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The Big Preview: Virginia Looks to Extend Hot Streak in Pittsburgh

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NCAA Basketball: Boston College at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With just five remaining games in the regular season, the Virginia Cavaliers currently sit in fourth place, with a two-game lead over NC State for the ACC Tournament’s coveted double-bye. Two remaining games are at home against the top two teams in the ACC while the other three are road games against the 11th, 12th and 13th teams in the ACC, including this afternoon’s contest against the Pittsburgh Panthers.

A season opener over Florida State remains the high point of Pitt’s season, with a win over Rutgers or the two wins over a hapless UNC coming in second. They’ve also lost at home to Wake Forest and Notre Dame.

This Pitt team is remarkably young, with three underclassmen combining to take 56% of the team’s shots but scoring about 55% of their points. As you might expect, you’d like that second number to be higher than the first. Freshman Justin Champagnie leads the trio at 42% from the field. Sophomores Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowans are both at 36%. As a team, the Panthers rank 331st nationally in effective FG%. (The Hoos are only 279th.) Champagnie leads the team in scoring and in shots, but he somehow has just 14 assists on the season. His assist rate of 3.9% is lower than Jack Salt’s was last year. His turnover rate is also low. He’s what’s called a black hole.

As a whole, though, their offense isn’t terribly, and what they lack in shooting percentage, they make up in the ability to find ways to score. All three of those guys are adept at getting to the rim. That causes defenses to help, and that leads to fouls—89th nationally in FT Rate—and it opens up the lane for offensive rebounds (they’re 38th nationally in offensive rebounding). The problems happen when they get three-happy.

Teams that rely on FTs and offensive boards aren’t generally going to do very well against the Hoos. Virginia is 24th nationally on the defensive glass and 14th nationally in lowest opposition FT rate. In other words, Pitt is going to have to knock down some tough shots to score against Virginia. Not good for a team that can’t shoot.

Here’s an example of how the drive opens the lane. Johnson drives into the lane, causing UNC’s big men to help. That leaves Hamilton alone for an easy layup.

Johnson and McGowan basically split PG duties. They both run a lot of pick n’ roll or pick n’ pop action. They’ll look to drive and either score or kick.

Those ballhandlers can also just score in isolation.

That’s Johnson beating his man to the rack, but all four wings are capable of doing damage in those situations. Of course, isolations are tough against the Pack Line, which is designed to prevent that. Johnson will likely have Kihei Clark on him, so he’s not going to get those chances.

They don’t play a whole lot faster than Virginia, but they will get out and run on occasion. In those cases, they like to look for transition threes for the open look. Charlotte transfer Ryan Murphy is the primary beneficiary of those looks. He leads the team at about 35%, but shot 40% as a freshman at Charlotte.

Murphy isn’t just transition threes. He’s a legit shooter.

This is the kind of look Virginia fans were used to seeing from Kyle Guy. Murphy may not be on Guy’s level, but he can shoot.

The final member of the rotation is sophomore Au’Diese Toney. He’s fourth on the team in shots and scoring, but might actually be the best offensive player on the team. He’s very athletic and he also shoots 31% (not great, but better than most of his teammates). Among the wings, Toney leads in FG% and a lot of that is these types of finishes.

Virginia’s had a strong road game under Tony Bennett, and while just 4-4 this year, their only bad road loss was to BC in the middle of a rough patch on the season. The Cavaliers are better now, they’re more consistent, and they are absolutely expected to lock this one down.