A little less democratic: Is UVA offense best when one guy takes over?

uva basketballDown 51-38 to North Carolina, eight minutes left, the UVA offense was sputtering, and worse, it had been in need of a spark since the early minutes, and no one was stepping forward to provide it.

Enter Malcolm Brogdon, who a bit out of character started taking shots out of the normal context of the motion offense, getting the ball at the top of the key and going bull in a china shop toward the rim, taking threes with hands in his face.

It was a sublime stretch for Brogdon, who hit seven straight from the field, three from three-point range, to single-handedly will the Cavs back into the game.

After the Duke loss, I wrote a column suggesting that what is otherwise Virginia’s strength, its democratic approach to getting its offensive production, with Brogdon as the leading scorer at just 13.9 points per game, and other weapons like Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill, Darion Atkins and Mike Tobey contributing in nearly equal, very efficient ways, could also be its weakness.

Think back to that Duke game, when UVA went scoreless in the final 2:59. To me the issue that night was that on a team of equals, there is by definition no go-to guy, and in late-game, big-game situations, you kind of need to have a go-to guy, who you can turn to in a pinch, who says, we got this, and demands the ball and makes it happen.

Brogdon stepped in and did that with eight minutes to go in the ACC Tournament against UNC. Now think back to another tough early-season game, the 83-72 win at home over Davidson in December. Anthony Gill was the go-to guy that night, scoring 25 on the night, and carrying the team in the second half very much like Brogdon did in the second half against Carolina last week.

Anderson is capable, when fully healthy, which I suspect he will be this week, of carrying the team for a stretch. Evan Nolte has played that role, if you remember the key second-half stretch in the win over Coastal Carolina in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, as has Mike Tobey, who had a big first half that keyed the blowout win over Harvard earlier this season.

Virginia is fortunate that it can turn in any of a number of directions to find the guy to carry the team if having a guy carry things is needed. The hard part is that the Cavs are hard-wired not to naturally step up and take over. Brogdon explained to me last week that the nature of playing the Pack-Line defense, which requires UVA players to rely on each other so much to execute properly, seeps in to their thinking on the offensive side of the court, the message being that it’s hard for anybody to be selfish on offense when they play such a team-oriented game on defense.

And by and large, that approach works on offense. It can be exceedingly difficult for an opponent to figure out who to focus on, one, because UVA has so many weapons, and two, each play and each offensive set that Virginia runs has so many options, so many permutations, that there really is no difference between an option #1 and option #5.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t hurt a team to have an option #1. Gill in the Davidson game, for example. It was obvious that coach Tony Bennett emphasized in the locker room that the ball was to go inside in the second half, and that feed Gill was going to be the winning strategy, and Gill made that work, going 8-of-9 from the field, 3-of-3 from the line, fueling a second-half offensive explosion that saw UVA score 51 points and put up 1.545 points per possession.

Brogdon seemed to take the onus on himself in the UNC game last week to take over, in part because of a favorable defensive matchup spurred by Bennett’s move to use Nolte as a stretch four, going small, if you want to use that term, considering that Nolte is 6’8”, to force UNC’s hand on defense.

To answer the question posed in the headline, I’d ultimately come down on the side of, no, UVA’s offense works best the way it has worked under Bennett, with opponents not able to focus on any one spot because the democratic approach means everybody is a threat.

I’d only qualify the no with the observation that there are situations that call for a guy to take over, and that what Brogdon was able to do in the final minutes Friday could be something that we may need to see again in the NCAA Tournament when the Cavs get into another pressure situation.

– Column by Chris Graham


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