The first quarter of the Virginia Cavaliers’ out-of-conference season is over, with the Hoos starting by easily dispatching Towson, George Washington, and Coppin State. Next up, the team heads to the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, where they will start off against Middle Tennessee State - the full bracket is here.
But first, here are three takeaways from the season’s first three games:
1) Context is important - the team has yet to meet a real challenge
My first takeaway: Don’t take away too much. UVA’s strength-of-schedule clocks in inside the bottom ten in the nation on KenPom to date, with the team’s opponents combining to go 0-13 against D-I competition to date. Virginia, like all other teams, has tended to play cupcakes early in the season, but this year’s schedule is especially soft.
Could Virginia’s offense, averaging 1.32 PPP (4th in the nation) be Tony Bennett’s best yet? It’s possible. But we should probably wait until UVA sees a defense inside the top 200 to make any big conclusions.
Going forward, it will be important for UVA to make the most of the limited opportunities it has against quality competition (primarily this week in the Bahamas and in upcoming games at Maryland and South Carolina) to both prepare for the rigors of conference play and to have some bullet points on the resume come March.
2) Braxton Key and Kihei Clark will be significant contributors
Coming into this season, depth was a major concern. Two relative unknowns, Key and Clark, have made a big impact in the team’s first three games, with Key starting each game and Clark averaging 24 minutes. Both are sturdy defenders with the potential to pester opposing guards. Offensively, Clark has dished out 11 assists to date and both players have been sturdy with the ball.
Importantly, they have also shown keen awareness of their roles. Hunter, Jerome, and Guy have been extraordinarily efficient (eFG%s of 68%, 90%, and 62%, respectively) and should be the players taking the most shots; to date, they have. If Clark and Key can spell that trio, facilitate their open looks by breaking down the defense, make baskets when given the opportunity, and play stellar defense on the other end, they’ll have more than done their jobs.
3) Rebounding and getting to the free-throw line once again look like weaknesses
Last year, Virginia finished with a FT rate of .25 FT/FGA, sixth-worst in the nation (an identical spot as they were in the prior season). Thus far, the Hoos are 280th at .28 FT/FGA. The team would be in better position to weather inevitable shooting cold-streaks if they were more aggressive into contact. De’Andre Hunter showed flashes of the ability last season, and takes about 60% of his shots at the rim, but it would be useful if Diakite, Salt, and Huff could develop it as well.
After four seasons finishing in the top 25 in the nation in defensive rebounding, UVA dropped last year to 49th and lost its best rebounder in Isaiah Wilkins. This year, it is 46th to date, and Braxton Key and De’Andre Hunter lead the team in DReb%. It’s great to have strong rebounding guards, but the team’s frontcourt has lagged in this category to date and may be susceptible to teams that excel in offensive rebounding like UNC and Duke.