The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (9-3) performed very well against a very difficult non-conference schedule, and now it's time for ACC play. The Deacs will begin ACC play by taking a trip to Kentucky to take on the #18 Louisville Cardinals (11-2). The Cardinals are a difficult team to figure out, as they have close losses to two excellent teams (at Michigan State and at Kentucky), and then 11 blowout wins against inferior competition. Louisville's best victory of the season came against Grand Canyon, who is currently ranked 115th by Ken Pomeroy. What else do we know about the Cardinals?
The Cardinals are led by Damion Lee, who is a graduate transfer from Drexel. Wake Forest was also pursuing Lee, and based on his performance, it's clear to see why. Lee is averaging 18 points per game, and has an offensive rating of 135.6, which is 14th best in the country. He averaged 25 points in Louisville's games against Michigan State and Kentucky, so Lee can score on anyone in the country.
Wake Forest received good news on Saturday morning when Rick Pitino announced that starting guard Trey Lewis will miss the game with a sprained ankle. He is the second leading scorer on the team, with 14 per game, and shoots 44% from deep. This probably means that 4-star freshman Donovan Mitchell will see more playing time. He has been very efficient in the minutes he has played this season, and is also capable of picking pockets.
Louisville is currently ranked 5th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, and have put up some gaudy numbers. They have an effective field goal percentage of 56.5%, while are only allowing opponents an effective field goal percentage of 41.7%, which is 7th nationally. Those numbers are not adjusted for competition, but they are still very impressive. Perhaps Louisville's biggest strength is that they are currently rebounding 45% of their misses, which is 2nd in the nation. Those are probably somewhat inflated due to competition, but they rebounding 50% of their misses against Kentucky, and 38% of their misses against Michigan State. They also do a nice job of protecting the ball and forcing a lot of turnovers. Their biggest weakness is that they are only average at getting to the foul line, and allowing opponents to get to the charity stripe.
Because of all of this, Ken Pom likes Louisville by 17 in this one. The Cardinals actually opened up as a 17-point favorite in Vegas, but that has since been bet down to 13.5. How can Wake Forest pull off the upset? It's going to require Wake's best effort of the year. The Deacs are going to have to make a deliberate effort to get the ball to Devin Thomas and John Collins in the post in order to get high percentage looks and also get to the foul line.
In addition to making a commitment to get the ball inside, they simply have to be in relentless pursuit of rebounding opportunities, particularly on the defensive end. Louisville enough additional chances by not turning the ball over, the Deacs cannot allow them to get additional opportunities by grabbing offensive rebounds.
Wake Forest was able to generate 9 steals against LSU, who entered the game with a reputation for being able to protect the ball. Wake is going to have to do something similar tonight so that they don't have to consistently play half court offense against Louisville's stifling defense. Danny Manning placed Codi Miller-McIntyre on Ben Simmons, and I expect him to utilize Codi to defend Damion Lee.
As is the case with most upsets, Wake is going to have to shoot well from the outside. Both Bryant Crawford and Dinos Mitoglou went 3-5 from deep against LSU, and several of those threes came at vital moments in the contest. On the opposite end, both Mitchell Wilbekin and Cornelius Hudson went 1-6 from deep against the Tigers. The team went a total of 8-24 from deep, and that's going to have to improve if Wake is going to knock off the Cardinals.
Wake has the talent to pull off the upset, especially since Louisville will be short-handed, but it's going to take Wake's best performance of the season. The team is playing its best basketball of the season now that they are at full strength, but the improvement is going to have to continue on Sunday night to return home with a 1-0 record in the ACC.
For more information, be sure to check out SB Nation's Card Chronicle. The guys over there do an excellent job of covering all things Louisville.