Virginia offense struggles: Who steps up to help Kihei, Mamadi?

UVA basketballIt’s no secret what drives the Virginia offense. Two guys: Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite.

Jay Huff can score from three and is a force at the rim, but he can’t create his own shot. Braxton Key can knock down open shots from the perimeter and vulture off the offensive glass, but, again, not able to create shots for himself.

The perimeter guys – Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattmann, Casey Morsell – still works in progress.

We hope, on the progress part. We know about the work part. They need work.

Clark and Diakite are the engines: Clark, at the point, getting into the lane to create shots for himself, bigs on dives, kicking back out to the perimeter guys, Diakite finishing in the lane, on kickouts, creating off the dribble against fours and fives.

Your game plan as an opposing coach coming in has to be: contain Clark, stay in front of Diakite, and you can stay within striking distance.

“They’re hard guys to guard,” Stony Brook coach Geno Ford said, after his team’s game effort, in a 56-44 loss Wednesday in JPJ that was a tight one into the game’s final six-plus minutes.

“Clark is so elite with his probing of the defense with the ball. He can get in small spaces, he’s got good quickness, and he’s strong with the ball. It feels like you’ve got him under control, and then all of a sudden, he finds a little window and gets right through there, and then you’re in rotation. He’s as good as anyone in the country at throwing it up to those big guys,” Ford said.

“Diakite is just terrific,” Ford continued. “He’s a big strong guy, he’s a tough matchup, he can hurt you inside, he can make jumpers.”

Ford’s strategy was to mix defensive looks against Virginia, going zone for a long stretch, to try to take away the dribble penetration for Clark, and the zone did what he hoped.

Stony Brook first went with a 2-3 look on a UVA possession at the five-minute mark of the first half, and on that first possession, Huff made an easy, wide-open 10-foot jumper in the middle of the zone, to put the ‘Hoos up 24-14.

Ford stayed in the zone for the next roughly 18 minutes of game time, and to say Virginia struggled with it would be understating things quite a bit.

A Woldetensae three that banked in from near the top of the key extended a four-point UVA lead to seven.

In between, the Cavaliers were 5-for-20 from the floor, going 2-for-11 on two-point jumpers in the stretch.

“We did a good job early, and then they went to the Syracuse-type zone, and we got it to the right spots, but just didn’t execute,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said afterward.

Clark, in particular, seemed to put pressure on himself to do something to get the ship righted, with four second-half turnovers, on his way to a season-high six.

The sophomore was 1-for-5 from the floor with three assists and the four TOs in the second half, as what was a double-digit game for most of the first half got down to as close as four before a late UVA run created separation in the closing minutes.

This would seem to be part of the growth process for a young point guard. Clark acknowledged as much after the game.

“I just think it comes from self-inflicted errors, so on my part, ball security,” said Clark, who finished with a game-high 14 points and six assists. “We just have to try to take better care of the ball and just play the game. I know it is my first time being the one, but that is no excuse for a point guard”

What you don’t hear there is that it’s hard being an effective point when the guys around you aren’t stepping up.

“We’re just going to keep working at it,” Clark said. “We take our open looks, and if they don’t fall, we just try to get a stop on the other end. We know we put in the work, so we just have to keep shooting.”

Diakite is also being asked to do a lot more this year after being, like Clark, a role player on the 2019 national-title team.

His shot attempts are up dramatically – from 5.7 per game last season to 10.8 per game through 10 games this season.

And while his scoring is, as you would guess, also up significantly – from 7.4 points per game in 2018-2019 to 13.2 points per game to this point in 2019-2020 – his efficiency is down.

Dikiate is shooting 46.5 percent on two-point shots, in large part because more of those shots have been jumpers – 47.2 percent of all his attempts this season have been two-point jumpers, according to Hoops-Math.com, up from 40.0 percent last season, and he’s shooting 33.3 percent on two-point jumpers this season, down from 39.8 percent in 2018-2019.

This is what happens when somebody needs to put their foot down, and that foot is you.

“That is something we knew this year we would have to face,” Diakite said after the Stony Brook win. “We just keep working at it and keeping taking steps to figure it out.”

Story by Chris Graham



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