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Is this Tony Bennett’s best Virginia offensive unit?

sam hauser syracuse
Sam Hauser scored 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting from three-point range in Virginia’s 81-58 win over Syracuse. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

It’s tough enough playing Syracuse’s 2-3 zone because they play it 365 days a year, and you play against it, once, maybe twice.

Factor in, then, that Virginia got Syracuse on the back end of a Saturday-Monday double. Basically, some film study, a walkthrough, one session with the scout team last week, and then, you’re out there.

For this Virginia team: no problem.

“I liked our movement, how we shared the ball, took a lot of threes and made a lot,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said after his team’s 81-58 win, in which the Cavaliers shot 49.2 percent from the floor, hit on 14-of-31 from three, scored an impressive 1.191 points per possession, in putting up 80+ for the third time in four games.

Bennett, by and large, has done well in the X’s and O’s matchup with legendary Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose 2-3 zone puts pressure at the top of the key, has length on the wings, and size in the paint.

The counter is to get the ball into the paint. In years past, Bennett used big guards like Malcolm Brogdon and Ty Jerome, big forwards like Isaiah Wilkins and De’Andre Hunter.

Monday, he used 5’9” point guard Kihei Clark to initiate the offense from inside the zone.

Clark only had four points on the night, but he had nine assists – a combination of alley-oop passes to Jay Huff and Trey Murphy III, and dishes to the perimeter for open threes from Sam Hauser.

Hauser had a huge night – 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting from three.

Huff also had 21 – on 8-of-11 shooting, including a three, and a lot of dunks.

Murphy had a quiet 16 on 6-of-14 shooting, 4-of-10 from three.

Clark had the nine dimes. Freshman point guard Reece Beekman had five.

On the night, 23 assists on 29 made baskets for Virginia.

“Playing with unselfish guys is awesome, and it showed tonight, and obviously everybody kind of had their two cents on the game because of the way the ball moves. It was a great job, everyone,” said Hauser, who had to fight through a bout of pregame back spasms.

“I don’t know why, but I just said I was going to go out there and see how it felt. And it felt good enough to play, so I figured I’d just play. Obviously, I shot the ball pretty well, so maybe it wasn’t the worst thing,” Hauser said.

The only hiccup came midway through the second half. It was echoes of a dark day for long-time Virginia fans, for whom the memories of the second-half collapse in the Elite Eight game with Syracuse are still raw, even with the banner from 2019 hanging high.

Boeheim, after a Joe Girard III three cut the Virginia lead to 59-44, called timeout with 9:53 left, and had his team go full-court press.

His Orange used the press to turn a 15-point deficit with 9:33 to go into a 68-62 win that sent ‘Cuse to the Final Four.

Virginia turned the ball over three times in 50 seconds Monday night, and had five turnovers in five and a half minutes against the Syracuse press, but 2021 didn’t turn into 2016.

‘Cuse did get the margin down to 11 on a pair of free throws by Alan Griffin with 5:17 to go, but it was UVA that closed strong, outscoring the Orange 16-4 the rest of the way.

“Syracuse, as we experienced firsthand in a real hard way, is so good in their zone at anticipating when they move it down the floor and press, they can kind of bluff, you think they’re trapped, and they cover stuff. They’re long, and they put pressure,” Bennett said. “I didn’t think we got to spots quite quick enough, but then we picked it up. We had a two-on-one, and Reece drove and didn’t finish. I can replay almost every scenario here, but I thought we were a little wobbly. But then we kind of got a couple stops with it, made a couple baskets, and that was enough.”

Something to work on, obviously. You’re not going to be able to white-knuckle it every time an opponent gets desperate.

Going to need to be more solid.

But, OK, that said, this Virginia unit is starting to look like the team that had been advertised in the preseason, particularly on the offensive end.

Ahead of the ACC opener at Notre Dame on Dec. 30, KenPom.com had Virginia 48th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.

The updated numbers tonight: ninth.

UVA hoops fan twitter had a nice, mostly friendly debate over the weekend over the assertion of one writer that the current incarnation might be Bennett’s best offensive group to date.

The data suggest otherwise right now – the 2019 champs ranked second nationally; the 2016 group that just missed the Final Four was eighth.

It does feel like this group hasn’t yet reached its ceiling.

How is that for a hard hedge on answering the question without actually answering the question?

Final word on that to Bennett, for obvious reasons.

“I knew it’d be a little bit like a couple years ago,” Bennett said. “We’re going to get our shooting a lot from Jay, Sam, and we didn’t know Trey was going to be eligible, and thought he was going to redshirt. Then when that happened, I’m like, OK, our 3-4-5 positions are where we can stretch the floor. So that’s a little different.

“We’ve got playmaking, and not that Kihei won’t take threes and knock them down, or other guys, but I thought we’d be able to stretch the floor with those guys and wanted them to shoot. I knew Sam could obviously (shoot), Trey, and I’ve seen it with Jay, so I thought we’d be able to stretch it.”

Story by Chris Graham


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