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Battle of the Breakthroughs: Would the 2018 Virginia Cavaliers beat the 2014 Virginia Cavaliers?

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Proven NBA talent against top-10 recruiting class

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Bennett’s tenure as head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers has been marked by accomplishing a series of firsts—or at least first-in-a-whiles.

The new #1 ranking for the Hoos is the latest, reaching AP Poll heights unseen in Charlottesville since the halcyon Sampson era.

But the first of the firsts, and still considered the biggest to date in some quarters, was UVA’s 2014 ACC Tournament championship: only the second in program history, and 38 years after the Miracle in Landover.

As we assess just how good this current Cavalier squad is, and what their prospects could be for the rest of the year, we got to thinking: What if these two ceiling-busters faced off?

Here’s our best argument for each side.

The Case for 2014

Malcolm. Joe. Justin. Akil. This was the crew of guys that became all-caps, bold letter NAMES for UVA basketball fans. Harris would finish his career 11th in all-time scoring, and second in both three-point makes and three-point percentage. When Cleveland picked him 33rd in that year’s draft, it kicked off three straight years of Hoos being drafted—the first such stretch since a five-year run from 1981 to 1985. Anderson became the first first-round pick out of UVA since Cory Alexander twenty years earlier. And Brogdon, of course, won NBA Rookie of the Year.

The 2014 team had depth. Know who I didn’t mention in that big four? A freshman point guard who was twice named to All-ACC teams (London Perrantes). An ACC Defensive Player of the Year (Darion Atkins). A player who would lead the team in rebounding and be named to the conference All-Defensive team (Anthony Gill). And the all-time Zinburger scoring champion (Mike Tobey).

This team had a killer instinct, too. They whooped North Carolina by 15. They OBLITERATED Syracuse to sew up the regular-season title. Even Duke looked hard-pressed to keep the ACC Tournament finals within striking distance.

The Case for 2018

Call me crazy, but there might be at least as much NBA talent on the 2018 Virginia roster. Kyle Guy is the program’s first McDonald’s All-American since 2008. Ty Jerome and Jay Huff were also top-100 recruits in their class, and DeAndre Hunter is already getting buzz as a potential first-round pick in 2019. Add to that a five-star, springy, high-upside big named Mamadi Diakite and a super-efficient five-year guy in Devon Hall.

Signature wins are also plentiful for today’s Hoos. The triumph at Cameron Indoor sticks as the obvious highlight, but a 15-point neutral-court dismantling of an increasingly impressive Rhode Island squad shouldn't be overlooked. Nor should holding Clemson—a team ranked 11th in the country this week—to just 36 points, or spanking Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.

And that’s been the difference-maker for 2018’s squad: that stifling, historically stingy defense. The national KenPom average efficiency for 2014 (105.1) and 2018 (105.7) are about the same. But 2018 UVA’s adjusted defensive efficiency is five-and-a-half points better: 82.8 to 88.3. All of that against teams that combine to be the 13th toughest offensive schedule in the country.

Our Judgment

This hypothetical matchup, like Jay Huff’s playing time, comes down to matchups. And maybe it’s just the sparkle of so many completed careers, but that edge goes to the 2014 squad.

Say you’re 2018 Tony Bennett, and you’ve got to decide who to put your shutdown defenders on. Isaiah Wilkins goes against Gill, and that’s a battle for the ages. But then what do you do on the perimeter? Does Hall go on Brogdon or Harris? My guess is Brogdon—the better slasher—with Jerome trying to stick close enough in Harris’ pocket to disrupt his jumper.

But that puts Guy on Perrantes, giving the 2014 team the tool that most quickly gets the Pack Line defense in trouble: an opponent with a quickness advantage playing point. Nigel Johnson could come off the bench if needed, and Perrantes wasn’t a major component of the offense his first year. That’s where 2018 Bennett would lose sleep, though.

2018 Virginia would have some advantages. The modern Hoos’ ability to create turnovers blows the old Hoos out of the water. And the 2014 team was not a great free-throw shooting squad; despite the end-of-game foibles against VPISU, Virginia is shooting better than 76 percent as a team in 2018.

Bottom line, this would be super fun to watch. (#NotBoring.) Jack Salt on sophomore-year Tobey may not be an offensive juggernaut, but picture this matchup of bench players: DeAndre Hunter on Justin Anderson. Yeah. The bench celebration game would be on-point too; Evan Nolte could teach today’s young’uns a thing or two.

While 2014 UVA might have the edge in our book, here’s hoping 2018 UVA finishes with a resume that’s got two extra lines—and one last, BIG breakthrough.