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The Big Preview: Virginia Gets Maine as a Warmup Before Purdue and UNC

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The Hoos shouldn’t struggle here.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Massachusetts David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers are 5-0, but several of those wins haven’t come easy. The main reason is the offense. This team does not have a “go-to” guy who can really create his own shot. Mamadi Diakite is the leading scorer, at 13.7 ppg, but Braxton Key, Casey Morsell and Jay Huff had all led the team in scoring at least once.

The Virginia offense currently ranked 65th in the nation in efficiency. That’s largely because of a lack of shooting. The team is ranked 341st in the nation in three point shooting and 287th in effective FG%. That’s what happens when the team’s top three scorers leave at once. Offense was always going to be a problem.

None of that is likely to matter in this one. The Maine Black Bears do not play defense. They rank 306th nationally in defensive efficiency. Last year, they ranked 311th. KenPom ranks Maine 316th overall. That’s not good. Last year, against similarly ranked Coppin State and Morgan State, Virginia won 97-40 and 83-45, respectively. Don’t expect that kind of output from this team. Still, their highest output (65) came against a JMU team ranked 221st in defensive efficiency. So, they’ll probably break 70. Eighty isn’t out of the question either. Especially with Casey Morsell breaking out on Sunday against Arizona State.

In case you didn’t see, this was the game winning shot. Morsell’s shot has looked funny. Some of his shots are line drives, some are high arcs, some are in the middle. Maybe he’s forcing things. Maybe he’s rushing his shot. Maybe he just doesn’t have a feel at the new length. Maybe the speed of the game has been getting to him. Against ASU, it wasn’t just the big jump shot. He was aggressive going to the rim.

This is a good opportunity for Morsell to keeping working on his game. You could say the same for Tomas Woldetensae and Kody Stattmann (if the Aussie swing man plays). Virginia badly needs one of these guys to step up and become a consistent perimeter threat.

Regardless of how many points Virginia is able to put up, they should cruise to an easy win because of their defense. Last year’s defense finished fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency. This year, they’re first by a comfortable margin so far. The eye test tells the same story. This may be the best defensive team of Tony Bennett’s Virginia tenure. Oh, and as bad as Maine’s defense is, their offense is worse. They rank 318th in offensive efficiency, a year after finishing 335th.

Maine actually has some size, which is strange for a low major team ranked this low. The starting lineup includes three players 6’7” or taller. According to KenPom, Maine is the 25th tallest team in the nation, based on minutes played.

That includes leading scorer Andrew Fleming, at 6’7” 222. He is nominally a power forward, but mostly a perimeter player. He’ll probably start the game with Braxton Key on him. Key is a good defender on the perimeter and can also body with Fleming down low. The other front court player is Nedeljko Prijovic, a Serbian who transferred in from Texas State. Prijovic is 10/18 from downtown in the early going this year. He was 16/70 coming into the season, so that seems unlikely to continue. However, he wouldn’t be the first player to spend his redshirt year (after the transfer) shooting and becoming a better outside shooter. Prijovic is the third leading scorer and the leading rebounder. He might be the most important player in this matchup.

Starting PG Sergio El Darwich is 6’4” 205, giving him a big mismatch over Kihei Clark. He is the second leading scorer, and also averages almost six rebounds per game. The trio of Fleming, Prijovic and El Darwich rarely come off the court. They have taken almost 60% of the teams shot and scored two-thirds of their points. Stop those three and you’ve stopped the Black Bears.

Virginia will have little trouble stopping the Maine offense, and shouldn’t have much trouble scoring against their defense. But putting in a good effort is important, because things are about to get a lot tougher. The Hoos get a week off following this game, but then travel to Indiana to face Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and then return home to face UNC on Sunday December 8th.