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From the Rafters - Virginia learning to survive as ACC play heats up

Hoos go 1-1 as Blossomgame and Clemson await.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We’re only two weekends into the ACC season, but already there is carnage. FSU and Notre Dame are the only two remaining unbeaten teams in ACC play, and Syracuse has gone from losing to Boston College to rolling over Miami and Pittsburgh. There are no teams that are winless, but nine teams have only one conference win. Every game in the ACC is a matter of survival, and that is certainly the case for Virginia this week. They first fell in overtime to Pitt on Wednesday 88-76, but then rebounded to beat Wake Forest 79-62 on Sunday. There was some good and some bad. Let’s see how it looked...From the Rafters.

The Good

Don’t Panic - Coming off two losses in the last three, and standing 2-2 in the ACC, the sky is obviously falling, right? Well certainly, the team would hope the they could have either picked up a win over West Virginia, Florida State, or Pittsburgh but there is still nothing to get worked up about. See the following three resumes
Team A: 11-4 Overall, 2-0 in conference, #28 in Kenpom, losses to Kenpom teams ranked 5, 23, 31, and 73
Team B: 12-3 Overall, 2-2 in conference, #6 in Kenpom, losses to Kenpom teams ranked 64, 72, and 118
Team C: 12-3 Overall, 2-2 in conference, #4 in Kenpom, losses to Kenpom teams ranked 2, 16, and 53
These are the resumes of UVA’s teams in 2014, 2016, and 2017 respectively through January 10th. Note that both the 2014 and 2016 teams were number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament, but you could say that this year’s team’s is better. Obviously there is a lot of work to do between now and Selection Sunday, but given the shortage of optimism over this current team’s position, there is reason for hope. The team still needs some more signature wins, but the ACC is loaded this year and night in night out there will be plenty of opportunity for that, not to mention the non-conference showdown with Villanova.

Don’t Panic 2.0 - Ok, so the losses, despite not being bad on paper still aren’t good right? The defense just gave up more points than it has in the last four years, and they’ve allowed a player to outscore the entire Cavalier team in the second half of a loss. But the sky isn’t falling here either. Both Pittsburgh’s 88 point barrage and Dwayne Bacon’s 29 point outburst are more likely aberrations than signs of things to come. Take for example Pittsburgh. The team shot 61% from three, seemingly making everything they looked at. Some may point to three point defense as lacking from the Cavaliers, but most of those shots were actually welcomed. It’s no secret that shooting over top of the pack line is one way to beat it (a low percentage way, but one way). Had the Panthers been consistently been getting into the lane, collapsing the defense, then kicking out to an open shooter, I’d be more worried. But very simply, they shot over the top and made a lot of them. That isn’t going to happen all the time. And, oh by the way, the Hoos forced overtime. Fast forward to Sunday night when Wake Forest entered the game shooting almost 40% from three. If there really were problems with Virginia’s three point defense, the Hoos certainly would have given up more than 6-21 (28%) from deep. Pittsburgh’s ability to score was very much worrisome in the moment, but I would bet it’s not a signal that there are problems with this defense.

Devon Hall - Give Coach Bennett credit. After some early season struggles, many including myself were beginning to question whether Hall’s breakout (or even jump to the next level) would ever happen. He was the player most wanted benched in favor of Kyle Guy, but Bennett stayed with Hall and Hall has rewarded him with steady play that he’s become known for. As a defender, he has always been a stalwart, but in the last four games he has taken a giant leap in terms of offensive output. He’s scored in double figures in each of the last four games, including an average of 14 over the last two. What is most refreshing about his offensive game is that he is the only guard who takes the majority of his shots at the rim. Where London Perrantes and Kyle Guy live outside the three point line and Marial Shayok is content to dribble drive then pull up for a jumper, Hall will go to rim strong and of late has been able to finish. In addition to his impressive output on the offensive end of the floor, Hall has begun to assert himself on the glass as well. He’s had at least five rebounds in the last six games and is pulling down defensive rebounds at an 18% clip (Malcolm Brogdon who was known as a good rebounder only rated out at 13%). That's ridiculous for a guard and is the highest on the team right now. Normally, that would worry me, but it's understandable given the Hoos’ propensity to go to a four guard lineup. When the Hoos go small, Hall is forced to cover a guy much bigger than him and play down low. So far, it’s working.

The Bad

Fouls in the Front Court - In our weekly recurring segment on front court struggles, this week we’ll take a look at foul trouble. On the year Jarred Reuter commits 4.2 fouls per 40 minutes, Jack Salt 5.5, and Mamadi Diakite 6.8. Compare that to years past when only the much maligned (and often in foul trouble) Mike Tobey committed 5.4 in 2016 and 4.5 in 2015. Going back to 2014 no other Virginia front court player average more than 3.9 fouls per 40 minutes. That lack of staying power on the court has forced Tony Bennett into having a revolving door at the five and caused his players to play tentative once they get that second and third whistle. Luckily, Isaiah Wilkins is leading the way at staying out of foul trouble committing just 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes. The trio is still young, but they’re going to have to learn that if they’re going to help their team, they have to stay on the floor.

What to watch for

Jaron Blossomgame, ugh - Wednesday night, Pitt’s Jamel Artis ripped the Hoos’ defense to shreds scoring 24 points on 6-7 from three. Well Hoos fans, I hate to break it to you, but Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame is a similar player, but better. In two games with the Tigers last year Blossomgame averaged 27 points and four three pointers and is likely still giving Virginia fans nightmares. He’s the type of player that gives Virginia fits. He’s 6-7, 220, can beat forwards off the dribble and has the ability to hit from three shooting 44% last year. His three point shooting is off this year, but he’s still a dangerous player. It will be interesting to see how Bennett plays Blossongame. He can either try to take Blossomgame out and let the other Tigers win or the game. Or just let Blossomgame get his and play to limit any secondary scorer. Add to that an electric Tiger home crowd likely recognizing the Clemson football team coming off their College Football Playoff championship, and Virginia will have all they can handle in South Carolina.

The Hoos only have one game this week as they travel to Clemson. The game tips at 12 P.M. and will be televised by the ACC Network. Stay with Streaking the Lawn all week and as always, Go Hoos!