CRAWFORD | The scout: Louisville at Virginia Tech, TV, line, refs, 3 things to watch
Eric Crawford takes a look at Wednesday night's Louisville-Virginia Tech matchup, and writes about the importance of Louisville hitting the offensive boards, and keeping Virginia Tech off the foul line.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- There have been plenty of indicators of the improvement in University of Louisville sophomore Chinanu Onuaku's play this season. His field goal percentage is way up. His offensive decision-making is improved. His defensive communication with and influence on teammates is enhanced.
If you're looking for one place to tie it all together, I have it for you: Ken Pomeroy's statistical player of the year listing. Onuaku popped up there this week at No. 10.
Louisville fans will remember -- Russ Smith was the KenPom player of the year in the national championship season of 2013 and again in 2014.
With the Cardinals headed into an 8 p.m. road game tonight at Virginia Tech, they'll need Onuaku's efficiency, offensive rebounding, and most of all his presence on the court against a Virginia Tech team that ranks fourth in the nation in free throws attempted and first in free-throw rate (free throws attempted per 100 field goals attempted) at 51.1.
Onuaku leads the Cardinals in shooting at 61 percent from the field. But just as exciting for Louisville fans -- and Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino -- is that he's made 11 of his past 14 free throws.
"I think any time you try something new -- and as dramatic as an underhanded free-throw may be -- it's just getting comfortable and getting used to it," Pitino said. "Repetition is the key to success, and he's worked on it. I'd like to put a couple of my other guys through it as well. But he's doing a much better job with it. With the underhanded free-throw you get a lot more breaks because of the reverse rotation on the basketball. He's getting used to it and doing a nice job with it."
It's hard to imagine that this time a year ago, Onuaku's teammates didn't really have confidence in throwing him the ball. Now, Pitino would like them to get it to him more. As it is, in ACC play, Onuaku has a hand in finishing 22.24 percent of the possessions Louisville has when he's on the court, second best on the team among regular players. He's averaging a team-best 17.6 points per 40 minutes, and has by far the rebound rate on the team, grabbing 12.8 percent of the missed shots that occur while he is on the court.
"I've just kept working," Onuaku said. "My teammates have faith in me. And I've been around now so I know what coach expects and what we need to do on defense."
Virginia Tech ranks last in the ACC in offensive rebounds allowed -- letting ACC foes rebound 36.3 percent of their misses. That's an area Louisville, and Onuaku, could exploit.
If they can do it without fouling.
More on tonight's game, with three things to watch:
Time: 8 p.m., Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, Va.
TV: ACC Network (WAVE in Louisville) Tom Werme, Dan Bonner.
Line: Louisville by 10, under - 142 1/2. (Virginia Tech is 4-0 against the spread as home underdogs in ACC games this season).
Officials: Brian Dorsey, Jerry Heater, Michael Roberts.
1. CAN MAHMOUD KEEP IT GOING? Anas Mahmoud had something of a breakout game in last week's win at Georgia Tech, with 15 points, 4 rebounds, two assists and a block to take statistical MVP honors in the game. But in reality, Mahmoud's role has been steadily growing since the start of conference play. His "usage" stat, number of possessions he has had a hand in finishing while on the court, has risen to 23.85 percent, highest among the team's regular players, in ACC play. His points per 40 minutes (16.9) are third-best on the team and his rebound rate (9.57) is second best. He also has the team's fourth-highest assist rate.
"He's been playing very well in practice," Pitino said. "With Mangok Mathiang out, sometimes I'm concerned about using him a lot at power forward -- which is his normal position -- because we use him a lot at backup center. But Nanu Onuaku has not been getting into foul trouble so we've been able to play them together, and they play very well together. But we also have Matz Stockman as a backup. When Mangok comes back, Anas will be playing more at the power forward as well. They both have great length. It gives us great shot blockers and good rebounders.
"He's never going to have a thick lower body, but he's very agile, very intelligent, blocks shots and has good low post moves. He's developed a very good low post game. I don't think he played too much low post in high school, and now he's learning it and getting very good with both hands."
2. CROSSING THE LINE. In its road loss at Clemson, Louisville was outshot 44-18 from the free-throw line. It'll have to avoid doing that with Virginia Tech. The Hokies have a knack for getting to the line. They work on it, and do it better than anyone. In a two-point win over Wake Forest, they outshot the Demon Deacons 35-18 from the line.
"I've always believed that the best way to increase your points per possession is to get to the free-throw line," Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said. "Our field goal percentage is not as good as I would like it to be from the three or from the two, but if you make the number of free throws we're making . . . It's for sure allowed us to be much more competitive."
They score a quarter of their points (25.8 percent) from the line, which ranks 10th in the nation.
3. SCOUTING VIRGINIA TECH. Their surprising start has included a win at home over Virginia and near-miss losses to Notre Dame and North Carolina. The Tar Heels built a 36-17 lead in that game, but Virginia Tech outscored them 17-3 to close the half and trailed by only five. Virginia Tech closed to within one early in the second half, and finally tied the game with eight minutes to play, and it was close the rest of the way.
North Carolina was successful because it rebounded 46 percent of its own missed shots.
"If we don't do better (on the defensive boards) it'll be the same story (against Louisville)," Williams said. "North Carolina shot the ball 24 more times than we did. I understand we shot the ball better from the field, but mathematically, it's almost impossible to give a team 24 more shots and still win. . . . Until we can answer those questions, it'll be the same issues."
Asked about Louisville's defensive success, Williams said: "No. 1, they have a Hall of Fame coach. No. 2, they have really good players. No. 3, schematically, all that they do in the full court and the half court keeps you off balance. They don't do the same thing from possession to possession, or even during the length of one possession. . . . I think this is one of the better teams, defensively, that they've had."
The Hokies are led by Zach LeDay, a 6-7 junior from Dallas who averages 16 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Seth Allen, a 6-1 junior, adds 13.5 points per game and Justin Bibbs, a 6-5 guard, scores 12.2 per contest. Bibbs is an outstanding three-point shooter, at 51.7 percent on the season (45-87). He's particularly dangerous from either baseline -- he's at 67 percent from the left baseline and 57 from the right. He's at 60 percent from beyond the top of the key and 53 percent from the left wing. From the right wing, he's only 24 percent.
Virginia Tech isn't a big team. Its tallest starter is 6-8. The Hokies don't block many shots, but are third in the ACC in steal percentage (Louisville is 13th).