Several readers commented on our postgame and postseason Virginia basketball columns to observe that the UVA offense needs some tweaks.
From a numbers standpoint, it’s hard to argue the point. UVA ranked 74th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency this season, per KenPom.com, after ranking 85th nationally last year, and 234th (!) nationally in 2019-2020.
The 17th-place finish in 2020-2021 is the aberration here in the past four years.
Keep in mind, the 2018-2019 national champs ranked second, and the 2015-2016 Elite Eight team that I think was the better team of the two ranked eighth.
The average offensive-efficiency rank in the past decade: 54.8.
The defense, for the record, has averaged a 14.1 national rank over the past decade.
The two best teams in the past 10 years were the ones that were solid on both ends, and both ran similar offenses to each other, and to the one that Tony Bennett used with this year’s team, with the mover/blocker offense, also called sides, which emphasizes the bigs setting screens for the guards, and limits touches for bigs in the post, as the base.
Suggestion: More post-ups
The suggestion from readers who have thought through what specifically they think Virginia should add to its offense is to add more touches in the post for the bigs.
Earlier in the season, we’d gotten comments from readers pointing to Armando Bacot, a 6’9” Richmond native who went on to put up big numbers as a post guy at UNC, as the kind of guy that Virginia should be keeping home, recruiting-wise.
Bacot was a two-time first-team All-ACC selection, averaging a double-double over the past two seasons, shooting 55.6 percent from the field in his Carolina career.
The one glaring thing missing from Bennett’s past 10 teams has been a big man who can dominate in the post the way Bacot was able to do the past couple of years in Chapel Hill.
Bennett has had guys in the past who’ve been able to do damage in the post – think: Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Mamadi Diakite.
But of late, the better bigs have been more effective on the perimeter – think: Jay Huff, Sam Hauser, Trey Murphy, to a lesser extent, Ben Vander Plas this season.
The 6’8” Vander Plas, who took over as the starter at the five spot mid-season, put up 109 shots from three-point range this season. He had 29 attempts on post-ups, according to SynergySports data.
Virginia’s best option as a pure center, Kadin Shedrick, a 6’11” elite rim protector, had just six post-up field-goal attempts this season.
For comparison, Bacot had 120 post-up field-goal attempts, and shot 54.2 percent on those shots.
His 120 shots on post-ups was more than the entire Virginia team put up this season (106).
The idea from those who think Bennett needs to add more looks in the post for his bigs is, when the jumpers aren’t falling, as was the case in the 68-67 NCAA Tournament first-round loss to Furman last week, post looks are at least another option.
As it is with the mover/blocker-sides offense, when the jumpers aren’t falling, the offense in the paint has to come from dribble penetration by the guards, which can certainly work to address the problem – in the Furman game, Virginia was 15-of-25 on shots at the rim.
But only five of those shots at the rim came in the final 11:08, around the time that Furman coach Bob Richey shut down dribble penetration with a 1-3-1 zone that he had his guards overextend out well beyond the three-point line, daring Virginia to try to get the ball into the post.
Instead, the Cavaliers bombed long jumper after long jumper, missing on seven threes and a long two down the stretch, allowing the Paladins to rally from a 12-point deficit to snatch victory on a late steal and dramatic three.
Is it that easy?
So, why not just add more touches in the post for bigs to try to back their guys down, hit a short hook or turnaround, maybe get fouled and go to the line?
It’s not that easy.
The team that led the nation in post-up scoring this year was, drum roll, please, Purdue, which rode the broad shoulders of 7’3” center Zach Edey, who was a mind-boggling 177-of-324 (54.6%) on post-ups this season.
Purdue was bounced in the first round by the smallest team in D1, Farleigh Dickinson, which double- and triple-teamed Edey, daring Purdue’s guards to shoot, which they couldn’t do effectively – the Boilermakers were 5-of-26 from three in the loss.
When you look in depth at the top teams in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings, you see that there are teams that dominate in the post – for instance, the team ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency this season, Gonzaga, was also fourth nationally in points scored off post-ups, led by 6’10” senior Drew Timme, who is 133-of-217 (61.3%) on post-ups this season.
But then there’s the second-ranked team in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings, Baylor, which has scored a grand total of 16 points on post-ups this season, shooting just 5-of-15 from the field on post-up field-goal attempts.
Both Gonzaga and Baylor made the Sweet 16, as did Houston, the top seed in the South Region, which ranks ninth in offensive efficiency, and 195th in points scored off post-ups.
Also in the Sweet 16 is Miami, 11th nationally, and first in the ACC, in offensive efficiency, and 291st in points scored off post-ups, with 98, on 39-of-85 shooting.
What I’m getting at here is, it’s not just an automatic that teams that devote their time and energy to having their bigs get touches in the post are the ones who are better offensively, and have more success in March.
Even the Virginia national-title team in 2019 wasn’t all that good offensively in the post.
The 2018-2019 national champs shot an abysmal 39.7 percent on post-ups, with the best option down low being 6’7” guard De’Andre Hunter, who was 21-of-40 (52.5%) on post-ups.
The team’s 6’9” center, Mamadi Diakite, was 16-of-48 (33.3%) on post-ups in 2018-2019.
The 2015-2016 team that reached the Elite Eight was a degree of magnitude more effective down low, shooting 46.9 percent on post-ups, scoring 242 points on post-ups, ranking a robust 69th nationally, led by 6’7” undersized four Anthony Gill (56-of-115, 48.7%) and 7’0” center Mike Tobey (25-of-49, 51.0%).
That team is the outlier in the Bennett era – good offensively overall, good in the post, good on the defensive end.
And it still got bounced before the Final Four.