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The Big Basketball Preview: Fairleigh Dickinson at Virginia

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

Following exam break, Virginia Cavaliers Basketball gets back on the court for their final non-conference game, facing the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights. The Wahoos are certainly not where they, or their fans, expected to be at this point. That goes both for the 6-4 record and the quality of play on the court. Although there have been bright spots, overall Virginia has been mediocre on both ends of the court. A strong performance here would help with confidence heading into the ACC season.

Fairleigh Dickinson may be a good opponent for that, as they are 0-9 on the season with just one loss by fewer than 10 points. This team lost to Seton Hall by 44 and to LaSalle by 26. And, since Virginia’s offensive struggles are so notable, let’s note that the Knights rank 346th in the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. That’s not good.

There’s really no size on this team, so Virginia should have their way inside. Ten different players have started a game for the Knights this year, and just two of them stand taller than 6’7” while just three of them weigh more than 200 lbs (and only one fits both categories).

FDU’s leading scorer is Brandon Rush (no relation to the former Kansas and NBA player with the same name). He averages 14 points per game, but shoots just 37% from the field. Last season, Rush attempted more than half of his shots from downtown and knocked down 42% of them. So far this year, he’s at just 30% and it’s killing his overall efficiency. Rush made just 2 of his first 12 attempts this season, facing the best competition he has faced. Against “lesser” competition, he’s knocked down 9 of 24 (38%). He’s shooting fewer threes this season, focusing on getting to the rim and on drawing fouls.

Their second leading scorer is Devon Dunn, who is similar to Rush, but a better shooter. Over two seasons, Dunn has taken nearly 70% of his shots from downtown and made over 40% of those. Like Rush, Dunn is capable of getting to the rack, but that is not his preference.

The duo of Rush and Dunn alternate between point guard duties and off-the-ball roles. Both are capable, but both are turnover prone and take too many poor shots. They aren’t the only ones though. Of ten players averaging over ten minutes per game, seven are shooting under 40% from the field. One, Antoine Jacks

Defense is really the bigger problem for the Knights. They give up far too many easy buckets and transition points due to turnovers. And they are terrible on the glass, allowing opponents to grab 35% of their own misses. Even if the halfcourt though, their defense is poor.

Look how far Joe Munden ends up away from his man. He tries to get back for the contest, but it’s half-hearted. And Munden is out there for his defense and energy. He’s certainly not out there for his offense, as he averages just four points per game on 32% shooting (and that includes 3/6 from downtown).

Along with Dunn and Rush, the top two players for FDU are big man John Square, Jr and wing Sebastien Lamaute. Lamaute is an excellent shooter (10/21 from downtown although he has missed his last five attempts and has struggled against better opponents. He’s also one of the better defenders on the team. Square is 6’6” 195, but is the best interior player for the Knights. He leads the team in rebounds and shoots 60% from the field.

Even this somewhat diminished Virginia team should not be troubled by a team like Fairleigh Dickinson. However, that could also have been said for Pitt and JMU, Virginia’s last two opponents, both of whom gave Virginia trouble. Both teams packed the middle and tried to force Virginia to shoot three pointers, a strategy that Virginia is likely to see quite a bit of going forward.

Despite the struggles in both games, Virginia had late leads. That was true against Iowa as well. In all three games, Virginia could not get key stops to hold that lead.

This is the Iowa game. Shedrick doesn’t quite get outside to hedge on the screen, which allows the ballhandler to turn toward the paint. Neither Beekman nor Shedrick really commit to stopping the ball, as both are caught between the screener and the ball. What is the issue here? Is this an issue with scheme? Communication?

This was the would-be winner from Pitt, prior to Jayden Garder’s heroics. We’ve seen this before, there is a lot of scrambling around defensively, culminating in Kadin Shedrick trying to get from the paint to the three point line to contest a shot. Again, I can’t imagine this is how Tony drew it up.

Finally, this is the game winner against JMU. In this case, it’s actually pretty good defense from Gardner, just a better shot from Takal Molson. The real question is why Gardner is guarding Molson in this situation. Molson had a similar look on the very next possession to help put the game away for the Dukes. Again, with Gardner on him, and again playing solid defense. JMU went small, with four perimeter players on the floor, forcing Virginia to put Gardner on a wing. That’s not his comfort zone, although again, it’s solid defense.

The mismatch likely drives JMU’s decision to attack with Molson. But that’s not the only mismatch out there. If you look closely, Shedrick is out on the perimeter guarding JMU’s PG, Vado Morse. And Reece Beekman is on the inside against JMU big man Justin Amadi. How does that make sense? Molson is JMU’s leading scorer, why is he guarded by Virginia’s power forward? Amadi is their top interior player, why is he guarded by a 6’2” point guard? You may also notice that Amadi has great position down low, and was in position for an offensive rebound had the initial shot missed. This is not surprising considering the mismatch.

It seems as though Virginia is doing more switching defensively than in past years. But that is causing mismatches and open shooters as the defenders scramble around.

We assume youngsters Igor Milicic and Taine Murray aren’t getting more playing time because their defense isn’t where Tony wants. That’s nothing new for a Tony Bennett coached team. But if the starters can’t get key stops late in games, then what’s the point of playing for defense. A 6’10” shooter who seems to have a good feel for the game and also works the boards? Yes please. Milicic played three minutes against JMU, in a game that Virginia scored 0.83 points per possession. Free Milicic!

Virginia should roll in this one, but it’ll be closer than it should be.