Warning to the rest of the ACC: Virginia seems to be settling in on defense
Two numbers tell the story for Virginia in its win at Boston College on Saturday: 49, and 30.9.
It had been a while since the ‘Hoos had held an opponent under 50 – the Dec. 22 win over William & Mary, for the record.
The key to the 49 was the 30.9 percent shooting from BC, and then there were 11 Eagles turnovers in 59 offensive possessions on top of those other two.
That Boston College had just put up 82 on 56.1 percent shooting in a one-point loss at Duke three days ago has this one meaning more.
“I thought the on-ball defense today was the best we’ve had,” coach Tony Bennett said, noting how the season has and continues to be a work in progress.
It’s beating a dead horse to say it, but with three new guys in the starting lineup – transfers Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy III, Top 50 national recruit Reece Beekman – the reduction in practice, scrimmage, exhibition and non-conference game time has meant progress has to come in live game action more than Bennett would like.
“It’s been a growing process,” said redshirt senior Jay Huff, who had a nice stat line in the win – 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, eight rebounds, five blocks.
“We have, kind of the start of the year, where you know there’s a few bumps. There’s sometimes where we haven’t quite figured out how to play just the defense that we play together yet, just because it’s a rotating cast of characters. But, once we figure it out, it happens every year, once we figure it out, and I think today was a really good step in that direction, we can really just get to what we know we can do, and what has been done traditionally in this program.”
You hope Huff is right, and today was a day that the bell went off.
Bennett, for his part, seems to be getting set with who he wants on the floor. He went with Hauser, Murphy and Beekman along with returnees Huff and Kihei Clark, two program mainstays, for the second straight game, and that quintet has played 88.8 percent of the minutes in the past two games.
Knowing how Bennett does things, this is a sign that he thinks this group is stout enough defensively to get the job done – which is a good sign, considering how potent it is offensively.
Murphy (148.3) and Huff (142.1) are one and three in the ACC in offensive rating, per sports-reference.com, and Hauser (119.6) is 10th.
Virginia had to go Saturday without two of its better pure defenders, forward Kadin Shedrick (DRtg: 95.1) and guard Casey Morsell (99.7), Morsell having had to miss the past two games.
Those two will no doubt steal some minutes when they’re back in the lineup, but that will just make the Pack Line that much more effective.
“Obviously, we’re missing some guys, really good on-ball defender in Casey Morsell, but the ability for I thought Reece really slid well. For first year to come in, he’s got good instincts, and then Kihei was locked in, and Trey’s length – Reece is long, Trey is long – I thought that was significant,” Bennett said.
“We made a few adjustments just with our personnel that helped us, but I liked it,” Bennett said. “I think all those guys that are first years to our system – Trey, Reece, Sam – at least the last couple games they’ve gone in the right direction, and it’s helped our team defense.”
The adjustments that Bennett referred to are the aftermath of the Gonzaga debacle – the top-ranked ‘Zags torched the Cavaliers, 98-75, two Saturdays ago, hitting 10-of-20 from three and getting 21 layups, exploiting the inexperience of Hauser and Murphy, in particular, in the Pack Line.
“Well, yeah, we haven’t played an offensive team like Gonzaga, I mean, they are as special as it gets this year. But I think, as we talked about, Humble Pie doesn’t taste good, but it is a reality check that, hey look, we got to fight, and we got to figure out some adjustments to help our personnel, and just know that without that it’s going to be really difficult. I think we’ve made the right strides. I think our energy and our ball pressure has been better, and just covering for each other more,” Bennett said.
Story by Chris Graham