Down is up, up is down: And Virginia is winning, not with defense, but with its offense
Ninth-ranked defending champ Virginia isn’t playing recent vintage Tony Bennett Virginia Basketball.
A look at KenPom.com, our friend, that always tells us how good Virginia is on defense, has us double-taking: 25th nationally?
Last year: first.
The 2019 champs: fifth.
The last time Virginia ranked outside the Top 10 nationally was 2012-2013. That was also the last Virginia team that failed to make it to the NCAA Tournament.
But this year’s team isn’t in any danger in that respect.
At 9-1 in ACC play, back in the Top 10 in both national polls, the ‘Hoos are a legit national title contender, again.
But it’s the offense, where UVA ranks ninth nationally overall – fifth in effective field goal percentage, seventh in turnovers, ninth in three-point shooting, 13th in two-point shooting – that is the foundation.
“With Sam, Jay, Trey, this year’s team, we have some guys that can really stretch the floor, and so you give them the freedom,” Bennett told reporters on a Zoom conference call on Monday.
Sam Hauser (15.4 ppg, 52.0% FG, 42.9% 3FG), Jay Huff (13.6 ppg, 62.8% FG, 47.9% 3FG) and Trey Murphy III (11.1 ppg, 50.9% FG, 47.9% 3FG) are the building blocks.
Bennett’s team that won the natty two years ago stood out because it had two guys – 6’7” De’Andre Hunter, 6’8” Braxton Key – who could guard anybody on the floor, giving Bennett maximum lineup flexibility to match up with any lineup throw at his team.
This year’s team puts pressure on opposing coaches because the Big Three are literally a big three – Hauser at 6’8”, Murphy at 6’9” and Huff at 7’1” – who can score from the perimeter, attack the basket with dribble-drives and score in the post.
Any one of them would be a tough guard to game plan around.
All three on the court at the same time is ungodly hard to try to defend for 40 minutes.
“Using Jay, with his ability, is, certainly, his skill level, he can put it on the floor, he can separate, shoot the three, he can score inside. So trying to use his mobility and his strength. Same with Sam, and you know, again, just like, yeah, there’s some constants that don’t change,” Bennett said. “Trying to get good shots, take care of the ball, good decisions, and then you say all right, let’s have some different looks. Some guys, you set a ball screen, and you know, depending on what they do, you can separate, you can roll. So using their strengths to the best of their abilities, and I think we’ve tried to utilize Jay’s strengths, along with Sam and Trey and other ones.”
Having the Big Three together on the floor as much as is possible does mean Virginia can find itself exposed at times when opponents go small.
Bennett’s guards, Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman, are elite on-ball defenders, and Beekman can guard 1, 2 or 3.
You’d love to have 6’4” sophomore Casey Morsell on the floor to guard elite scorers at the 2 and 3, but going that route takes Murphy off the floor.
Morsell is getting 17.6 minutes a game this season, and he’s been better on the offensive end as a sophomore – shooting 42.9 percent from the floor, up from 27.7 percent a year ago, and 29.0 percent from three, up from 17.6 percent in 2019-2020 – but those aren’t Murphy-level numbers.
Huff is getting a similar amount of minutes – 24.6 per game this season, down slightly from 25.0 last year – so the big difference in the post is the loss of Mamadi Diakite, and his ability to hard hedge on pick-and-rolls, switch and guard perimeter players, and protect the rim.
Diakite got 32.8 minutes per game in 2019-2020. Hauser is getting 33.8 minutes per game in 2020-2021.
Essentially, the minutes going to Diakite are going to Hauser.
Hauser is an upgrade on offense – his offensive rating, per Sports-Reference.com, is 125.1; Diakite’s was 102.6 a year ago.
Diakite was next-level good on defense – his defensive rating was 85.2; Hauser, this season, has a defensive rating at 99.2.
“Mamadi was quick and athletic. We’re different this year,” Bennett said. “I think Sam is, you know, he’s a position player, he’s smart, he’s heady. Jay’s long. But we don’t have that probably elite athletic frontcourt player. So again, you do it, we try to be good with our perimeter guys guarding the ball. Not as much, you know, Caden’s active, but he’s been you know, out for such a long time. Hopefully, he’ll develop into that. Trey Murphy’s new, he’s playing a little more of the perimeter. So right now, we don’t have a guy that’s similar to (Mamadi).”
If you don’t have that guy – Diakite was the latest in a long line of Bennett bigs who were shutdown guys, starting with Akil Mitchell, to Darion Atkins, Isaiah Wilkins, spanning the recent run of success that began with the 2014 ACC title – it’s not as if you can just create somebody to do that out of thin air.
Huff – defensive rating: 89.9 – is an elite rim protector, but he doesn’t have the lateral quickness that Diakite, Wilkins, Atkins, Mitchell were able to bring.
“For Jay, his evolution as a defensive player, you know, he has to make his impact with positioning, his length, trying to bother shots, get on the glass and rebound, and just, you know, just play as hard as he can,” Bennett said.
You can tell that Bennett is conflicted.
Defense is in his DNA.
“Defense is about, you’ve got to make a decision, you know, every practice, you know, every game, you’ve got to play it with, it’s funny, we talk about, with your eyes, you’ve got to play it with your heart, you’ve got to play with your hands, your feet. It requires an all-out effort,” he said.
“I think you need your defense to travel. We always say defense travels, and it needs to be as steady as you can,” Bennett said. “I think offenses are getting better. More guys can spread the floor, space, they can shoot, do things off the dribble. So there’s always that, you know. It’s kind of, you want it to be in your DNA and as a program, as coaches, you try to foster that and work with it. So there’s always a challenge to coach good basketball, but defense, I think that’s part of the coaches, that’s part of the players, you know, just trying to be as is committed to it as possible, knowing it can be a difference maker, and the good teams, you know, usually the defense plays a huge role in it. And obviously, you have to be good on both ends, but that has to be a significant part to sometimes withstand, you know, an off-night of shooting or ebbs and flows.”
Story by Chris Graham