Meet Virginia’s death lineup — a combination no opponent wants to see

Story by Zach Pereles

uva basketballWith just over 16 minutes remaining in Virginia’s clash with Virginia Tech on Monday night, Tony Bennett needed something to change.

He had lambasted his team at halftime, urging his players to not be so “finesse” when they had the ball, something that led to eight first-half giveaways. He wanted more energy and focus on offense and better attention to detail on defense.

And yet at the 16:21 mark, the Cavaliers’ lead halftime had only shrunk — from three to two.

So Bennett went with what can only be described as Virginia’s “death lineup.” It’s a concept that has been popularized by the Golden State Warriors’ group of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Though none are typical post players, the unit has the length to rebound, the physicality to defend big men and supreme quickness to switch almost any matchup. On the other end, there are capable shooters, scorers, distributors and screeners all over the floor. It’s positionless basketball, because the players have skills that transcend their supposed position — forwards who can handle the ball like guards and guards who can defend like forwards. It’s what has made them the best team in the league by a wide stretch over the past two seasons.

The Virginia Cavaliers are not anything like the Golden State Warriors by any stretch, obviously, especially given the difference in pace of play. But general idea of the death lineup is there. The members of the Cavaliers’ version are Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite.

In this group, Jerome is the floor general, quite capable of hitting deep shots and driving the lane. But more importantly, he is an outstanding distributor, and at 6-foot-5, he’s big enough to guard several positions. Kyle Guy is the three-point marksman, not unlike the Warriors’ Thompson, who Bennett coached at Washington State. Hunter is a matchup nightmare: too big and strong for guards, too quick for big men. He is Virginia’s version of Durant. Key is a superb rebounder and versatile defender, and he can handle the ball well for someone playing the de-facto power forward position. Diakite is a terrific defender for his size thanks to his quickness. Plus, he is a terrific jumper and has even added a bit of a face-up game that can extend out to the three-point line offensively. Key and Diakite are Green- and Iguodala-esque in this sense.

Again, this doesn’t mean the Cavaliers are anything like the two-time NBA defending champions. They’re not. But when translated to the college game and Virginia’s style, this is about as close as the Cavaliers can get, and there are some fair comparisons.

Up two, Bennett unleashed the group, and over the next roughly four minutes, a 37-35 lead ballooned to 46-38, and Buzz Williams needed a timeout.

Here’s a perfect illustration of what the lineup brought to the table offensively. These are Virginia’s best two back-to-back offensive sets of the game to this point.

First, it’s important to realize that the first sequence of this clip is actually set up by Hunter forcing an offensive rebound. Though he didn’t secure the board himself, Hunter got great position, and Virginia Tech’s Ty Outlaw couldn’t do anything but tip the loose ball out of bounds. There’s the first benefit of this lineup — great size and athleticism at the forward positions, especially against Virginia Tech’s four-guard lineup.

On the first possession, Jerome drives by his man baseline. Virginia Tech’s Ahmed Hill has to decide whether to give Jerome a layup or help off. In this case, he helps off, and Jerome makes the perfect pass to Guy. This is another principle of the death lineup: having guards who can drive to the basket and then find shooters. Guy shooting open threes in the corner can compete with any offense in America.

On the ensuing possession (after a tough basket by Kerry Blackshear Jr.), the Cavaliers at first look a bit out of sorts, but eventually Key finds himself isolated up top with Blackshear. Key has an obvious quickness advantage here and blows by his defender, and when P.J. Horne comes to help, Key dishes to Diakite for a thunderous slam.

A few possessions later (not in the video), the Cavaliers caught the Hokies in a mismatch again. Hunter gets a midrange matchup with Outlaw, and the rest of the Cavaliers clear out. They can do this because all of the players on the court are perimeter weapons the Hokies know they can’t leave to play help defense. Outlaw is stuck on an island, and against Hunter, that spells trouble. The Virginia sophomore blew by him and earned a trip to the free throw line.

But the offensive output is just one part of it. The Cavaliers were phenomenal on defense in the second half as well, and that comes from this death lineup as well. Here’s one example of what this group can do defensively:

On this possession, each of Virginia’s three biggest players — Hunter, Key and Diakite — are forced to guard Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Hokies’ leading scorer and a potential NBA pick. Watch how none of the three give him any breathing room; this is what makes Key’s and Diakite’s size/quickness combination invaluable. At the end of the shot clock, Diakite hurries back to Blackshear, who makes a nifty spin move and just barely misses. If Blackshear had made that shot after such a high-level move, you tip your cap and say “great defense, better offense.” But he misses, and Virginia gets a key stop as it continues to grow its lead.

Key can be the X-factor in this group. His physical skills are off the charts. When he’s hitting threes and contributing offensively like he did Monday night with two long balls, Virginia’s death lineup is truly worthy of the moniker on both ends. When he’s not, it’s just a very good defensive group.

“I’ve been working on it every single day, shooting 100, 200 threes a day,” Key said Monday. “It just feels good to see those two go down. … You work so hard, and then not to get the results you want, it’s definitely frustrating. But you’ve got to stay confident and stay with it.”

Bennett saw the good results of his group and kept it together. The death lineup played the final 10-plus minutes as well. It is now the Cavaliers’ most-used lineup over the past five games, per KenPom, seeing nearly 17 percent of the minutes together. If Monday night’s results indicate anything, though, that number should continue to climb in the future.



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