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A glance at the latest AP Poll that was released on Monday featured six undefeated teams in the top 10. Among the unbeatens are college basketball mainstays like Kentucky, Duke, Louisville, Arizona and Villanova. However sitting at #5, sits the 11-0 Virginia Cavaliers, a team that few are talking about in the mainstream media.
Since head coach Tony Bennett’s first season in Charlottesville when the Cavaliers won 15 games in 2009, Virginia has improved upon its win total in each succesive season. This upward trend culminated last year when the 30 win Wahoos won the ACC league and conference tournament championships and entered the NCAA Tournament as the 1 seed in the East Region.
Bennett has built a program that targets recruits that fit his style of play, not necessarily the top players in the country. Predicated on his father Dick Bennett’s stingy Pack-Line defense that requires everyone on the court to constantly communicate, help and pressure the ball once it gets within 16 feet of the basket, the Cavaliers have frustrated opponents into submission.
This defense takes an incredible amount of practice to master, and also requires players who will buy into playing this tenacious style for an entire game. Offensively, Virginia values the ball and often keeps possession deep into the shot clock. This combination of grinding defense and a patient offense is not what every AAU stud with NBA aspirations is looking to play. But Bennett has found those players and gotten them to make statistical sacrifices for the betterment of the team.
But a funny thing has happened this season. Virginia’s offense has stretched out its legs and gotten up and down the floor more often. Defensively, the Hoos have still clamped down on teams, leading to results like Sunday’s 76-27 annihilation of a very solid Harvard team that won a tournament game last year and will probably get the Ivy League bid again this year. All this has happened while UVa dealt with the graduation of one of the programs more successful players, Joe Harris.
So what has contributed to the Cavaliers fast start and why do I think they are headed for the programs first Final Four since 1984? Here are four reasons:
Every returning player has stepped up their game from the ’13-’14 season: You name ’em and they’ve stepped up. Justin Anderson looks like a lock to leave early for the NBA at this rate, with his jaw dropping dunks, blocks and newly found left handed stroke. Anderson is shooting a staggering 60% from three point range. At 6’6” and 227 pounds, he has all the measureables scouts drool over.
Mike Tobey has looked like one of the best big men in the country. He bulked up his frame but hasn’t lost his mid range shooting touch. With post moves that he executes with each hand and off of each pivot foot, the 7 footer is a matchup nightmare. Gone are the days of bigger front lines pushing him around on the boards.
Darion Atkins has quietly replaced a lot of the production from departed senior Akil Mitchell, an underrated loss from last years team. Atkins averages 19 minutes, 6 points, 5 rebounds a block and steal every game. Not an overwhelming stat line, but the guy just always seems to make the most of his minutes and gives Virginia key depth in the front court. One year removed from reports of unhappiness over a lack of playing time, Atkins was sent to ACC Media Day to represent Virginia with Malcolm Brogdon and had his picture plastered all over lots of Cavalier preseason press material. He has responded with inspired play and senior leadership.
Others like Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill have been par for the course, which is to say extremely good. Brogdon especially will be leaned on more and more as ACC play starts.
Turning the Pack-Line defensive stops into transition buckets: Bennett needs a certain type of player for his system as I noted, but those types of players he’s recruited have become more athletic. This UVa team is not to be confused with Dick Bennett’s Wisconsin teams, that often struggled to crack 50 points. Virginia can run, and has turned their pressure defense into transition baskets. Anderson and Brogdon, among others, have shown they can push the ball in transition and turn steals into odd man rushes. Even when not turning a team over, Virginia has scored points in bunches. The highlight being a trip to Richmond to play VCU. The Rams “Havoc” defense is well known for full court pressure, from tip to buzzer. UVa had some turnovers (the Rams are very athletic, no team is escaping a game against them with a clean turnover column), but the Cavaliers constantly broke their press to the tune of 74 points and an astounding 68% shooting. This is a team that is most comfortable playing in the 60’s, but is not scared to get out and run.
Depth and Bennett’s mastery of the rotation: Virginia is a team that has nine players that average between 10 and 30 minutes. This is not an easy juggling act, and just last season the bumps of figuring out the rotation cost them several non-conference games. Keeping guys happy, fresh and productive is tricky, especially with a rotation that goes nine deep and features some talented underclassmen who would love to see more playing time. Pushing all the right buttons has been a huge key to the Cavaliers success. Freshmen like Marial Shayok and Virginia Beach’s Devon Hall (a Cape Henry grad I might add, my alma mater) have been used sporadically, but seem to produce when called upon. Hall’s key minutes in the VCU rout come to mind. When you think of the March grind that can feature three games in three days in the league tourney and two game weekends in the NCAA, this depth will be huge.
Hot shooting: This is an X factor, that you can’t always count on. But up to this point, the Hoos hot shooting has been a big part of their 11-0 start. Anderson won’t continue to shoot 60% from three. If he does, he’ll be very rich, very soon. As a team, Virginia has shot 50% from the field and 39% from three. It hasn’t just been the Anderson show, as Gill, Atkins and Tobey have all shot over 50%. The silver lining of some of these numbers more than likely coming back to earth, is that London Perrantes has not found his shot at all last year. Coming off a freshman year where he was 44% from three, Perrantes has struggled from the field at a clip of 24% from the field and 26% from three. Perrantes is a security blanket at point guard (assist to turnover ratio is 4 to 1) and if he finds his shot in league play this team will be a whole different level of scary.
Why Final Four?: Defense travels, plain and simple. When you get into March, you have to play in foreign environments where it may take you awhile to figure out the rims and sight lines as it pertains to your jump shot. Defense, is something you can always lean on, even if your shot isn’t falling. I mentioned UVa has run more often this year, but they are totally comfortable with a final score of 45-35, as long as they are on the winning end. The depth and balance I discussed will also help them match up with athletic teams like Duke, Louisville and (perhaps) Kentucky.
Their schedule will also be a huge asset for them in March. It’s not like Virginia has been sitting in Charlottesville and beating up on mediocre teams. The Hoos have played three true road games (including wins at Maryland and VCU) and also won two games at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn versus LaSalle and Rutgers. This past Sunday’s romp over Harvard was an eye opening win, and their final non conference game at home versus Davidson is another matchup against a quality opponent. Tony Bennett crafted a challenging schedule and that experience will help them immensely as the grind of ACC play commences next month.
Experts have wondered aloud, “who will have the athleticism to take down Duke or Kentucky?” Very fair question. I’d counter with, “who will have the patience and execution, especially on offense, to take down Virginia?”
How to beat Virginia?: The simple answer, you have to get hot from three. Virginia plays a defense that allows teams to take relatively uncontested three’s; if you can hit them in bunches then the Cavaliers can run into trouble. With everything I’ve mentioned about the offense being more explosive than the standard issue Tony Bennett team, this is still a team that can hit long cold spells from time to time. What remains to be seen is how Virginia can matchup with athletically elite teams, but their schedule will let them find out four times. Duke, North Carolina and Louisville (twice) remain on the schedule, as well as a couple teams with under the radar backcourts (Miami and Notre Dame). Guys like Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor are top flight big men with NBA talent. They will be a huge test for any team that plays them, Virginia included.
As I said before, I think this Virginia team has all the balance and skill of a Final Four team and I’ll be shocked if they aren’t playing on the final weekend of the season for the first time in 31 years.