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The Big Basketball Preview: Coppin State at Virginia

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers are going from playing a Final Four team to playing one of the worst teams in college basketball (at least based on analytic rankings). Coppin State ranks 346th on KenPom, 317th on Bartovik and 321 on ESPN’s BPI.

Virginia has undoubtedly gotten off to a disappointing start. But that should not translate to any struggles against the Eagles. Especially since the Eagles are playing their seventh game in 11 days.

That said, the Eagles are coming off their first win of the season, a blowout win at home over Loyola of Maryland. They are 1-5 on the season, including a 103-45 drubbing at the hands of Loyola of Chicago. That’s not confusing at all. UCONN also beat them by 35.

Virginia, as you well know, is just 1-2 on the season. The loss to Houston was not a huge surprise, but the opening night loss to Navy was.

What is troubling about the struggles is that it isn’t just the offense that’s struggling. We knew, coming in, that points might be hard to come by. Virginia lost three-quarters of last year’s scoring. But the defense has been struggling as well. They are 256th nationally in effective-FG% defense (which accounts for three pointers and free throws). That is well below where Tony Bennett teams usually rank.

The three point defense has been bad. Virginia ranks 343rd in worst three point defense right now. Some of that is luck.

This is outstanding defense. This is a prayer, which was answered. Sometimes, you just aren’t getting the bounces.

But it isn’t all luck. Virginia plays with two PGs on the floor at almost all times. Both are undersized, even for PG. Kihei Clark, at 5’10” 170, is a good on-ball defender. But guys can just shoot over him.

This is Houston’s Marcus Sasser, who is 6’2”. He just calmly shoots over Kihei, with no threat of a real contest from Clark. Reece Beekman, also 6’2” guarded Sasser some, but that left Clark on 6’4” Kyler Edwards, who also shot right over Clark. That duo was 9/13 from downtown and scored 37 points. They answer may be fewer minutes with Clark and Beekman on the floor. Both are outstanding on-ball defenders, but both are going to struggle against bigger guards.

Thing is, even if Sasser and Edwards hadn’t gone off from downtown, Virginia still probably wouldn’t win. There just isn’t enough consistent offense right now. The team had six assists and 17 turnovers. Tony’s best teams have had about a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. This team is under 1, meaning there have been more TOs than assists. That is, in part, because the team just isn’t (or isn’t capable of) making shots.

Coppin State also can’t really make shots. They are shooting just 27% on three point attempts, but are 32nd in the nation in ratio of shots taken from three point range. That is not a good combination.

They play fast, and they play aggressively. About the only thing they do well offensively is get to the line. About the only thing they do well defensively is generate steals.

This is just too easy for UCONN’s big man. Virginia should be able to get that from their big men as well. Coppin State has no size. Their biggest guy is 6’9” 215 lb Remy Lemovou, and he rarely plays. He actually started against Greensboro, but then did not play against Loyola. Nine different players have started a game for Coppin State this year.

Their biggest real contributor is 6’8” 195 lb Daniel Titus. He plays the “five”. I don’t see him being very successful against 246 lb Jayden Gardner.

Jesse Zarzuela leads the team in FGA by a wide margin, but is shooting just 33% from the field. He is shooting under 20% from downtown, on seven attempts per game. That’s bad. Nendah Tarke is actually their best player and was MEAC rookie of the year last season. His brother Anthony also led the Eagles in scoring last year and is in the G-league now.

Coppin State very likely does not have the talent, size or depth to beat Virginia. But they were 10/28 from downtown last time out (including 0/7 from Zarzuela) in their win. If Virginia doesn’t do a better job of defending the three point line, Coppin State could get hot. If Virginia struggles to knock down shots, this game is closer than expected.