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No Isaiah Wilkins: But UVA has fared well without its defensive ace

uva basketballUVA forward Isaiah Wilkins is the best defensive player in the ACC. The writers didn’t vote him so, but writers are ink-stained wretches.

Wilkins, by the metrics, is head and shoulders the best defender in the conference, leading the conference in defensive box plus/minus and defensive rating, and it wasn’t really close.

OK, that established, Wilkins, a 6’7” forward who can guard the post, stretch fours and twos and threes on the perimeter, is not available to Virginia for its second-round NCAA Tournament game Saturday with Florida.

This is not good news, obviously. But on the other hand, the Cavs have had to deal with issues related to Wilkins’ availability dating back almost a month now.

It was in the walkup to Virginia’s Feb. 25 game at N.C. State that Wilkins came down with a case of strep throat that took him out of the starting lineup.

He has logged an average of 16.7 minutes per game in the six games since, scoring 3.3 points per game and hauling in 2.5 rebounds per game, against season averages of 6.8 points and 6.0 rebounds in 26.5 minutes of floor time per contest.

Somehow, UVA has gone 5-1 over the stretch, with a win over North Carolina, a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, one of the highlights, particularly notably because the Cavs held UNC to a historic low 43 points in that one.

Which gets us to the question: how has Virginia, which hangs its hat on what it does on the defensive end, able to win games with its defensive ace at best a shadow of his best self?

The defense, at first glance, hasn’t been quite as stingy. Even with that effort against the Tar Heels, the Cavs have given up 0.963 points per possession over the six games, a tick or two above the 0.875 points per possession yielded to opponents on the season, but actually within range of what Virginia did in ACC play, when conference opponents averaged 0.952 points per possession against the Cavs.

On the flip side, UVA has scored 1.103 points per possession, down from a season average of 1.137 points per possession, but significantly better than the output for the Cavs in ACC play. Virginia averaged 1.045 points per possession against ACC opponents in 2016-2017.

Which, hmmm. Look at that. The defense has been about as good as it was against ACC opponents, and the offense has been a good bit better.

How is that?

Well, the offense being more productive is a by-product of a lack of other options, really. Coach Tony Bennett is papering over his lack of bodies in the post by starting a four-guard lineup, in essence giving Wilkins’ minutes to Kyle Guy, a 6’2” freshman sharpshooter who is connecting on 50.5 percent of his three-point attempts and is second on the team in offensive box plus/minus.

Over the past six games, Guy has averaged 9.5 points per game in 28 minutes per game, up from his season averages of 7.8 points and 18.7 minutes, and he’s shooting 60.7 percent from the three-point line over that stretch.

Now, no one would conflate Guy, the lowest-rated among Virginia’s regulars in defensive box plus/minus, to being much more than a cardboard cutout on the defensive end of the floor, but yet the Cavs haven’t seemed to suffer, as the numbers on the aggregate bear out.

I can and just did tell you why the offense is better. I have no idea why the D has basically been just as good, other than to offer a platitude about other guys stepping up to fill the void left by Wilkins’ absence, but there’s nothing analytical to back that up.

It just is. How much longer it can continue is as much a guess as to why it’s happening in the first place.

Which is what makes sports fun, of course.

Column by Chris Graham