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From the Rafters: Virginia’s defense shows up

Virginia moves to 4-0 in dominant fashion

NCAA Basketball: Grambling State at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia keeps rolling, though the competition hasn’t been the best to date. On Sunday, the Hoos shook off a slow start, took advantage of an eight minute scoring drought by the Yale Bulldogs, and eventually pulled away winning 62-38. Then on Tuesday night, the Hoos dismantled the overmatched Grambling State Tigers. Virginia raced out to 49-9 halftime lead on their way to a 90-34 win. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and what to watch for...From the Rafters.

The Good

  1. This defense is legit - I’ll still reserve judgement on how good the defense is until the Hoos face an upgrade in competition. But even in past years against similar quality opponents, they haven’t been this suffocating night in and night out. It was no secret that this team figured to be at least a little bit better than last year’s on the defensive end. While Malcolm Brogdon was an elite individual defender, defense wasn’t exactly the strong part of Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey’s games. Enter this year’s team. Isaiah Wilkins was already emerging as the leader of the front court on defense. Jack Salt is bigger and even more physical than I remember last year, plus he seems to have really picked up on the fundamentals of the defense. Devon Hall is a steady presence who knows the defense like the back of his hand. Darius Thompson is a tenacious ball-hawk with a knack for steals. And Marial Shayok has proven to be the team’s best on-ball defenders, and with his length and athleticism, capable of matching up with ACC opponents’ best players. And I am not even sure we have begun to scratch the surface of what Mamadi Diakite can provide in terms of shot blocking. But at the end of the day, this team’s defense is a machine, and that machine is firing on all cylinders. In the young season, there have been only five games played between D-1 opponents where one team fails to score more than 40 points. Virginia has won three of them. If they keep this up it will be an expensive year for Hoos fans committed to the Pack Line Pledge, but who’s complaining about that?
  2. The offense might be pretty good too - It came as a bit of a shock when I learned that the 90 points Virginia scored against Grambling State on Tuesday was the highest scoring output of Coach Bennett’s time at UVA. It shouldn’t be a surprise though; if you look back at his previous Virginia teams, none had as balanced a scoring attack as this one does. First there was Mike Scott, then there was Joe Harris who gave way to Malcolm Brogdon. While there were other players who could score around those stars, the offense still effectively ran through them. Enter this year’s team and it’s impossible to pick out the focal point on offense is. Marial Shayok leads the team in scoring while Darius Thompson is averaging almost double digits. London Perrantes hasn’t filled up the stat sheet yet, perhaps only because he hasn't had to. All three of those guys have the green light to shoot anytime they touch the ball. Then there’s Kyle Guy. Virginia fans haven’t seen a scorer like Guy since Sean Singletary, and that includes Brogdon, who often scored so efficiently and in so many ways that his 20-point stat line was surprising, maybe even yawn inducing. Guy on the other hand will make you notice he’s scoring. On Tuesday night it was his 5-6 from three that stood out. He scores off screens, off the dribble, and in transition really well. Watching him play you get the feeling that the 20 points he scored Tuesday night is just getting started.

The Bad

  1. Austin Nichols dismissed - Since his dismissal from the team a week ago, there has been plenty of speculation as to the reasons for Nichols’s departure from the program. I won’t get into that as what is done, is done. On the court, Austin’s departure helps Bennett trim his rotation from 11 to at least 10. But outside of lineup considerations, from a basketball perspective, this is not good. While it’s just a small sample of what he could bring to the court, his past performance can’t be ignored. His 13 ppg he averaged at Memphis were exactly what this team needed on offense which is where the Cavaliers miss him the most. Salt is a defensive specialist, Wilkins doesn’t have a powerful low-post game, and Diakite is still raw and, while incredibly athletic, needs to get a little bigger to bang with ACC post players. That leaves Jared Reuter. In the short season, Reuter appears to be the player most likely to fill Nichols’ void. He has shown in spurts that he is a capable offensive player such as last year against Cal, and this year against St. Francis. But none of those players has the offensive game Nichols has. In his one game as a Cavalier, he led the Hoos in scoring almost effortlessly. If anyone was going to fill the void left by Gill and Tobey, it was going to be Nichols. There was a reason he was named All-ACC in the preseason and to the Naismith Player of the Year Watch List.

What to watch for

  1. ...Now we get a step up in competition - Last week we talked about how Yale would prove to be a step up in competition, and while it was to a degree, the Hoos still won by 24 points. This week, Virginia heads down to Florida for the Emerald Coast Classic where they will face Iowa and either Memphis or Providence. All three of those programs are from quality conferences and have tournament pedigrees. If this team is for real, we might know it this weekend.

First up are the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa flirted with the elites of college basketball last season before faltering down the stretch. Still it’s a quality team from one of the best conferences in the country. Regardless of outcome, Virginia will face either Providence or Memphis. Providence made the tournament last season, but lost All-world Guard Kris Dunn. Memphis is trying to get back to the tournament under new head coach Tubby Smith. Virginia and Iowa tip at 7 P.M. Friday. The game will be televised on the CBS Sports Network. The Championship Round will be played on Saturday with the third place game beginning at 4 P.M. and the Championship game tipping at 7 P.M. The Championship game will also be shown on the CBS Sports Network.