Virginia Basketball: First semester report card
I said all summer and into the fall that we wouldn’t really be able to gauge what kind of team Tony Bennett would have this season until at least mid-January.
I’m reminding us all of this as the Cavaliers are set to return from their finals break to start the second portion of the season, the section between finals and the start of the ACC schedule proper.
And to be honest, I’m a bit surprised, personally, that we’re looking here at an 8-1 team, the only loss being the stinker at Purdue in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
I’d have pegged you for that one, plus the road opener at Syracuse, and then a loss either in Connecticut to Arizona State or St. John’s or at home to UNC, going into the season.
And that’s before I could have known that the leading three-point shooter would be Mamadi Diakite, by a wide margin, that Braxton Key would miss the Purdue and UNC games after wrist surgery, and that the best shooter among Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattmann and Casey Morsell would be shooting 27.3 percent from the floor.
Through eight games, against a decent schedule (KenPom: 103, fifth among teams in this week’s AP Top 10), Virginia is first nationally in adjusted defense (KenPom: 80.4), which you knew.
What you didn’t want to know: the ranking on offense.
You don’t need me to say that no team ranked anywhere near there on offense has ever done a damn thing in an NCAA Tournament.
Just for reference, VCU’s 2018-2019 team was 177th and made the tournament, lost in the first round.
Actually, Syracuse back in 2017-2018 was 135th, made the tournament as an 11 seed, and played its way to the Sweet Sixteen.
I don’t know that we count anything a bad Syracuse team does in an NCAA Tournament.
Even the 2016-2017 UVA team that we remember struggling mightily to score points was 50th nationally, scoring 1.122 points per possession.
This 2019-2020 bunch is scoring 1.015 points per possession.
That’s going to have to improve, and I think it will, but to emphasize, it’s going to have to.
You can’t expect Diakite to continue making 47.6 percent of his shots from three, either.
The 6’9” redshirt senior has a nice stroke, always has, but he shouldn’t be floating around 25 feet from the hoop hunting bombs.
I want to think Woldtensae (24.4 percent from the field, 24.0 percent from three) and Stattmann (27.3 percent from the field, 11.1 percent from three) are on their way after nice outings in the win over North Carolina on Dec. 8.
Both are still getting back to full strength – Woldetensae from an offseason wrist injury, Stattmann from an undisclosed illness that put him on the bench for several games, and has been an issue since his return in terms of his conditioning.
Morsell (24.7 percent from the field, 12.2 percent from three) has the physical tools of an upperclassman, has already established himself as a premier perimeter defender, but he needs to channel his inner Maryal Shayok on the offensive end.
Watching his misses, it seems to me that the issue is the flatness of his jump shot, which because of its lack of trajectory comes out hot.
Add some arc, and you’re going to see his accuracy improve, but that’s easier said than done.
Get Morsell going, get more jumpers going in from Woldetensae and Stattmann, and you’ll see the offense look more like it did in the second half of the win over UNC.
Because Woldetensae and Stattmann were connecting from the arc, Kihei Clark was able to get some openings on the screen-and-roll that let him find Diakite and particularly 7’0” redshirt freshman Francisco Caffaro in the paint on dives.
I’ll need to start charting this, but it seemed to me that Virginia ran more screen-and-roll action in that second half of the UNC game than I’ve seen in years, and it worked.
Caffaro, who had 10 points and seven rebounds in that one, showed himself to be an effective finisher at the rim against the Tar Heels, perhaps at the expense of Jay Huff, who found himself glued to the bench after a lifeless 14-minute, scoreless stint in that one.
Huff has been at his best in the continuity ball-screen sets that Bennett added last year to better take advantage of the skill sets of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter, but his production has fallen off a cliff of late (7.3 ppg, 45.5% FG, 33.3% 3FG over his last four).
It’s one game, but that one game is what I’m basing the entirety of my first-semester report card on, risky as that might be.
I see out of that one that we’re going to get more out of Woldetensae and Stattmann, we’re going to get more out of Caffaro.
The more we get from those guys, the less pressure there is on Diakite to just grab the ball and shoot it, which makes him more effective.
Key is going to return … eventually.
Huff is either going to step back up and play like he did earlier or sink back into the background.
Honestly, to me the jury is out on that one, fingers crossed that it works out.
Monster Jay makes UVA a Top 5 team; Shrinking Violet Jay renders UVA slightly-above-average.
Clark is a good college point guard. Morsell will grow on offense, and if all he does on defense is what he’s done, he’s a plus player already.
I see this team rounding into shape by the first of the year, a couple weeks ahead of schedule, but I still see the ceiling the way I saw the ceiling coming in, pretty much where that 2016-2017 team finished up, 22-23 wins, not top of the ACC, but next tier, five or six seed in the NCAA Tournament, maybe win a game in the Big Dance.
Reminder: there’s a banner overlooking us for home games.
Also: that recruiting class coming in next year, we may have another.
Story by Chris Graham