Tony Bennett went four-guard for more than 80 percent of his minutes Saturday out of necessity. He might have just discovered gold in the process.
Jay Huff got 12 minutes off the bench, as Bennett went the bulk of the game with Virginia Tech with a four-guard lineup around power forward Mamadi Diakite, bringing back memories of the four-guard lineups with Diakite and Jack Salt that Bennett used to lead Virginia to the national title back in April.
Virginia Tech, which often goes five-guard, and did so for 32 of the 40 minutes on Saturday, forces opponents to adjust to its small lineup by also going small, to great success – how many ever times I can say this, remember, this otherwise outmanned Hokies team has a win this season over preseason-#1 Michigan State, so first-year coach Mike Young is making small ball work down in Blacksburg.
Bennett’s best lineups had Diakite, at 6’9”, and either Huff, at 7’1”, or Francisco Caffaro, at 7’0”, eating up 54.6 percent of the minutes over the past five games, according to KenPom.com data.
The obvious adjustment would be to go four-guard, but that would mean leaving Huff, averaging 9.2 points a game on 60.3 percent shooting coming in, and Caffaro, whose minutes had been increasing since a 10-point, seven-rebound effort in the 56-47 win over North Carolina back on Dec. 8, watching from the sidelines.
Which would also mean: more minutes for the rather ineffective, to this stage, anyway, off-guards.
The best of the bunch, relatively speaking, was Casey Morsell, who was averaging 5.4 points on 25.3 percent shooting from the field and 14.8 percent shooting from three coming in.
Morsell, Kody Stattmann (4.8 ppg, 31.1% FG, 20.0% 3FG) and Tomas Woldetensae (4.5 ppg, 30.9% FG, 30.6% 3FG) are not making UVA fans forget De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, who formed the nucleus of the four-guard lineup that Bennett rode to Minneapolis.
The feeling coming into this season was that you’d need to build around Diakite (13.8 ppg coming into Saturday), Huff and 6’8” guard Braxton Key (9.4 ppg coming in), going big to cover up the inexperience and inefficiency on the perimeter.
It wasn’t working, offensively, anyway, even as Virginia got out to a 10-2 start.
The Cavaliers were scoring an anemic 55.2 points per game, 351st nationally; shooting 40.9 percent from the field, 307th nationally; and connecting on 27.4 percent from three-point range, 342nd nationally.
There are 353 D1 teams, for those keeping score at home.
Which is to say, Bennett, going four-guard Saturday, was relegating one of his better offensive players to the bench, to give more minutes to one of those kids who can’t shoot.
And of course, it worked, better than he could have imagined.
Because what Bennett was going for was defense against Tech’s smaller lineup, basically not leaving Huff, Diakite and Caffaro exposed to having to chase around three-point shooters all afternoon.
He wasn’t trying to outscore a Hokies squad that was putting up 74.2 points per game, shooting 39.4 percent from three, 10th-best nationally.
The thinking was to win another ugly one in the 40s.
Naturally, the offense went for 65 points, tying a season-high, shooting 46.3 percent from the floor, its third-best effort there on the season, and connecting on seven threes, also the third-most on the season.
Considering that the other efforts that we’re comparing to came in wins over JMU, Vermont and Navy, none of which have wins this season over Michigan State, yeah.
It wasn’t just the results that were different; it all started with process.
Tech couldn’t keep Kihei Clark (18 points, 5-of-9 FG, 7-of-8 FT, 6 assists) out of the lane.
Without a second big clogging the lane, Clark was able to get off screens up top, touch the paint, finish at the rim, kick it back out to shooters.
The result, then, was what you’d want out of your offense, in terms of the kinds of shots you end up taking.
Virginia put up 54 shots from the field overall: 25 were at the rim, layups or dunks, shots on which the Cavaliers were 17-of-25 on the game; 21 others were threes (UVA was 7-of-21 from long-range).
Leaving just eight shots that were two-point jumpers (Virginia made just one of those eight shots).
Season numbers in terms of that distribution: 32.6 percent of Virginia’s shots have been at the rim, 38.2 percent have been threes, and 29.2 percent have been two-point jumpers.
The way basketball is played now, you want layups and dunks and threes, and don’t want two-point jumpers.
For the first time all season, Virginia got layups and dunks and threes, and a handful of two-point jumpers.
You didn’t go in today thinking, this is the kind of lineup we want to use more frequently.
I don’t think you can leave today thinking that this isn’t your lineup going forward.
Story by Chris Graham