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Virginia: Getting better on D, which, yeah, that’s scary

tony bennett syracuse
UVA coach Tony Bennett talks with Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy III. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

It’s vogue to think of the Gonzaga loss in the same vein as the late 2013 beatdown at Tennessee, but the 98-75 beatdown the day after Christmas wasn’t a wakeup call for this Virginia team.

There was no need for a come-to-Jesus meeting of the minds to figure out what the issues were.

It was obvious. Three of the starters – Sam Hauser, Trey Murphy III and Reece Beekman – weren’t in the mix a year ago.

Beekman was still in high school. Murphy was at Rice.

Hauser was running the green team in practice, meaning he wasn’t getting reps, floor rapport, with the holdovers – Jay Huff, Kihei Clark, reserves Casey Morsell and Tomas Woldetensae.

The usual walkup to a season would have the team, well, for starters, bonding in dorm rooms, social settings, conditioning drills, group practice sessions, the month of October, preseason scrimmages, the run of November and December non-conference games.

This year’s team got about 2 percent of that.

The reps, the rapport, the camaraderie, would come on the court, for the most part, in game action.

You don’t learn how to play Tony Bennett basketball in games, on Zoom.

You need the reps.

Ahead of the game with the ‘Zags, there just wasn’t a lot of opportunity to build.

The area where that was most noticeable: Gonzaga had 21 layups in that game, on 29 shots at the rim.

Holy bejeezus. The two-plus seasons of games preceding, UVA teams gave up an average of nine makes at the rim.

It was basic breakdowns in assignments, and it wouldn’t end with the Gonzaga game.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Bennett was still adjusting his defense, switching on screens, having his bigs hedge on pick-and-rolls less, for a time not at all.

Now you’re seeing more pure Pack Line – post-to-post doubles, hard hedging on P&Rs – because Bennett and his team have had time to work.

The results are showing.

On Jan. 8, KenPom.com had Virginia ranked 16th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, giving up .906 points per possession.

In their past five games, all wins, the Cavaliers have improved from 16th to ninth, and in Monday’s 81-58 win over Syracuse, the ‘Hoos allowed ‘Cuse, which came in ranked 28th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, at 1.127 points per possession, to a season-low 0.829 points per possession.

It’s no secret, to Bennett, what the difference is.

“We’re guarding the ball better,” Bennett said, pointing specifically to ball pressure from Beekman. “We say shooting can cover over a lot of mistakes. Well, on-ball defense, shot blockers, can erase a lot of stuff, which Jay (Huff) has done at times, of course. On-ball defense can cover a lot of mistakes for your defense, and when Reece, is right, and Kihei (Clark), then Trey (Murphy)’s getting better, Casey Morsell last game. When those guys are sliding well and making it hard to get into the lane, boy, that helps.”

Beekman has been a find. Per Synergy Sports, he’s Virginia’s best defender, by an order of magnitude, allowing 0.463 points per possession – elite on closeouts (opponents are 3-of-21 on perimeter shots and 1-of-11 on shots off screens against Beekman) and above average on P&Rs (opponents are 6-of-17 with 11 turnovers in 29 possessions).

Clark … has been getting better. The notoriously tenacious on-ball defender allowed opponents to go 8-of-12 on P&Rs in his first six games, but in his last seven: 7-of-20. And now for the season, his PPP on P&Rs, 0.566, is in the area of where Beekman is (0.552).

The guy who seemed to struggle the most, Hauser, has also been getting better of late. Hauser was the primary defender on Quincy Guerrier, Syracuse’s leading scorer coming in, and though Guerrier finished with a team-high 15 points, he needed 16 shots to get them – and a lot of the reason why was Hauser battling him in the post, making him work.

“If you work hard at it, you’re going to get better, because that’s what this program is built on,” Hauser said. “If you want to play a lot of minutes, you’re going to have to be able to guard. I’ve tried to take some pride on that end, and I hope, I hope, it’s showing, because I think I’ve gotten better.”

Nobody questions Jay Huff on the defensive end, which, think about that. Huff couldn’t get on the floor for three years because he wasn’t even passable at the hard hedge, despite his many and various offensive gifts – and today, he ranks second in the ACC in defensive rating, per Sports-Reference.com (90.0), is second in defensive rebounding percentage (24.8), first in block percentage (14.0).

“I think we’ve come a long way,” Huff said after the Syracuse game. “There were games where we let teams like that get out in transition a little bit more and get a few more open shots, and they made some very not open shots So, congrats to them. That was very impressive. But I think, for the most part, we were able to stifle their transition, and we made them have to play in the halfcourt.

“I think that was really big for us, and I still think that we can improve. You know, there’s still things that we can do better, which is always really cool about this team.”

Story by Chris Graham


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