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When the 2017-2018 Virginia Cavaliers became the first top seed to ever lose to a 16-seed, and were in fact blown out by UMBC, they instantly and ironically had a major effect on another team.
That loss made the 2018-2019 Virginia Cavaliers one of the most intriguing teams in recent memory. Questions arose like popcorn kernels bouncing in the microwave. Would Tony Bennett change his ways? Can a slow tempo team succeed in today’s basketball? Would a healthy De’Andre Hunter have made the difference? How would that loss effect those players emotionally?
A few months into this season, we have answers to several of the questions posed (No, Yes, Maybe, and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ to the examples above, respectively). Most importantly, we know Virginia is good at basketball again. Not only that, Virginia is very good at basketball in the same way that Tony Bennett’s teams have always been very good at basketball. The Hoos not only control, but dominate the pace of the game. They require other teams to adopt their speed of play, with an iron fist. The result is a well-oiled machine that efficiently destructs opponents possession by possession.
Keep in mind, those numbers aren’t among the ACC or power conference teams, those count all of Division I. For the third straight season, Virginia is playing the absolute slowest of any of the 350+ teams in the nation. And for the seventh time in eight years, Bennett’s Hoos are in the top ten in the nation defensively. Again, to be consistently at that level is astonishing. Being ranked in the top ten of Division I represents the top 2.8% of programs at that level. There is nothing less fluky and more reliable that Virginia’s defense.
In the past six years (including this season), Virginia is one of only three programs to rank in the top 25 in the nation defensively all six seasons. The other two programs to have done so are Cincinnati and Florida. The Gators were ranked in the top ten defensively in that time period three times, with Cincinnati doing so just once. Virginia has been top ten all six seasons in that time frame. For those looking to blame Virginia’s style of play for these statistical achievements, I need to remind you that these numbers are adjusted for pace and on a per possession basis. No one forces opponents into tougher shots and wasted possessions quite like Tony Bennett’s teams. Bennett’s Pack Line defense leaves teams choosing uncomfortable jumpers. Virginia runs shooters off the three-point line, forcing them into the less effective mid-range area, without fouling and gifting trips to the charity stripe.
Virginia’s gameplan is simple. They bet they can find more points by sharing the ball and using the entire shot clock than you can find taking difficult jump shots. It’s a plan that has worked, 42 of the last 45 games that the Cavaliers have played.
It’s a smart plan, but not perfect. When UMBC defeated Virginia in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament, the Retrievers sunk 12 of their 24 three-point attempts, while Virginia managed just 4 of 22 from beyond the arc. When you force teams to shoot jump shots, some times they make them, and quite a lot of them at that.
This year, the plan has worked.
Teams facing Virginia this season are shooting just 24 percent from outside the arc, the second lowest mark in the nation. Only ten teams in college basketball force opponents into scoring a higher percentage of their points on two-point baskets. Opponents have made fewer free throws versus Virginia than any team in the nation other than Virginia Tech. Things are going as scripted: tough threes, inefficient twos, no freebies.
The last four teams to beat Virginia made at least the same number of threes as the Cavaliers, and did so at a better percentage (and you need to go back to the Obama administration for that fourth loss, by the way). This year, no team has done so. Lo and behold, Virginia is undefeated. Only one team has even matched Virginia’s 3-point percentage in a game this year, when Dayton edged the Hoos by just 0.7 percentage points.
Most importantly, for the first time ever, Virginia appears to have an answer for when there is a crack in the game plan. If you are a Virginia fan, or at least hoping for a Virginia redemption story this March, De’Andre Hunter may be the answer to your prayers.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore is the most talented player that Tony Bennett has ever coached. He is a likely lottery pick in next June’s NBA Draft and a potential star in the making. He is, however, most notable, for playing differently than Virginia’s leaders in the past. Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, and London Perrantes were all very good college basketball players in their own rights, but were all successful in similar ways. Each found opportunities to score within the Virginia offense. They made the shots available to them for the most part. Brogdon and Harris were able to develop themselves into reliable shot-creators, outside the paint.
Hunter has broken the mold at Virginia. When compared to the best players Tony Bennett has had prior to him in Charlottesville, the difference is clear. Hunter is taking free throws at a higher rate and shooting far fewer 3-pointers. He attacks the offense glass like no wing in recent memory at Virginia.
He is, in theory, the answer when the jump shots aren’t falling. In practice, this has worked this season.
When Virginia shot just 4 of 17 from outside the arc against Wisconsin, including misses on all 3 of Hunter’s attempts, the sophomore from Philadelphia took over. He shot 8 of 11 inside the arc and attempted half of Virginia’s free throws. He led the Hoos in scoring with 20 points and added 9 rebounds.
Virginia will face an absolute gauntlet over the course of its ACC schedule, including eight true road games versus teams currently ranked in the KenPom top 60. That doesn’t even include a sleepy Wednesday night upset alert game at Boston College or home dates with Duke, Notre Dame, Florida State and Louisville.
The chances of Virginia running the table are slim to none, yet how they win and lose might be more paramount that if or when they do. In terms of looking towards March Madness and finding a path for this team to earn the redemption narrative that they deserve or forecasting another tournament letdown, the most important thing will be how Virginia and De’Andre Hunter respond when jump shots aren’t the answer.
Last season, Villanova ranked in the top 15 nationally in percentage of points coming via 3-point baskets. When tournament time came around though, the Wildcats had an answer when shots weren’t falling. In a hard-fought Sweet Sixteen game, Villanova made just 4 of their 24 outside attempts versus Texas Tech. The Wildcats answered by attacking the paint and were rewarded with 20 offensive rebounds and 35 (!) trips to the free throw line.
Mike Tyson’s quip that “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” has basically become cliche. Yet when March rolls around, we’ll see if Virginia has the answer that gets their backs off the canvas and punching into the second weekend of tournament play, and beyond.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.