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The Big Basketball Preview: Pitt at Virginia

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Virginia Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Basketball came oh-so-close to a big win over Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They’ve certainly improved dramatically since the season opening loss to Navy and the blowout against Houston. Still, a 5-3 record at this point was not what fans were hoping for and could cause problems come NCAA tourney time unless Virginia crushes their ACC schedule.

That ACC schedule begins at JPJ with a game against the Pitt Panthers, who sit at 2-4 with home losses to The Citadel (KenPom: 207) and UMBC (205). They have beaten UNC Wilmington (282) and Towson (180). This may be the worst major conference team in the nation.

Virginia handled Pitt 73-66 last season behind 23 points from Sam Hauser. Tony Bennett has owned Pitt through three different coaches. Under Bennett, Virginia has a 10-1 record against Pitt, with the one loss coming on the road in overtime.

The Panthers were solid last year, with Xavier Johnson, Justin Champagnie, Au’Diese Toney each over 14 ppg. All three of those guys are gone to transfer. In fact, Jeff Capel III lost his top six scorers and nearly 80% of last year’s minutes. In light of all that, it is not surprising they are struggling. They played well against Minnesota on Tuesday in a one point loss.

Their leading scorer this season is 6’9” 280 lb sophomore John Hugley. The big man averaged 5 and 4 last season in 15 minutes over the first seven games of the season, but then was suspended for the rest of the season. He played at 240 lb last year, so the time off may not have been great for his physique. Still, he’s averaging 16 and 8 and leads the team in FGA. Hugley is coming off a 25 point/14 rebound game against the Golden Gophers on Tuesday.

A lot of those 25 points came on plays like this. If Hugley isn’t picked up quickly in the front court, he’s going to get position. Once he does, he’s basically impossible to stop. The extra weight he’s carrying does not seem to be impacting his ability to get up and down the floor. Pitt is going to go as far as Hugley can take them. Even with his monster performance, they couldn’t topple a mediocre Minnesota team.

Pitt won’t run much, but they will push in secondary transition. That’s how Hugley is often able to get early position down low. Expect Virginia to run the post trap on Hugley. That should help limit his touches, but it also will force him to get rid of the basketball, and may generate some turnovers. Turnovers have been a problem for the Panthers, who rank near the bottom of the nation with almost 25% of their possessions ending in TOs.

Hugley can also knock down the outside shot, though he’s just 2-10 for the season. This shot was right at the end of the first half, but the pick-and-pop is something we may see from Pitt. As a team, Pitt is shooting just 26% from three, which is very poor.

Hugley isn’t all they have, of course. Femi Odukale played sparingly last season, but is now the starter at PG and is averaging 12 points, 4 rebounds and 4 dimes. He also averages almost 4 turnovers per game, which highlights a problem Pitt has. Odukale is a 6’5” PG, so he could provide a matchup problem for the Hoos. As a team, Pitt has a lot of size. The starting lineup against Minnesota averaged 6’7” and 218 lbs. Virginia’s starters average just 6’4” and 207 lbs.

Coming into the season, we heard that Jayden Gardner could step out and shoot the outside shot. Through the first seven games, we had not seen that at all. But then, on Tuesday, Gardner knocked down two outside shots.

Gardner is open and has space, so he took the shot. This shot should be available against Pitt. Their big men do not want to step out to defend on the perimeter.

This is Hugley. Perhaps he doesn’t expect the UMBC big to shoot that shot. But that big man has taken more than half his shots from downtown for his career. So either he isn’t aware of the scouting report (which is a coaching problem) or he’s just lazy. UMBC won that game, knocking down 14-31 (45%) from downtown. Apologies if that brings back bad memories.

Another big for Pitt is Mouhamadou Gueye (pronounced “Ghee”), a transfer from Stonybrook who has been heavily involved in the offense when he’s on the floor. Gueye is also the only interior defensive presence on the team. Odukale is second on the team in blocked shots.

The wings are Jamarius Burton (a transfer from Texas Tech), William Jeffress and freshman Nate Santos. Burton also acts as the backup PG, and is third on the team in scoring and second in assists. Jeffress and Santos have combined to take 55% of their shots from downtown and are shooting 24% on those shots. The duo is shooting a combined 34% from the field. Adding in Burton (2-12 or 17% from downtown) and you’ve highlighted the main weakness of this team; there just aren’t enough shooters to surround Hugley with, and that makes it tough for the big man to get good looks down low.

The Minnesota game was, probably, the best Pitt has played this season. And they still ended up well below 1 point per possession. Simply put, this is not a very good team right now. Although there’s talent (most notably Hugley), the pieces don’t fit together. There isn’t a real PG (Odukale and Burton are both more comfortable off the ball), and Hugley is the only real inside presence they have.

The Panthers are better defensively than they are offensively, and combined with their size in the backcourt, that may cause Virginia some problems. But we saw the Hoos start to change things up offensively. We saw more pick-and-roll from Virginia, and much better ball movement. Check out this beautiful possession.

Yes, the shot missed. But all that movement caused Iowa to be out of rotation, and gave Igor Milicic a lane for the offensive rebound and putback. Maybe some of these changes were due to the game situation (being down big entering the second half), but the offense looked a lot more effective and dangerous.

If that continues, watch out ACC. DraftKings Sportsbook has the Hoos favored by 13.5, and Virginia should cruise in this one.