Louisville could be minus starting center Williams in showdown with Virginia

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: gocards.com

When Louisville attempts to break its losing streak at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday, the Cardinals might not be playing with a full deck.

Junior center Malik Williams, who started his last three games, will be a game-time decision, according to Louisville coach Chris Mack. That’s a change from two days ago when assistant coach Dino Gaudio said Williams was “doubtful.”

Louisville’s captain, who averages 8.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, twisted his ankle in an 82-67 loss at Florida State on Feb. 24 and missed last Sunday’s home game against Virginia Tech. While the Cardinals cruised to victory in that one, Williams’ absence leaves a significant hole in the middle.

He’s one of two accomplished big men for the Cards at 6-foot-11, 250 pounds. When he couldn’t answer the bell against the Hokies, senior Steven Enoch (6-10, 260) filled the void.

Virginia features two big men in 7-footer Jay Huff, who blocked 10 shots against Duke a week ago, and scored the Cavaliers first 17 points of the game at Miami this past Wednesday night, along with 6-9 Mamadi Diakite, who will be playing his final home game as a Wahoo.

Meanwhile, yet another backup to Williams, freshman Aidan Igiehon, is reportedly nursing a shoulder and is questionable for the game.

If Williams doesn’t feel comfortable playing, don’t expect Mack to risk him for further injury with the ACC Tournament looming next week, followed of course by the NCAA Tournament. Louisville should be a high seed in the NCAA where they’ve reached the Sweet 16 only once in the last four years.

A lot is on the line in Saturday’s game (4:05 p.m., ESPN). Should Florida State falter and lose to Boston College, Louisville could tie the Seminoles for a share of the ACC regular-season crown if the Cardinals beat Virginia. If FSU wins, it owns the tie-breaker over Louisville since the Seminoles swept the Cardinals during the season. There is a possibility there could be a four-way tie for the regular season title if FSU loses, Virginia beats Louisville, and Duke defeats North Carolina.

Those scenarios have not been lost on Mack, who said earlier in the week that even a share of the ACC regular season would be a great accomplishment for this team, which has not won or shared the conference regular-season title since it joined the ACC.

“It’s something that [Louisville’s players] have talked about, and we’ve talked about, really since summer,” Mack said during his weekly press conference. “To go through 20 games against high-level competition, to go through the ups and downs, it’s an achievement. It may not be the achievement that television celebrates or fans think about, but I know our guys will be extremely excited to win [Saturday] and at least share a piece of what I think has always been the best league in college basketball.”

Forward Dwayne Sutton said getting a piece of the regular-season title has been a goal for the Cardinals ever since practice started.

“Earlier in the season, Coach Mack preached, ‘How hard would you play if this was for an ACC championship?’ Here we are, 40 minutes away from a chance to be ACC champions. I think it’s just important for us to not get nervous, don’t do anything out of character and just play Louisville basketball for 40 minutes.”

No one would blame the Cardinals if they were a little anxious coming into JPJ, an arena where Louisville has never won. The Cards came close last season before some costly turnovers torpedoed their chances.

Mack’s team defeated Virginia in the first meeting, 80-73, in early February. Louisville dominated the Cavaliers early in the Yum! Center before UVA guard Tomas Woldetensae heated up from the 3-point line and helped the Wahoos make it a game.

While Tony Bennett’s team hasn’t lost since that game and has reeled off seven consecutive wins, it was clear that Louisville controlled the tempo in that game. The Cardinals’ 80 points were easily the most UVA has given up this season, and the 73 UVA registered was the highest point total the Cavaliers had put up until they scored 78 on Boston College on Feb. 19.

Bennett would obviously prefer a slower tempo, while Mack said the Cardinals are comfortable at either a greyhound’s or turtle’s pace.

Mack jested earlier this week that his team didn’t care if the score was 7-6 or 115-110, that the main focus would be finding good shots against Bennett’s “Pack-Line” defense, and not giving up easy shots to the Cavaliers.

Virginia has won its last four games by a grand total of 10 points. According to Vegas Insider, the Cavaliers are a 1-point favorite to win the game.

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