Hard work: Virginia basketball needs to rediscover its backbone

virginia basketballThe hallmark of Virginia’s back-to-back 30-win ACC regular-season championship teams was hard work.

They’re not a bunch of five-star one-and-dones who will jump through the roof or dunk you through the rim.

But they won games because they outworked you.

And even in defeat, which didn’t come often – UVA was a combined 60-11 the past two seasons, 36-5 in ACC play – it took everything their opponents could muster to eek out the W.

The 2015-2016 Cavs have a different feel. Even in victory, they seem a little too school for cool. Notre Dame scored 42 points in the second half of a double-digit loss in Charlottesville a week ago, for instance.

That was a rare one of late that UVA had put in a solid first-half effort.

Most outings have seen the ‘Hoos mail it in for long stretches, expecting to turn it on when necessary, because that’s how they won so many games the past two years, or so it seemed.

And then came the Week of the Techs, with Virginia losing back-to-back games on the road at unheralded Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.

What was the issue?

The last two seasons Virginia won games like a lumberjack chops down a tree, which you don’t do with one mighty blow, but rather a long series of strikes that eventually does what you aim to do.

The 2015-2016 Cavs seem to play with the idea that they’re strong enough to knock down the tree with one big shot.

The win at home over Cal in December, for instance. Cal dominated the first 30 minutes of that game, but UVA turned up the defense in the final 10 minutes of regulation, got the game into OT, coasted for the first 3:30 of the extra session, then won the last 90 seconds.

That win may have papered over what was wrong with the current formula.

The Week of the Techs demonstrates in glaring fashion what is wrong.

Against Virginia Tech, the Cavs played five good minutes, coming out of the locker room in the second half, with London Perrantes knocking down four threes to push an early barrage, but even that stretch was uneven.

Because as good as the offense was in the stretch, the defense was so porous that the Cavs emerged with just a three-point lead, and Tech was able to turn the tables and take control from there.

Georgia Tech had a 15-point first-half lead, and led by double-digits for a long stretch of the second half before a big Virginia run tied the game with 6:08 to go.

Then the Yellow Jackets took control and pulled away.

Out of 80 minutes of game time in the Week of the Techs, we got maybe 10 minutes of good Virginia basketball.

Hate to be the bad guy here, but the roster just isn’t that good to allow for that kind of uneven effort.

As good as we all think Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill are, they’re not on the radar of NBA scouts. Neither is projected to go in the 2016 NBA Draft, and are marginal at best free-agent prospects.

Ditto for Mike Tobey and junior London Perrantes. We love them, but they’re good college players who will turn pro in something other than sports.

The way they’ve been able to elevate themselves individually and as a unit at the college level is because they get the most out of their talent within the system of coach Tony Bennett.

The Pack-Line defense and Mover-Blocker offense work because guys work as a unit to take away what opponents do and work themselves into advantages in the post and in the lane and on the perimeter.

The resulting second-half runs that we came to refer to as Cavalanches were the result of an accumulation of hard work, essentially enforcing their will on opponents, who one by one broke in the face of the onslaught.

Take off the first half, as they did Saturday at Georgia Tech, or take off the second half on defense, as they did Monday at Virginia Tech, and the Cavalanche is no more than roadside slush.

Which of course means that all hope is not lost, in spite of outward appearances right now. Bennett’s system still works as it always has: wear opponents down on offense with the Pack-Line making them work hard for every basket they are fortunate to get, wear them down on defense by making them defend screens and rolls and pops and reversals that lead to more and more easy shots as the game plays out, and break their will in the final 10 minutes.

That’s how Virginia has been able to go 72-14 since the start of the 2013-2014 season with a collection of two-, three- and a couple of four-stars that the NBA doesn’t think all that much of, at least in comparison with the likes of Duke, UNC, Louisville, the Kentuckys and Michigan States.

By my count, from scanning several NBA Draft websites, 14 current ACC players are projected first- and second-round 2016 NBA Draft picks, and none of them are on Virginia’s roster.

There’s a reason this team was a close second in the preseason ACC voting, and it wasn’t because of its accumulation of talent.

It’s because of its ability to impose its will on opponents.

Get that back, and Virginia will be just fine, this crapstain of a week notwithstanding.

But if this group continues to play as if it’s too school for cool, like it’s 2014-2015 Kentucky, with a hundred guys getting ready to go in the draft lottery, yeah, it’s going to be a long winter.

– Column by Chris Graham

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