It’s Feb. 6, 21 games into the season, 11 games into a 20-game ACC schedule, and Virginia is still trying to find its identity.
That kind of thing happens when you lose the talent that Virginia lost.
The 2018 ‘Hoos, the 2019 ‘Hoos, you knew what you were getting. Tony Bennett had constructed the roster with the ballyhooed 2016 recruiting class, built around the talent haul with complementary parts, and otherwise focused his attention on keeping the machine properly oiled.
The 2020 ‘Hoos are an airplane being built mid-air.
The defense is solid as ever, and actually a good bit better than last year’s group.
KenPom.com has this year’s team giving up .846 points per possession; the 2019 national-title team gave up .892.
The ’20 Pack-Liners are, for the moment, the best of the Bennett era, which is saying something.
It’s been on the offensive end, as you know, that this team has had obvious issues.
Virginia is scoring just .973 points per possession, 273rd nationally.
The KenPom.com era only dates back to 2001-2002, but for that slice of history, we’re talking something historic, from a UVA program perspective.
The previous low for a Virginia squad was the 1.035 points per possession that Dave Leitao’s last team, the 2008-2009 group that went 10-18 and got Leitao fired, put up.
This group hasn’t yet scored more than 65 points in a game, and has averaged more than a point per possession in a conference game just once, in the 65-39 win over Virginia Tech back on Jan. 4, when the Cavaliers averaged a modest 1.048 points per possession.
For comparison: the 2019 title team averaged 1.234 points per possession per game.
The best single-game for the 2020 team is the 1.161 tally put up against Navy back on Dec. 29.
It’s not been for lack of trying. Bennett and his staff have tried almost literally everything, from using more high ball screens to get more action in the paint, to supplement the motion action that comes from the base Mover-Blocker, to innumerable different lineup combinations.
It is often said about the NBA that the NBA is a “make-or-miss league,” the idea being expressed there that for all the scheming of coaches with dry-erase boards and lineup alchemy, it all comes down to whether the guy shooting the ball makes it, or misses it.
Bennett, last night, after his team had gutted out another ugly win, defeating Clemson 51-44, after shooting 37.0 percent from the field, and surviving having scored 10 points in the first 15:10 of the second half, was embracing that make-or-miss ethos.
“You get to these points where you have played some really good basketball, [they] defended really well, and then their zone gave us some trouble where you do have to stick some shots. We were spinning the wheel trying to figure out, can we run this action against it, and they did a good job matching up. Sometimes you just need someone at that point to make a big shot or make a big play,” Bennett said.
Last night, it was Braxton Key making the big shots and big plays. The senior, shooting 17.4 percent from three-point range coming in, talked to reporters afterward about how he’d enlisted his girlfriend in a marathon gym session to work on his shooting after going 2-of-16 from the floor in the OT win at Wake Forest back on Jan. 26.
“I put my headphones on and had my girlfriend rebound for me, and I was just shooting. And she was rebounding for me saying, how much longer, and I said, until I can make enough,” said Key, who had a season-high 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting, including a cool 4-of-6 from three.
Key’s shooting was, well, key, because Clemson did what UVA opponents are doing this season.
After the Cavaliers came out hot, hitting 5-of-8 in the first five and a half minutes to go up 11-2 early, Brad Brownell went zone, admitting afterward that “we haven’t played a lot of zone this year.”
“We do have a zone that we use occasionally, and we obviously practiced it a little bit this week, but not a lot, because we only had a couple of days to get ready,” Brownell said.
“I thought our guys made adjustments on the fly, and we just did a good job rebounding out of it. It gave us a chance.”
Yeah, it did. After the hot start, Virginia made just 12 of its last 38 shots, saved only by Key’s late night at the gym that fixed his shot, for the time being, anyway.
Not being mean there, just realistic.
In the Wake game, it was Tomas Woldetensae who emerged to save the Cavaliers’ bacon, connecting on 7-of-14 from long-range to fuel a double-digit comeback.
There was Casey Morsell emerging, for a game, scoring 19 in the narrow win over Arizona State back in November.
Morsell has had one other double-digit game.
Woldetensae has had one other double-digit game.
Kody Stattmann has had two.
Mamadi Diakite has been hot (three games with 19+) and cold (three in single-digits, including a season low four in the win over UMass in November).
Jay Huff (10 in double-digits, 10 in single-digits, one goose egg), similar.
It’s not even game-by-game for this team; it’s possession-by-possession, trying to figure out how to score.
And then you look at the bottom line, and of all the numbers pointing to this Virginia team’s many deficiencies, the ones that matter are:
15-6, 7-4 ACC
This is why I’m inclined to say that Tony Bennett is doing his best coaching this year.
This team is markedly worse on offense than the team that got Dave Leitao fired, and as of today, it would have a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.
Story by Chris Graham