond the arc. The team shot 33 percent from deep last season, good enough for 13th in nation.

Virginia at home Feb. 23

Representing Louisville’s bane since their arrival in the ACC are the Virginia Cavaliers. U of L has only beaten Virginia once, holding a 1-7 record in their history together.

The Cavs return from a historic season for the program with a 31-3 overall record. They notched a 17-1 record in ACC play, becoming the first team to do so in conference history.

Last season was also infamous as Virginia become the first one-seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a 16-seed in the opening round.

Playing under 2017-18 AP coach of the year in Tony Bennett, Virginia has another opportunity to repeat last season’s performance. The Cavaliers return three of their starters from last season, including All-ACC first team junior guard Kyle Guy and All-ACC second team junior Ty Jerome. Sophomore forward DeAndre Hunter is a potential breakout player in the ACC.

The most important thing to notice in the first of two matchups against the “Hoos” is Mack’s ability to crack Virginia’s defense. The Cavs’ Pack-Line defense has given opponents problems for years.

In their past contests, Louisville has only averaged 61.8 points-per-game against Virginia. This might be the year that coach Mack leads the Cardinals to solid offensive performances against the opponent.

You can follow the Louisville Cardinal on Twitter @thecardsports.

Photo by Taris Smith / The Louisville Cardinal

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