One of my least-favorite books, A Tale of Two Cities, starts with the line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” After this past week, I’m sure Virginia coach Tony Bennett can commiserate. UVA failed to avenge its Elite Eight loss to Syracuse, blowing another double-digit halftime lead in last Saturday’s 66-62 loss. Two days later, those same Hoos trounced fourth-ranked Louisville 71-55, notching their fourth-straight win in the series and royally frustrating Rick Pitino in the process. Despite the roller coaster, UVA came out slightly ahead this week. Due to other results around the league, the Hoos are a half game behind UNC and FSU in the ACC standings. Let's take look back at the good, the bad, look ahead to what to watch for...From the Rafters.
1. Pack line Plus - The hallmark of the Virginia program is no doubt the pack line defense. It's allowed the Hoos be near the lead in both scoring defense and defense efficiency each of the last four years. But this year, as evidenced by the number of pack line pledge games, there’s something a little more potent about “ol’ reliable.” Turnover and block rates are both up for this team compared to previous season. Now that's not surprising given some of the personnel on this year such as Darius Thompson and Mamadi Diakite. But the numbers are impressive nonetheless. This year, the Hoos are turning teams over at a 21.3% clip, up from 18.4% in 2014, 17.9% in 2015, and 18.8% in 2016. Virginia defenders look much more aggressive guarding ball handlers and passing lanes. And they’re able to increase that aggressiveness without compromising the tenets of the pack line defense.
The Virginia defense is also a force down low. The Wahoos are blocking 14.3% of shots, up from 12.0% in 2014, 13.3% in 2015, and 10.2% in 2015. The biggest reason for that is the play of Diakite and Isaiah Wilkins. Diakite has been incredible -- swatting 13.3% of shots that come his way. He would be for 4th in the country in that category if he exceeded the 40% minutes played minimum. Wilkins checks in a 7.0% block-per-shot-defended clip. While that seems paltry compared to Diakite's, it's actually tied for the highest of any UVA player from 2014 to the present (Mike Tobey achieved that rate in 2014). It's also surprising that he is rejecting more shots than the defensive specialist Darion Atkins ever did. Come March, adding blocks and turnovers to the already suffocating pack line is sure to give coaches nightmares.
1. Trouble with leads - In losses against Villanova and Syracuse, Virginia held big leads at halftime. In both cases, they let the lead slip away after their opponent went on a big run. The issue is with the way Virginia has been playing on offense. In a similar fashion to a football game, Virginia's offense has allowed teams to get back into the game. In football, you hold a lead by running the ball, not throwing it, by using every bit of clock, by not running plays early in the play clock, by running high possession plays, and by not turning the ball over. The concept is similar in basketball: you hold a lead by using all of the shot clock, taking high percentage shots, and protecting the ball. Against Syracuse, Virginia didn't do those things. During their nearly-eight-minute scoring drought to end the first half and start the second half, Virginia had two shots at the rim, five jump shots, and three turnovers. That played right into the hands of Syracuse, who whittled the 12-point deficit down to one. With UVA’s reliance on guards and lack of inside offense, high percentage shots are hard to come by. Let's hope Tony’s crew improves on closing out the games they've worked so hard to blow open in the first place.
2. Free throw discrepancy - I know this is an unpopular opinion among Wahoos these days, and STL's Danny Neckel provides a great statistical look at this phenomenon here in case you've missed it. But Virginia's lack of free throw attempts isn't evidence of a conspiracy against the Hoos, or of baked-in bias based on years of Virginia teams not drawing fouls. The game against Syracuse highlighted two points for me. First, the team’s reliance on jump shots continues. This is nothing ground breaking and I even addressed it earlier in the year, so I won't get into the numbers again. I'll only say that at this point in the ACC season only North Carolina has a higher percentage of two-point jump shot attempts. Second, and probably most telling is the way Virginia's players drive to the basket. The offense is based on movement and getting players into space, so even shots taken at the rim aren't necessarily designed to be in traffic. Even drives from Marial Shayok and Devon Hall come from the baseline or off of curls. The amount of contact drawn is incidental at most as the defender is content to allow the player to move away from or laterally to the basket. I'll admit, calls are missed every game. The refs aren't perfect as they miss 2-3 of these calls each game for both teams. So given the amount of few opportunities Virginia presents for the refs to make these calls, 2-3 calls a game seems egregious. I'll be interested to see going forward if Virginia appears to be attempting more drives, but until then I'll lay off the referee conspiracy theories.
What to watch for
1. Time to go to work - Wait, when did the calendar flip to February? The Hoos only have seven more games in the regular season. As it is, their resume is good, not great. They're only 5-5 against KenPom top 50 equivalent (KenPom rates games as "A" or "B" to adjust to game location) competition, so the Hoos will need to pile up those quailty wins if they want to be in the mix for a top seed come the NCAA Tournament. That starts this weekend with a trip to Cassell Coliseum where the Hoos will face an upset-minded Hokie team. Virginia got the better of its in-state rival in Charlottesville, but Virginia Tech is a much different team in Blacksburg.
Duke comes to town on Wednesday. Say what you will about the Blue Devils struggles this season, they still have one of the best, if not the best collections of talent in the country. They're fully healthy (including their Hall of Fame coach) and appear to be hitting on all cylinders. As with every game this time of year, a win puts Virginia that much closer to the ACC regular season title that all-important double-bye in the ACC Tournament.
Virginia and Virginia Tech tip off at 6:30 on Sunday on ESPNU. Then the Hoos and Blue Devils matchup for a 9:00 tip, Wednesday on ESPN2. Stay here for all your Virginia basketball coverage, and as always, Go Hoos!