Don’t let its defense fool you, Virginia isn’t that good this year and an early exit from the tournament seems imminent.
Before Tony Bennett rolled into Charlottesville, Virginia’s men’s basketball program was stuck in a rut. Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Hoos were a staple of the NCAA tournament. Although they never won a national title, between 1980 and 1995, they made 12 NCAA tournaments, reached the Elite Eight five times, and finished in the Final Four twice.
But from the 1995-96 season to the start of Bennett’s tenure in 2009, Virginia made the tournament just three times. The Cavaliers fell to relative mediocrity both within the ACC and nationally. But Bennett was able to revive the program in short order thanks in large part to his implementation of the ”pack line” defensive scheme, which was invented by his father, former Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Washington State head coach Dick Bennett.
That defense helped bring Virginia two-straight ACC regular season titles, an ACC tournament title, and a trip to the Elite Eight, and that defense is just as good this year as it has ever been. The Cavaliers rank first nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency) and first in points allowed per game.
Yes, Virginia’s defense is still great and yes, that will keep Virginia in just about every game it plays, but don’t let that fool you. This team has no offense whatsoever, and we’ve seen similar stories with Virginia before. It always ends the same way: an early exit from the Big Dance.
The Cavaliers have always struggled to keep up offensively with the rest of the nation when it comes to raw numbers. Over the last five years Virginia has never finished better than 225th in scoring offense and has never averaged more than 70.4 points per game.
This year, Virginia is averaging 67.0 points per game (304th), 32.6 rebounds per game (tied for 305th), 8.6 offensive rebounds per game (tied for 305th), and 14.3 assists per game (tied for 128th). None of those numbers portray a particularly impressive offense, and even though the Cavaliers generally perform poorly in raw statistics, these numbers are actually worse than normal.
Virginia usually does look better offensively when using rate and advanced statistics, though. During the three previous seasons, the Hoos averaged 114.1, 113.6, and 119.5 points per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency) good for 27th, 22nd, and eighth in the nation respectively. This season, Virginia is averaging 114.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s actually slightly better than its marks from recent seasons, but this year that 114.3 ranks just 38th nationally.
The problem with the ranking is that Virginia plays at such a slow pace. This year the Hoos average just 60.0 possessions per 40 minutes, 350th in the country (note: there are 351 Division I teams). Shockingly, that’s a slower tempo than Virginia normally has, and when a team plays at such a slow pace, every possession grows in importance and it becomes imperative to be as efficient as possible. Unlike fast-paced teams like UCLA, Kentucky, or North Carolina which will have more opportunities to put the ball in the basket, Virginia only has so many chances and if it doesn’t convert on most of those chances, it puts itself in a tremendously difficult position.
In other years when offense was hard to come by, Virginia could still lean on one or two players to force the issue and get a basket when absolutely necessary. Malcolm Brogdon was the main offensive option the past three seasons but Anthony Gill, Justin Anderson, and Joe Harris all played important subordinate roles alongside Brogdon in various seasons. Unfortunately, all four of those players have graduated and no such player, main or otherwise, exists for Virginia this year.
The closest thing the Hoos have to a viable offensive threat is senior point guard London Perrantes, who is averaging 12.3 points, 3.7 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game but is shooting only 41.1 percent from the floor and 36.7 percent from three. For reference, last year Brogdon and Gill averaged 18.2 and 13.8 points per game respectively and both shot better from the floor and from distance.
Perrantes has stepped up somewhat as the lead option on offense, but he is far more comfortable as a facilitator than as a scorer and that becomes clear when the shot clock runs toward zero and he has to create his own shot.
The main offensive option coming into the season was supposed to be Memphis transfer Austin Nichols. Although he was not a three-point threat, during the season before he headed to Charlottesville Nichols averaged 13.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game on 49.7% shooting from the floor. The offense would have been run through Nichols, Perrantes would have been able to fulfill the role of facilitator and secondary scorer, and every other player in the rotation would have been bumped one spot down, taking significant pressure off of unreliable scorers.
Instead, Nichols’ personal issues boiled over and he was kicked off the team in November after playing just one game this season. Because of that, those other ancillary players have been forced to the forefront of the offense and it is not going well.
Perrantes is the only player on the roster averaging double-digit points, and although the team collectively is shooting reasonably well from the floor – the Cavaliers’ 47.3% shooting is tied for 44th in the country – of the four other players averaging more than 20.0 minutes per game only one is shooting better than 50% from the floor and none are shooting better than 38.0% from distance.
Virginia’s secondary options are lacking. The Hoos are currently riding a four-game losing streak and they have lost five of their last six. In each of those five losses, Virginia never once had more than two players score in double-digits and in the overtime loss to Miami, Perrantes scored just four points on 2-for-15 shooting. When Perrantes can’t get going, this offense is all but doomed.
Junior guard Marial Shayok is Virginia’s second-leading scorer and he averages just 9.6 points per game on 45.5% shooting from the field and 31.3% shooting from deep. Fellow junior Devon Hall sits right behind Shayok at 8.4 points per game and although he is shooting better from three-point range (38.0%), he is shooting worse from the floor (42.0%).
These are the best two options Perrantes has to work with and neither are particularly potent or reliable. The offense no longer has the option of going through a very talented scorer (like Brogdon) and dishing it out to a different, more than competent scorer (like Gill or Anderson) when the main threat is covered.
This was never more apparent than in Monday’s loss to Miami. Not only did Virginia manage only 48 points in a game that went to overtime, but it also allowed Miami to slowly creep back into a game it had no business winning because the Hoos could not find a go-to scorer down the stretch.
In terms of of the rate and advanced numbers, this Virginia team is similar to the teams that participated in the 2014 and 2015 NCAA tournaments. Those years Virginia was one of the favorites to reach the Final Four and was a popular sleeper pick for a national title, but both times the Hoos bowed out early, once during the opening weekend and once in the Sweet Sixteen and even those two teams had talented scoring options. This one does not.
Poor shooting nights doom teams in the NCAA tournament. The number one reason for an early-round upset is an off shooting night that a “Cinderella team” can capitalize on. Almost every night for 2016-17 Virginia is an off shooting night. Sure, the defense will be able to constrict opposing offenses and that will more than likely keep games close, but as we have seen time and again this season with Virginia, it doesn’t matter if you hold a team to 43 points in regulation if you yourself cannot score more than that.
You cannot win basketball games if you cannot consistently put the ball in the basket and even mediocre defenses frustrate this Virginia offense to unfathomable degrees (62 points against Syracuse? Really?). So when you fill out your bracket in a couple weeks, don’t put too much faith in Virginia. There’s a strong chance the Hoos don’t make it past the opening weekend.
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