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The Big Preview: Hoos face hot shooting UMass in Connecticut

Virginia looking to win its seventh straight November tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Vermont at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Virginia went to the Bahamas and won the Battle 4 Atlantis. That was probably a fun trip for the players. This year, they get to travel to … Connecticut. Nothing wrong with CT, but it’s definitely not the Bahamas. The Air Force Reserve Tip off Tournament also does not have the same quality in the field as the Battle 4 Atlantis did last season, but playing at the Mohegan Sun, which has a real arena and a WNBA franchise, might be better than playing in a converted ballroom.

The No. 7 Cavaliers are coming off their first test of the season, a close fought game against Vermont. Virginia held the Catamounts to 0.93 points per possession in a six point win. It wouldn’t have been nearly that close if not for Vermont going 12-for-34 from beyond the three point line. Most of that was Anthony Lamb, who shot 7-for-14 from downtown and scored 30 points.

UMass does not have an Anthony Lamb, but they have a number of guys who can knock down shots. Through four games, Virginia’s opponents are taking over 53% of their shots from beyond the arc. They are making just 27%. That’s not good. But opponents are making just 29.7% of their two-point shots, so the three ball is a slightly better bet. That seems to fit UMass very well, who have been one of the best shooting teams in the country early on.

They are led by freshman T.J. Weeks, who has made an absurd 17-of-27 from beyond the arc. Weeks does not start, but averages about 15 points per game and is taking well over half his shots from downtown. In total, four Minutemen are making over 40% of their shots on at least two attempts per game. Another is at 36%.

Three of the four leading scorers for the Minutemen are freshmen. That’s strange for a team that doesn’t have pro-level prospects leaving early. Just one of the top five scorers from last year return. Three others transferred out and another was ruled academically ineligible. The only real returner is Carl Pierre, last year’s second leading scorer. He leads the team in FGA this year, but he’s third in scoring.

This is not a team with much size. They have 6’10 Vanderbilt transfer Djery Baptiste and 6’9 freshman Tre Mitchell. Baptiste has played 16 and 23 minutes over the last two games, after just 24 minutes total in the first three. Baptiste has had a habit of getting into foul trouble in his career so far, and Mitchell has shown that early in his career. Mitchell is, arguably, the best player on the team. He can play inside, shoot the three, and is playing well on the defensive end. He was a four star prospect with offers from UConn and Notre Dame, among others. That’s a recruiting coup for Minutemen Head Coach Matt McCall.

Freshman PG Sean East has, quite frankly, been one of the most productive players in the nation so far. He’s averaging 12 points and seven assists per game, making 45% of his threes and 62% on his twos. He’s also averaging two steals per game. He’s got quite a bit of size on Clark of course, but that’s something Clark is used to. Clark’s ability to shut down East will be a big part of this game.

It’ll be interesting to see what Tony starts with. Against Vermont, Jay Huff got his first career start, in part because Kody Stattmann was unavailable. But the Hoos got off to a slow start, falling behind 7-0 and going nearly four minutes without scoring. Does it make more sense to move Huff back to the bench and put either Stattmann or Morsell back in the lineup?

If they go big, Tony needs to choose between Huff and Diakite to guard Mitchell, with the other guarding 6’7” sophomore Samba Diallo. Diallo isn’t a shooter, though he’s averaging ten points per game so far this year and has been dangerous going to the rack. Diallo likely has a significant quickness advantage on Huff, but obviously Mitchell is the better threat.

If Tony goes small, which matches up better with what UMass has, then Braxton Key may start the game on Mitchell. That will let Mamadi conserve his energy some. Later in the game, Mamadi can switch onto Mitchell if that’s necessary.

It’s possible that UMass is just riding some hot shooting and poor opposition to their 5-0 record and rise up the rankings. After all, this team was 11-21 last year with a home loss to #305 Howard. But this team is vastly different from last year’s, and the freshman class looks more talented than expected.

They still don’t have the talent of the Hoos, not to mention the height and the depth. The Minutemen struggle on the glass, and Virginia has very good down low players. On the perimeter, UMass is probably going to hit some threes. If the Hoos finally start knocking down their own threes, this game won’t be close. So far, Diakite, Clark, and Key have made 17 of the team’s 21 threes and done so at 40%. The rest of the team is 4/45 (9%). It may not matter for this one, or even for the next game (which will be Arizona State or St John’s), but it’s going to matter on December 4th when they travel to Purdue.

Game time is set for noon on ESPN News.