Coming into this season, UVA fans could count on two basic facts: First of all, with a promising freshman class gaining a year of experience and Mike Scott returning for a fifth year, Virginia would have its best chance of making the tournament since its last visit in 2007. However, a weak out-of-conference schedule and a lack of elite ACC teams would mean the team had little leeway for bad losses and few chances for impressive wins.
With the team heading into the exam break at 8-1, the Hoos have performed admirably. The loss to TCU hurt, but dropping a bad early game is not unusual, and the Horned Frogs' 7-3 start has taken some of the sting off. Defeating a Michigan team that will finish the season in the top 20 gave Virginia a needed marquee out of conference win, and triumphs over Drexel and George Mason will also look good when March rolls around. Before ACC play begins, the Hoos still have a tough one against Oregon on the road, and they have to avoid road letdowns against respectable Seattle and LSU teams. A 13-1 start is still a long ways away, but it would mark an excellent first half performance.
When the Hoos play to their strengths, they will be tough to beat. And, unsurprisingly, the main strength of this squad has been defense. The players have clearly bought into Tony Bennett's system and committed to playing intense and energetic Pack-Line defense on every possession. This premise of the Pack-Line is to have the on-ball defender playing tight man defense and attempt to force the ball toward the middle. Off-ball defenders remain inside an imaginary arc , where they form the "pack;" this causes dribble-drives and entry passes to frequently be shut down. As important as mastering the system has been, the mere act of committing to focusing on defense has led to relentless pressure on opposing offenses, forcing turnovers and preventing anyone from controlling the tempo. Ken Pomeroy ranks UVA 6th nationally in defensive efficiency, adjusting for strength of opponent; additionally, the team is the best in the country at defensive rebounding (watch our players after an opponent's shot; there will be four surrounding the basket every time).
A few specific areas where I've been impressed: After starting the year with injury problems, Sammy Zeglinski has been great on both sides of the ball, dramatically improving both his ball handling and on-ball defense, while continuing to drill threes. Joe Harris has also shown the ability to take the ball inside, developing an effective floater that Jontel Evans also employs. Between these improvements and Mike Scott's predictable influence (even when he doesn't turn in notable statistical performances, he occupies defenders enough to influence games), the offense is suddenly full of weapons.
However, to make a successful pass through the ACC, a couple of areas need improvement. And the first person I expect to turn it around is KT Harrell. KT was a main factor last season, especially early on, displaying an old-school midrange game and shooting over 42% from beyond the arc. Harrell has yet to put it together this year; after starting the season ice cold, it appears a lack of confidence has also hurt his shot selection. Though Malcolm Brogdon and Sammy Zeglinski have admirably picked up some of the slack, we are going to need his contributions in January and February. UVA must also continue to kick the turnover bug. These troubles haven't been pervasive over the course of the year, but they caused the TCU loss and can't be allowed to hurt again, especially against the presses we will see all year.
While the exam break has been tough for fans to sit through, the players must be chomping at the bit to get back into game action. In past years, UVA has struggled both in games immediately after the break and in West Coast road trips. Sunday's game on Oregon's sparkling new court will be a test of both against a quality opponent. While it's a game that the Hoos should win, the ability to get comfortable quickly in its first true road test will tell us a lot about the team.