Virginia fell at George Mason 63-59 in a sloppily played season-opener in front of a raucous Patriot Center crowd. The Hoos and Patriots, missing two starters each because of injuries for UVA and suspensions for Mason, played a tight one, but the home team made the big plays in the end to seal the win. Joe Harris led the way for Virginia with 19 points and 8 rebounds, while Akil Mitchell picked up 11 and 9.
The Hoos used a 10-0 first half run to take a lead they would cling to for much of the game; however, in a tie game with one minute to play, a well-guarded Bryon Allen took a turnaround three-pointer that found the basket and led to a narrow escape for the CAA squad. When all was said and done, Virginia would start their season 0-1.
However, the season is a long one, and the Hoos were without PGs Jontel Evans and Tevon Jones as well as Malcolm Brogdon; this led to Bennett's starting three first-years, Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, and Taylor Barnette, for the first time in program history. Considering all that, here are some notes to take from the game:
- Jontel Evans is vital to team success. On both sides of the ball, the team will lean on Evans' leadership, and his absence was clear tonight. One of the best on-ball defenders in the ACC, Evans has been and will be the anchor of the pack-line defense; without him, the Mason guards saw far too many penetration opportunities and open looks. The offensive similarly missed his ability to get to the basket off the dribble. Struggles inbounding would have been at least partially alleviated. If he isn't hurt, UVA is 1-0.
- The press-break continues to be an issue that Bennett-coached teams will face. George Mason applied pressure all evening, resulting in a disruption of the game's rhythm as well as costly turnovers, especially the two consecutive ones with eight minutes to play. Teams don't have much of an incentive not to press the Hoos at this point; tactically, Bennett prefers to control the pace of the game, which tends to keep players from aggressively breaking the press and getting to the hoop. Without a true point guard in the game, Virginia's struggles were amplified. The Hoos must find a way to score off the press-break to keep defenses honest.
- The pack line defense takes time to learn. Though the new class is undoubtedly talented and committed to defense, there is an adjustment period before the system could become the well-oiled machine we all expect. Two seasons ago, the Hoos gave up 106 points to Washington before coming back to beat Minnesota and Virginia Tech on the road just weeks later. Tonight, the team always seemed just a step out of sync. Players were slow rotating, hedged for a bit too long, or communicated poorly; these split seconds of confusion lead to open shots. UVA didn't play a great offensive game, but lost because they lacked the ability to make stops on defense. After all, the best way to beat the full-court press is to not allow made baskets at all.
- The first-years all showed nerves...but also bright spots. Justin Anderson is ultra-athletic and is the most prepared on the defensive end. He played passively on offense, and his shots weren't falling in a 1-5 shooting night (0-3 from behind the arc), but we should see a more prominent dribble-drive game going forward. Taylor Barnette was put into a tough spot, starting away from his natural position in game one. However, he did a good job of keeping the ball secure and not rushing things, as he finished with one turnover. As a 7-foot center, Mike Tobey has the longest expected adjustment period, and it showed; his first career points, a 3-ponter (did I mention he is a 7-foot center?) were a game highlight. Nolte looks solid and well-rounded, and he sunk two three-pointers, though he fell into foul trouble.
- The "too long didn't read" version of the prior paragraph: The first-years will be good...the question is how soon?
- It's going to be fun to see what Joe Harris does these next two years; his era started tonight. His big-time three-pointer sunk while standing still with a hand in his face demonstrates the killer instinct he is developing on the offensive end.
- Don't overlook Akil Mitchell, who had an efficient 4-6 shooting night, as he strives to fill the gaping hole left by Mike Scott's departure.
- We shouldn't start seasons against tough opponents on the road. A game to allow everyone to settle in would be nice. Props to the GMU crowd, but this was their big game of the year, and it came at a time when our young team could be easily shell-shocked.
- Losing to the Patriots is a shame, but not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. What is a big deal is that UVA wins its home opener Monday against a decent Fairfield team. With a win, the Hoos will play Tuesday for the chance to compete in two tough games in Madison Square Garden. With a loss, those two games will evaporate into home dates against cupcake teams. If we want a chance to watch UVA basketball late in March, the Hoos must play (and hopefully win) those games in New York.