If you had told me at the beginning of the week that the Hoos would go 1-1 on their road trip to South Bend then Philadelphia to play games against elite competition, I’d probably have taken it. However, after running away from Notre Dame and building a sizable second-half lead against Villanova, 1-1 seems a bit of a let down. But, all is still well in Hooville, as losing on the home floor of the #1 team in the country on a buzzer-beater is nothing sneeze. Add to that the carnage that happened in the league and the Hoos now find themselves at the top of the ACC standings after their fifth straight conference win. It’s still a long way to go, but this team, after answering some early season questions is playing like one of the top teams in the ACC. Let’s take at the good and the bad from last week, and what to watch for looking ahead...From the Rafters.
- Jerome is vindicated - I was tempted to use Bill Raftery’s famous “send it in, Jerome” call from PItt’s Jerome Lane’s 1988 backboard shattering dunk, but after hearing it about 2,371 times during Sunday’s call, I thought I’d spare you all. But that doesn’t diminish the amazing week Virginia’s Ty Jerome put in last week. In two games, the freshman scored 23 points on 9-13 shooting and 5-9 from three. But just as much as the total, it was the timing of his buckets. At South Bend, all eight of his points came with under eight minutes to go into the game and coincided with Virginia outscoring the Irish 21-10 to end the game. From there, in Philadelphia, Jerome asserted himself into the game hitting two early threes allowing Virginia to pull ahead of Villanova in the first half. One of the two threes probably came from Independence Hall. Finally, it was Jerome who was the go-to Hoo late in the game and almost did enough to will the Hoos to a victory. It’s an encouraging development as it gives Bennett another weapon in the back court and shows teams you have to account for much more than London Perrantes.
- Three point defense - Anyone who has read From the Rafters knows I don’t believe in three point defense. The pack line is predicated on forcing contested jumpers late in the shot clock and sometimes those shots just go in. It’s why I wasn’t too concerned when Pitt shot 63% from three, or when Dwayne Bacon dropped 28 on the Hoos. What was most encouraging in both those games was that Virginia basically kept their opponent out of the paint, thus keeping the defense in tact, and forcing the offense into contested looks. That effort continued against Notre Dame and Villanova. The Hoos held their opponents to 16% and 43% respectively from three, and did so while keeping the opposition out of the paint. Against Notre Dame, Bonzi Colson was incredible, but established his post position just inside the foul line as opposed to down low thus keeping the defense from having to collapse. Against Villanova, outside of some nifty driving from Jalen Brunson (more on that below) Villanova had no inside game. That left them dependent on the outside shot and and in the first half they were extremely cold. You get the feeling that the suffocating defense from earlier in the year is much more the rule and the games against Pitt are the exception. If that is the case Virginia will be very dangerous going forward
- Isaiah Wilkins - Front-court scoring this year for the Hoos has been such a struggle, it was nice to see the “points in the paint” graphic significantly favor the Hoos Sunday against Villanova. But it wasn't just against Villanova. Earlier in the week, Wilkins was just shy of a double double against Notre Dame putting up 13 points and nine rebounds shining at the free throw line. He followed that up with a 12 points and eight boards against the Wildcats. Then in a matchup with the Hokies, he put a cap on a fantastic week scoring a career-high 15 points to go along with nine rebounds. He’s been on fire recently, giving the Hoos a much needed front-court scoring option. It’s been welcome sign that the ball is going through Wilkins, and he has delivered.
- Point guard penetration - On Sunday, Villanova was able to overcome a poor first half shooting percentage by taking advantage of one of the only chinks in the pack line armor. Jalen Brunson was able to get into the lane almost at will and though he didn’t finish at the rim, drew four first half fouls and made six of seven free throws. It was the type of effort reminiscent of some of Virginia’s past struggles against quick, skilled guards. Seth Allen for Maryland in 2014 and Travis Trice from Michigan State in 2015 come to mind. What those performances have in common with Sunday is that the point guard is very good, but the second or third option on a team. Against Maryland, the focus of the defense was Dezmine Wells and against Michigan State it was Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine. On Sunday, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins demanded much of the attention, so Brunson was able to have a little more freedom. Luckily, the rest of the way, the Hoos won’t face a large amount of opponents with the same makeup, though Joel Berry from UNC and Matt Jones from Duke come to mind. The matchups in those games going forward will be worth watching and seeing if Virginia can clamp down the penetration will be interesting.
What to Watch For
- Payback? - First and foremost, until these two teams meet in the Elite Eight or further, a win over the Orange won’t come anywhere close to exacting revenge. That being said a win over Syracuse Saturday would be more than trivial helping exorcising some of those March demons. Syracuse is somewhat down this year, but has been coming around as of late, looking to make another March push. Plus playing in the Carrier Dome is always a formidable task. The Hoos have been road warriors so far, and will look to add another win away from home and stay near top of the ACC standings.
- Big Monday - In their short time in the ACC, the narrative has developed that Louisville just can't beat the Hoos. Since joining the ACC, Louisville is 1-4 against the Hoos, and the last three weren't even close. But don't think that this one will be easy. Louisville might be the best team in the ACC at the moment, and with Donovan Mitchell playing at a high level, the Cardinals might have the offensive threat they usually lack against the Hoos. The winner gains a huge advantage in the ACC standings, while Virginia would own a significant tie-break.
The weekend sees Virginia traveling north to Syracuse in a game that starts at Noon on ESPN2. Then in a quick turnaround, the Hoos and the Cardinals tip at 7 P.M. Monday night on ESPN. Stay with Streaking the Lawn for all of you Virginia basketball coverage and as always, Go Hoos!