It’s been three days since Virginia’s season ended with a disappointing 65-39 shellacking at the hands of the Florida Gators. A good time to take some stock in the game, the season, and where the Hoos go from here. I’m going to switch it up a bit, but here’s a look at the bad, the good, and what to watch for...From the Rafters.
- The floor is just the floor - I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the “ceiling is the roof” for this year’s Cavalier team, but it certainly was Final Four caliber. However, unlike the three Virginia teams that preceded this one, the floor was exactly what we saw on Saturday night. It wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this floor: at Virginia Tech in the second half, at UNC, home against Miami, against Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament. Too many times this season the offense just disappeared. For Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Devon Hall to all go scoreless, it’s almost mind-boggling, but perhaps not surprising. Virginia became a one-dimensional team almost from the get-go. Teams realized that if you extended out and pressured Virginia’s jump shooters, they could slow down the Cavaliers. The offense felt as if it lost its rhythm, became too predictable, reliant on jump shots. Compared to last year, Virginia’s percentage of field goal attempts as jump shots increased from 62% to 65%. On their remaining shots at the rim, they only converted on 60% as opposed to 68%. That’s a significant number of easy buckets and a decent remedy for a cold shooting night. But on a night when Virginia’s biggest low-post scoring threat was out of the game with an illness, they couldn’t afford to go cold. But that is exactly what they got.
- Inside the paint - Going back to the stat above, Virginia has struggled significantly on the limited number of attempts they tried at the rim and Saturday was no exception. However, the game plan against Florida was to take advantage of John Egbunu’s absence by taking the ball to the hoop. And in the beginning it worked as evidenced by Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite leading Virginia in scoring with nine and eight points respectively. The issue with that is the personnel on this Cavalier squad isn’t suited to playing that style of game. Having Salt and Diakite lead the team in scoring is not a winning formula for this team, and the backcourt isn't suited to score at the rim either. Virginia’s guards are much better moving off the ball and scoring off jumpers or via back door cuts for easy lay ins void of traffic. On Saturday, we saw the ball forced into the post, only to have Salt miss the handle, or one of the guards struggle to drive to the basket in isolation. In one particular stretch in the second half, four straight possessions featured drives by Marial Shayok, Darius Thompson, Kyle Guy, and London Perrantes. Those four drives netted just two points off a pair of Perrantes free throws. The other three attempts weren't even close. With the players going cold from outside, I’m not sure there was a better solution than to try score inside, but when the game plan centers around an offensive deficiency, maybe the game was over before it began.
- Some perspective - I graduated from The University in 2005, so I had the pleasure of witnessing the fall of the Pete Gillen era in all of its splendor. It was my first year when I believed that program hit its peak, up by 10 points against Maryland with three minutes to go in a top-five clash before it all started to fall. The Hoos would end up losing that game, going 7-9 in the ACC regular season, and after a quick exit at the hands of NC State in the ACC Tournament, missed the NCAA Tournament altogether. While the next three years provided a few upsets over top-25 competition and a few Todd Billet game-winning buzzer beaters, there wasn’t much to get excited about. The next eight years would feature just two NCAA Tournament appearances, though there was that near-win in the CBI Championship to energize the fan base. Fast forward to today and this program has been to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, won a game in each of them, and is showing no signs of turning back. It’s a testament to the level success this team has achieved that despite losing to a team seeded higher than them, their result comes as something of a surprise. The national media draws attention to the early exits, not because they don’t like Virginia, but because they’re shocked they haven’t gone further. Frankly, I don’t look at that as a knock, rather a sign of respect. Now come January and February, we fans aren’t tuned to every Tuesday’s release of “Bubble Watch” rather we’re talking about how the team gets the double bye in the ACC Tournament and tracking their projected seed in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a great place to be and a far cry from just about every other era in Virginia Basketball history.
What to watch for
- Lineup questions - It’s the nature of the college game that when that buzzer sounds on a team’s final game, it’s time to start looking to next year. Luckily for Virginia, next year’s team is going to look a lot like this year’s team. Perhaps unlucky for Virginia, next year’s team is going to look at lot like this year’s team. We’ll say goodbye to Perrantes and wish him luck in his professional future. Then we’ll see a team that still lacks a go to scorer, a low post scoring threat, and guards who can create off the dribble and get to the hoop. What we know will return is an elite defensive team who returns all its key pieces and hopes for a year of improvement from Guy and Jerome in particular. I think Hall and/or Shayok have the ability to become a go-to scorer, Jerome can effectively lead the offense, while Guy can fill it up playing off the ball. Here’s hoping that the medical staff can figure out what is ailing Isaiah Wilkins (three weeks of this is downright scary for his overall health much less his basketball future), and he can return to provide leadership, energy, and low-post scoring. Then there are the big (literally) questions of who emerges from the group of Salt, Diakite, Jarred Reuter, and Jay Huff as the starter at the five. Expect Coach Jason Williford to spend every possible moment (as allowable by the NCAA) working with his bigs on their offensive games. Then there’s the unsung work of Mike Curtis. I’d expect significant gains in effective size from Huff, Guy, Jerome, and Deandre Hunter. Remember, these guys stepped on Grounds in late June, had basketball specific practices right away, then traveled with the team to Spain. I’m excited to see what Curtis can do with a full off season working with these guys. One thing about this program I am certain of is that Bennett’s players improve from year to year. How much the improve this off season will determine if this team can regain it’s place as one of the nation’s elite or if this year was a sign of things to come.
- The lone scholarship - On Monday night’s radio call in show, Tony Bennett made it very clear that Austin Nichols won’t be returning to the team next year. Over the last several months there had been rumors swirling that he had a set of expectations, that if satisfied, could signal his return to the team. However, Bennett was pretty emphatic when he stated, “Austin will not be back next year.” He added, “That’s about as clear as I can be on that.” Right coach, got it. But now what about his scholarship? The high school recruiting season is all but over for the 2017 year and part of Virginia’s inactivity in that arena fueled some of the Nichols speculation. No, this team will probably be looking at the transfer market. Virginia has had success with transfers in the past in Anthony Gill and Darius Thompson. But this team probably won’t be looking to have a guy sit out a year which would be Bennett’s preference to allow for acclimation to the defense. This team needs some help now, and given Nichols’ scholarship is for the 2018 graduation year, look for a transfer to come in who has already graduated from his initial school. While it’s not ideal, I am confident Bennett and his staff can find the right kind of player and person to fit this program going forward. The transfer season will heat up in April, so stay tuned.
Despite the ups and down it’s been a fun season From the Rafters. Stay tuned to Streaking the Lawn for all of your offseason basketball coverage as well all the spring sports action from Davenport, Klockner, and the Snyder Tennis Center. And as always, Go Hoos!