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Game Plan: What Virginia needs to do to beat Florida State

braxton key syracuse
A cast on his wrist isn’t the only impediment for Braxton Key getting to the hole
as the Cavs managed to shoot only 31 percent from the field in a 63-55 loss to Syracuse. Photo by Dan Grogan.

The game plan for what Virginia needs to do to beat Florida State is easy, and it’s tough.

The easy: Virginia needs to start hitting some jump shots.

The tough: hitting said jump shots.

The 2019-2020 Cavaliers are the program’s least-efficient offensive group of the era, which dates back to 2001-2002, and here’s the thing: it’s not even close.

Into this season, the worst unit had been the 2008-2009 group that got Dave Leitao fired after a 10-18 season that included a home loss to Liberty and a 4-12 ACC finish.

That group scored 1.035 points per possession, ranking 151st nationally.

Even Tony Bennett’s first two teams, the ones that went 15-16 and 16-15, in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, were relative juggernauts compared to this year’s group.

The 2009-2010 team averaged 1.080 points per possession, 87th nationally.

The 2010-2011 team: 1.040 points per game, 159th nationally.

Since the breakthrough in 2013-2014, that had Virginia finish 30-7 and win the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, the least-productive offense has been the 2016-2017 team, the one that went 23-11, and played games that felt like visits to the proctologist.

That group averaged 1.122 points per possession, ranked 50th nationally.

I’ve given you a lot of numbers to shock you with what we’re looking at currently.

The 2019-2020 ‘Hoos are averaging 0.976 points per possession.

That ranks 229th nationally.

I didn’t want to just spring that on you.

More numbers

  • Virginia is shooting 26.8 percent from three-point range. This ranks 268th nationally.
  • The shooting from two isn’t that much better, relatively: at 48.0 percent, 248th nationally.
  • Overall shooting: 39.9 percent, 330th nationally.

This is obviously not the profile of a team that is anywhere near worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid, which, if the season were to end right now, maybe, maybe not, as far as that one is concerned.

As good as Virginia has been defensively, holding opponents to 0.831 points per possession, first nationally, as we’ve seen, you can’t just smother everybody into submission.

In other words, gotta score points, and how you score points with this Virginia group is your guess as good as Tony’s.

Seriously on that point. Bennett is trying everything, other than just grabbing the ball and throwing it toward the rim himself, which he can no doubt do many times better than anybody on the active roster.

One approach: Fuhgeddaboudit

My colleague, Scott German, texted me over the weekend with a suggestion, that would seem to work, at first glance: just forget trying to shoot threes, and focus on getting the ball into the paint.

The idea is, that’s the strength of the UVA roster this year, in the form of 6’9” Mamadi Diakite (12.9 ppg, 6.9 rebs/g, 45.2% FG, 38.7% 3FG), 6’8” Braxton Key (10.5 ppg, 7.7 rebs/g, 48.5% FG, 23.5% 3FG), and 7’1” Jay Huff (8.9 ppg, 6.1 rebs/g, 58.2% FG, 28.6% 3FG).

Look at what those three do on shots at the rim, per

  • Huff: 77.2 percent
  • Key: 73.9 percent
  • Diakite: 61.9 percent

Those three are a combined 112-of-158 (70.9 percent) on shots at the rim this season, according to

The rest of the team: 52-of-112 (46.4 percent).

So, how about more Diakite, Key and Huff at the rim, and less bricks from three from Kody Stattmann (5.4 ppg, 33.8% FG, 18.9% 3FG), Casey Morsell (4.7 ppg, 23.9% FG, 15.0% 3FG) and Tomas Woldetensae (4.1 ppg, 29.0% FG, 28.0% 3FG)?

Seems logical.

Problem is, well, let’s look back at the 63-55 OT loss at home to Syracuse on Saturday.

Syracuse, famously, uses the 2-3 zone as its base, and what does a 2-3 zone do? It takes away dribble penetration, and it takes away stuff around the basket.

To their credit, the Cavaliers tried to get the ball in the paint, getting 22 shots at the rim, but shots at the rim against a 2-3 zone are almost always challenged shots at the rim.

The result was what you’d expect: Virginia shot just 10-of-22 (45.5 percent) on those shots.

Reference: on the season, per, the ‘Hoos are 60.7 percent on shots at the rim.

Basically, when you don’t have to respect the ability of the guys standing on the three-point line to be able to knock down that shot if the ball kicks back out from the paint, you can throw everything defensively at the guys in the paint to make things tougher on them in terms of squeezing off good shots.

So, Virginia shooting 7-of-31 from three, that’s not going to make you, if you’re Jim Boeheim, do anything other than have all five defenders in the paint when Diakite or Huff or Key has the ball there.

Just touch the paint already!

To Scott’s point, then: why not just say, hell with the threes, just focus on getting the ball in the paint?

Thing is, Syracuse, which was Virginia’s first opponent, laid down a blueprint that several teams have used against the Cavaliers this season, starting with JMU, the second team on the schedule, which doesn’t use zone as its base defense, but did, effectively, for long stretches in JPJ, and they were the first of many.

And even if you don’t go zone, you can adjust your man principles to emphasize help when the ball gets into the post, or when point guard Kihei Clark (10.1 ppg, 5.9 assists/g, 34.8% FG, 39.3% 3FG) dribble-drives into the paint.

You might have noticed something there, by the way, in Clark’s numbers: that he shoots better, by almost five percent, from three than he does overall.

That’s because his role as the initiator of the offense has him shooting as much at the rim (34.1 percent of his shots are at the rim, per as Diakite (35.0 percent), except that Clark is shooting just 35.6 percent on shots at the rim (16-of-45).

For reference, Clark’s 45 shot attempts at the rim compares to the 46 from Key, 55 from Diakite and 57 from Huff.

Clark is 5’9”, listed as such, anyway, so he’s trying to create in a land of giants who seem even bigger to him than, say, Ty Jerome, at 6’5”, who, notably, shot 62.3 percent on attempts at the rim in 2018-2019, but only had to put up 18.8 percent of his shots overall at the rim, and his total number of shots at the rim, 77, represented 11.2 percent of the total for the team last season.

Clark’s 45 attempts account for 16.7 percent of the total in 2019-2020.

In other words, Clark is being asked to do more in the paint than a guy eight inches taller who’s now in the NBA.

Make-or-miss league

Absent a total overhaul of the offensive approach, from the motion offense to something out of the mid-‘80s, where you post guys up, back to the basket, and try to feed the ball with entry passes, and spread the floor to create space …

Actually, not even an ‘80s offense would work, when you think through things there, because you can try to space the floor all you want, but teams aren’t just going to let Diakite and Huff, in particular, beat one-on-one defenders in the post, without using either post-to-post doubles or just dropping a perimeter defender in and daring the big to spin the ball back out to an open shooter that they’re not afraid can make the shot and make them pay.

Bottom line: the game plan is easy and tough at the same time.

Gotta make shots.

None of what anybody coaches up in terms of scheme works if the guys can’t make shots.

Story by Chris Graham

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