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From the Rafters: A Look Back at the Start of ACC Play

After picking up a great win over Notre Dame to start the ACC season, Virginia found that the road is a tough place in the ACC falling at Virginia Tech and at Georgia Tech. The Hoos host Miami on Tuesday night in an attempt to get things right after a tough week away from Charlottesville.

Georgia Tech's Marcus Georges-Hunt with a running jumper against Virginia. Guards getting to the rim against the Hoos is one reason for this year's defensive struggles
Georgia Tech's Marcus Georges-Hunt with a running jumper against Virginia. Guards getting to the rim against the Hoos is one reason for this year's defensive struggles
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For those following From the Rafters (and From the Upper Deck), you will notice a little difference in format going forward. Instead of looking at each game, or pair of games, From the Rafters will be a weekly look at things that went well, things that what went wrong, and what to look for in the coming week. The number of items will vary based on results and well frankly how I am feeling. So without further ado, let's take a look back at the start of ACC play.

The Bad

I am going to make a prediction.  This will be the only time the rest of the season that this column will feature three things that were "bad." However, after the week that was, that is the only way it can be described. Virginia went 1-2 in the last 10 days with both losses coming against what is on paper the bottom half of the ACC.

1) Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech...Really? - On Monday November 16th, the Hoos fell on the road to the George Washington Colonials.  At the time we all looked back at it and weren't worried as we realized that was going to be a tournament team come the end of the year.  And while that is still to be determined, the same can't be said of Virginia's latest conquerors. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech were picked to finish 13th and 14th respectively in the ACC preseason while both teams have played better than that initial assessment, they are also two teams who lost to East Tennessee State and Alabama State. These were games Virginia has won in the past two years, and if they are to right the ship, they are games they can't afford to lose in the future.

2) Early Defecits - One of the things I have come to admire about Tony Bennett coached teams is their ability to remain calm despite deficits, or early game struggles. The reassuring thing was that they didn't happen often and they were generally corrected by about the ten minute mark of the second half. However in both losses, not only did the Hoos' opponent jump out to an early lead, what is most troubling is that late in the second half those leads got extended. Late in second half is usually when the Hoos pull away. Instead, last Monday they saw the Hokies extend their lead to 11 with just over two minutes to play. Then again on Saturday, after Virginia cut the Yellow Jackets lead to two with just over four minutes to go, Georgia Tech went on a run that would ultimately end with the home team having a comfortable 11 point lead with just over a minute to play. In both cases, Virginia cut the leads down and made the result look respectable, but being outplayed at the end of the game is both uncharacteristic of Virginia teams and a trend that cannot be continued going forward.

3) The Pack Line is vulnerable - This is not exactly a hot take for anyone who had paid any attention to Virginia this year. Some of that is we as fans have been spoiled by historically great defenses in the past, and this version just isn't quite that good. There are many reasons for the defensive lapses this year, but in the both losses, the most notable was breakdown on the interior of the defense.  The pack line is predicated on keeping the opponent away from the hoop which serves two purposes. First it limits points in the paint and second it puts the defenders in position to get rebounds. What I am seeing is that through penetration, the interior of the pack line is breaking down which has made the Hoos susceptible to easy baskets and giving up offensive rebounds. Against the Hokies, Virginia gave up way too many close looks at the hoop, as Virginia Tech had a 55.9% effective field goal percentage (eFG%), and scored 1.13 points per possession which are both over Virginia's season averages. Against Georgia Tech, the easy baskets came directly through giving up offensive rebounds.  The Yellow Jackets collected 34.4% of boards on offense which is whopping nine percent higher than Virginia's season average of 25.9%. Unfortunately, the answer to this issue isn't exactly easy. Isaiah Wilkins is playing much better, but it's clear that this team misses the defensive prowess of Darion Atkins and Akil Mitchell.

The Good

1) Virginia played horribly - Yes, Virginia played as poorly as we have seen them play in years. Yet, they lost by a combined six points on the road in ACC play. If these games weren't back to back, I think we as fans might look at them a little differently. Also, had Virginia played well and lost, then there wouldn't be things that we can point to that are fixable. First, against Virginia Tech, the Hoos turned the ball over 16 times which represented 25.4% of their possessions. In only two other games all season did the Hoos turn it over at higher than a rate higher than 14% (both against teams that rank in the top 36 in the country in forcing turnovers).  Without the turnovers as high as they were, Virginia rolls.  Against Georgia Tech, in addition to their struggles on the defensive glass, Virginia's offense played one of their worst games of the year.  Their eFG% of 43.9 and offensive rebounding rate of 21.1% were both season lows, and their offensive efficiency was second worst. Given those results, there is indication that the games were the exception and not the rule.

2) ...Nobody got injured - All joking aside, depth continues to be one of Virginia's strengths. In the three games to start the ACC season, Virginia has gotten contributions from Mike Tobey (15 pts, 6 rebounds vs. Notre Dame), Isaiah Wilkins (8 rebounds and 4 blocks vs VT), and Darius Thompson (132 Offensive Rating by Ken Pom vs GT). Those contributions will pay dividends in future in games where Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill go cold.

What to watch for

1) Redemption - Playing in the ACC is a blessing and a curse. Despite the two losses, the ACC schedule presents all the opportunities to still put together one of the top resumes in the country. However, if there are issues, it's hard to make things right when coming off two bad losses you have to face the #8 team in the country.  That is exactly what Virginia GETS to do when they host the Miami Hurricanes on Tuesday night at the John Paul Jones Arena. The Hurricanes boast one of the most experienced teams in the country led by Tonye Jekiri, Sheldon McClellan, and Angel Rodriguez. Rodriguez in particular provides a challenge for the Hoos as he is a slashing, creating guard that can penetrate the pack-line causing it to collapse as noted above. In last year's 2OT win for the Hoos, Rodriguez was spectacular scoring 25 points and adding seven assists. What is most notable is that he was able to penetrate the lane with ease scoring 12 points inside the three point arc and adding another 10 at the free throw line. Rodriguez will be one to watch. If the Hoos can stop him, they will be well on their way to their second top-ten win of the season.

The Hoos tip off at the John Paul Jones Arena Tuesday at 7 p.m. If you can't make it to Charlottesville the game will be televised on ESPNU.  Then on Sunday, the Hoos travel to Tallahassee to take on the Seminoles at 6:30. That game is also on ESPNU.