It's hard to believe that this is the fellas out there on the court are wearing the same Virginia jersey as the guys out there this time last year. Those of you who read this regularly know that I'm a very stats-driven guy, and tonight I'm taking a look by the numbers at the January 15, 2010 Virginia Cavaliers compared to the January 15, 2009 Virginia Cavaliers. For starters, it's a 10-4 record vs. a 7-7. That sums up most of the differences here, but I'll spell it out a little more anyway, after the jump.
And before we get too excited about this, do know that Virginia was in Game 2 of an 8-game losing skid, all of which were ACC games (including No. 1 Duke, No. 3 UNC, No. 5 UNC and No. 25 Florida State). I don't think Virginia will be suffering a similar type of fate this year (or at least, I'm praying that we do not) as first year head coach Tony Bennett appears to have taught the team a certain level of resiliency that we just did not see last year with Dave Leitao. At least, this is what I'm telling myself.
Let's first start with Bennett's harping point: Defense. If you've watched a single game this year -- yes, even the blowout loss to USF -- you've seen a marked change in the energy compared to this time last year. You're seeing a Virginia squad that refuses to allow teams to cut into the lane with ease. Unfortunately, Virginia's opponents have been lighting it up from beyond the arc (Virginia is ranked 222 in 3-point FG defense), a problem that will only get worse as the Wahoos start getting knee and waist deep into ACC play, as we saw Clemson simply handle Carolina this past week.
But let's look at some numbers. The big one that stands out this year is that the Cavaliers are allowing a mere 60.1 points per game and are ranked the 24th stingiest defense in the country. At this point last year, Virginia was offering a generous 72.1 points per game, ranked 265th out of 330 teams.
The team is putting up only 3.4 blocked shots per game (compared to 4.8 last year), which is understandable given how often Bennett turns to a 4-guard lineup. Mike Scott was injured for several games and Asane Sene was suspended for a few as well. Tri-Captain Solomon Tat has thus far been a nonfactor on the court, though his leadership ability off the court has made a difference for the team.
On the other end, Virginia offense is certainly respectable, putting up an average of 71.0 points per game (rank: 137), 3 points lower than where we were at this point last year. However, I don't think I'm the only one here who is actually happy with these numbers, right? At Washington State last season, Coach Bennett scored 70 or more points only five times in 33 tries. With only 14 games played this season, the Wahoos have scored 70 or more nine times already. We all saw Bennett's style as a type of "slow down" offense. He's done this while at the same time put up the points when necessary.
Virginia -- and mostly, Sammy Zeglinski -- has been impressive from beyond the arc. The Cavaliers are shooting 41.9% from the three, as compared to an abysmal 29.8% last season. This puts Virginia ranked 7th in the country in this category and atop the ACC. Duke follows with 39.5% (28th in the country).
Mike Scott is shooting 58.2% from the field so far this season. He is ranked 19th in the country in this category.
"Everybody wanted to be like Michael Jordan, and of course he is a great player," Scott said. "But my favorite player is LeBron. If you ask any of my teammates they will tell you, I want to be like LeBron…I try to be versatile like he is."
Indeed, Scott averages 8.4 rebounds per game, placing him 82nd individually in the country.
Coach Bennett must have also been drilling ball protection into these players' heads. Virginia makes 10.2 turnovers per game, compared to 13.6 last season. This places Virginia 3rd in the country in fewest turnovers, and first in the ACC. The Cavaliers are also ranked 15th in assist-to-turnover ratio, at 1.38 (compare with 0.98 at this point last season).
Across the board in almost all categories, Virginia has shown improvement in their game. Cavalier fans have a lot to be excited about this season thus far under Tony Bennett's regime. The players are buying into this foreign system that many thought wouldn't work in the ACC. But Wahoos beware. Your team is 2-0 in the ACC, but is also extremely vulnerable. While the Cavs have been able to fight back from double digits down, don't turn on Bennett and the boys upon our next loss. It could be tonight against Miami, it could be next Saturday at Wake Forest. Simply put, our team is not as talented as the upper echelon of the ACC (whoever that may be...). We can and will lose ACC games this season.
But know that Tony Bennett and the entire Virginia Cavaliers squad is working on something special in Charlottesville. We have only seen the start of what this team is capable of. Be ready for a wild ACC season and, with any luck, a post-season appearance.