Everyone in the college basketball world was required to have an opinion about Tony Bennett’s Virginia program before last season.
The Cavaliers were too slow. Too unathletic. Too boring.
Or maybe it was beautiful. Maybe Virginia did things the right way. Maybe they were smarter, stronger, and one step ahead.
Whether you were a national media member or a casual fan who only tunes in during March, you had to fall on one side of this spectrum or on the other.
When Virginia became the first top seed to ever lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the naysayers got louder. After the Hoos heart-attacked their way through the 2019 NCAA Tournament and won the national title, Virginia supporters thought they had the last laugh.
This season got started, Virginia kicked things off with an interesting schedule and some very on-brand victories (slow and low scoring, that is). The divide about Virginia is sure to bubble up again.
Looking deeper at the Hoos first four games this season, it’s clear that Tony Bennett couldn’t care less what people think. His staff and his program aren’t worried about the noise. Instead, it appears they may have built the perfect style of basketball for today’s game.
That seems counter-intuitive. Everything you hear about basketball in 2019 is about pace and space. Bennett’s team creates space and operates effectively spread out, yet plays at a glacial pace. So far this season, Virginia plays slower than any other team in Division I. The Hoos rank 353rd out of 353 teams in possessions per game, adjusted for opponent. They were 353rd in that stat last year as well.
Two years ago, Virginia was 351st in the nation. There were only 351 teams in Division I that season. The Cavaliers were dead last in 2016-2017 as well. To suggest that this is the team that has figured out modern basketball feels blasphemous.
Perhaps, though, this is precisely what Bennett wants. Virginia’s pace flummoxes every single one of their opponents. Virginia forces teams into fewer possessions, fewer shots, and far fewer scoring opportunities. Any turnover is doubly taxing. A missed field goal attempt puts the ball back into Virginia’s hands, which allows the Hoos to work clock and optimize every offensive opportunity.
Forcing opponents into tough shots and long field goals has long been Bennett’s ideology. His Virginia teams have ranked in the top 25 of effective field goal percentage allowed in seven of the past eight seasons. This season, that trend continues. Virginia ranks 2nd in that statistic, as well as first in defensive efficiency, first in 2-point percentage allowed, and first in blocked shot rate.
They are, once again, the nation’s best defensive team. This season, even early on with some sample size issues, it has become quite clear how Bennett has his team ranked atop so many defensive statistics.
Only one team in college basketball has forced opponents to attempt a higher percentage of their field goals from outside the arc than Virginia. In fact, no team is allowing a higher percentage of their opponent’s points to come from long range than Virginia. Through four games, 56.4 percent of the points Virginia has allowed have come from 3-point land. The national average for that statistic is just 30.6 percent!
Bennett’s Cavaliers want teams to bomb from the outside. It’s the crux of Bennett’s Pack Line defense. Virginia defenders cut off penetration at all costs, favoring a step off of opposing ball-handlers, rather than challenging passing lanes or hunting for steals. The Hoos have the length and the athleticism to make any shot inside the arc difficult. With proper close-outs on the perimeter, Virginia forces opponents to choose imperfect 3-point attempts over chances to slash and create a better shot.
Help defense is swift, but never over-bearing, allowing for a close-out to make outside shots contested. In the clip below, Syracuse tries to force the issue, gets cut off, and settles for a 25-footer. The Orange shot 5 for 29 from outside the arc in this game.
This year, that strategy is particularly noteworthy. The 3-point line was moved further back this season, from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches. Nationwide, outside shooting is down from 34.4 percent last year to just 32.2 percent this season. Teams have not quite adjusted, with the percentage of field goals coming from long range only ticking down from 38.7 to 37.5 percent in Division I.
Those numbers may seem marginal, but for Bennett and Virginia, it just increases their advantage. Not every 3-point shot that an opponent takes is a little victory for Virginia, but any long ball that comes off the dribble, or on a step-back, or via casual pass around the perimeter is absolutely a defensive win. Virginia’s defense is almost like the vaunted Syracuse zone, without the rebounding or movement issues that can doom a zone. The more time an offense spends with the ball outside the arc, the better. Especially with the arc situated 14-or-so inches further back than ever before.
Virginia’s sharp close-outs and the force field that is created on the perimeter lead to another key defensive advantage – the Hoos foul very infrequently. Virginia has committed the 5th fewest fouls of any team in college basketball so far this season. The Cavaliers lead the nation in defensive free throw rate and percentage of points allowed from the free throw line. This means that wild drives to the rim are rarely bailed out by a Virginia foul and also that late in each half, Virginia can stay aggressive defensively without worrying about the opposing team shooting in the bonus. On top of all that, Bennett infrequently needs to gameplan around foul trouble. His best players are available to him throughout the game. Jay Huff, a rim-protecting center, has played 107 minutes and committed just three fouls. Altering shots at the rim without handing out free throws is an elite skill in today’s basketball world.
It all sounds so simple. Keep teams penned on the perimeter. Cut off penetration and play-making opportunities. Make players shoot the ball from deep. Threes are the right value play, if they are being made at a strong percentage. If not, they are fool’s gold. It all adds up.
Virginia is far from the only team aware of these concepts, yet Bennett has recruited, schemed, and coached his program to maximize the effectiveness of these ideas. Opposing teams are so deeply confounded by Virginia’s defense. More of Virginia’s opponents this year have failed to score 35 points (two!) than succeeded in scoring more than 55 points (zero!).
On the offensive side of the ball, this Virginia team will struggle at times. No one on Bennett’s roster is a pure scorer. They have plenty of players capable of making shots, but nothing will come easy. In the close games in ACC or NCAA Tournament play, it’s unclear who would step up as a go-to-guy. I liked Kehei Clark and Mamadi Diakite a lot better as role players. As the season grows, that could change. At least Virginia is a team with an identity.
In March, when all of this matters, it’s definitely possible that Virginia’s lack of offensive firepower will come back to haunt the Hoos. At the same time, defense travels and defense is reliable. There is no question that every game Virginia plays, the opposing team will work for every point that’s added to the scoreboard. In close games, and most importantly, postseason games, that gives the Cavaliers a chance to win, no matter the stakes or the opponent. I hesitate to think this team could defend its national championship with six wins this March, yet that can’t be ruled out with the way Virginia defends on a nightly basis.
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.