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The Big Preview: Virginia Returns Home to Face Pitt

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 09 Virginia at Boston College Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With this week’s win over NC State, along with losses from Virginia Tech and FSU, Virginia now has a 1.5 game lead in the ACC standings. It seems like most ACC teams will not play a full 20 game conference schedule due to CoVID-19 related schedule changes, and it seems like Virginia may miss out on some home games (as currently scheduled, Virginia will play 9/17 ACC games on the road). So getting those big road wins is very important. Both VT and FSU lost tough road games this week.

Virginia Tech’s loss came to this very same Pittsburgh team that faces Virginia on Saturday at JPJ. Yes, this is a home game for the Hoos , but Virginia needs to be wary of this Pitt team.

Sophomore Justin Champagnie leads the Panthers in scoring and has been one of the best players in the ACC this year, leading the conference in both scoring (over 19 per game) and rebounds (over 12 per game). Certainly, the pace at which Pitt plays helps him generate those raw stats, but his rate stats are all pretty good. He’s among the ACC leaders in almost everything, from rebound rate to turnover rate to three point shooting.

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That last one is probably most important. Last year, he made just 26% and this year he’s up to 38%. He’s very dangerous off the dribble, so when he’s knocking down the three, defenders can’t play off him.

At 6’6” 200 and usually playing the 4, Champagnie is exactly the type of player who has given Virginia fits this season. Go back all the way to Wednesday’s game against NC State when Jericole Hellems scored 23 of his team’s 57 points. Hellems beat Virginia from outside, from mid-range and off the bounce. Virginia will have to be better against Champagnie.

Here’s the first bucket of the game. Hellems sets a screen, but slips the screen. Hauser is way out of position and can’t get back to contest that shot. Pitt will try similar looks on the perimeter and Hauser needs to be better. Beekman could also make that pass more difficult for the ball-handler.

This is better from Hauser, but Hellems is too good and is able to get Hauser off balance. Champagnie is even better. Hauser will have to be strong on the defensive end. The video of Champagnie above shows what he can do against a lazy closeout.

Of course, Champagnie isn’t the only player on the team. He’s also not the only Panther leading the ACC in something. PG Xavier Johnson leads the ACC in assists and is fourth in the nation in assist rate.

What Pitt lacks is any real interior presence. The tallest member of the rotation is 6’10” senior Terrell Brown. But Brown’s minutes are way down from previous years. Against Virginia Tech on Wednesday, Brown played just 12 minutes, did not attempt a shot and recorded one rebound and three fouls. Might he play more against a bigger Virginia team? Or will Jeff Capel choose to go small in the hopes of exploiting mismatches against the Pack Line?

Virginia Tech’s Keve Aluma built on his strong play against Virginia, going for 30 against Pitt. Here, the Hokies run a designed play to get him the ball inside. Virginia can do similar things for both Hauser and Huff. If Brown plays, he might have a chance of getting a stop down there. But Pitt’s starting big man, Abdoul Karim Coulibaly is 6’8” 215 and simply is not going to stop Jay Huff inside. Coulibaly is a better offensive player than Brown, and is more mobile. But he just isn’t big enough to play inside with authority.

Even though they are small, the Panthers are active on the glass. They are one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the nation, but a lot of that came early in the season against some lower level competition. Pitt grabbed almost 50% of their own misses in a season opening loss to St Francis. They were at, or near, 40% in four other early-season games. They also grabbed over 40% of their misses in each of their two wins over Syracuse. But they have not been very good since, and had just 5 offensive boards (19%) in the win over the Hokies. It’s something to watch for, but Virginia is usually a very good defensive rebounding team (eighth nationally) and should be able to control the defensive glass.

Other than Champagnie, the only Panthers who pose a threat from outside are Johnson and Delaware transfer Ithel Horton. Horton shot 41% from downtown as a freshman at Delaware and after redshirting last season, is making about 36% this year. He’s taken two-thirds of his shots from downtown and doesn’t bring much else to the table. Against the Pack Line, his ability from outside could be trouble. Johnson is only a 33% career shooter from downtown (roughly the same this year), but he’s capable of getting hot and making a bunch. In the upset over the Hokies, Johnson and Horton combined to shoot 8/16 from downtown (Champagnie was 0/3 and held to just 10 points). That is a big part of why Pitt won that game.

It will be interesting to see if Tony Bennett puts the bigger Reece Beekman on Xavier Johnson, hoping to use that size to keep Johnson out of the paint where he’s dangerous. That would put Clark on Horton, giving up a lot of size. But Horton is not a threat to penetrate and dish, score or draw a foul. Johnson had a big game last year against the Hoos, with 16 points 6/10 shooting. He also had six steals, so that’s something to be wary of as well. On the season, the Hoos are sixth nationally in lowest turnover rate (14.3% of possessions). But over the past two games, Virginia has turned it over on nearly 17% of possessions, and that is a big part of why the offense has struggled.

Pitt really doesn’t have the inside presence to slow down Virginia’s interior game led by Jay Huff. If they choose to go small and spread the floor, they’re going to need to knock down shots. If Champagnie, in particular, is able to get hot from outside, it could be a long night. Tony Bennett will be less concerns with Johnson and Horton, because of the strong defensive play we get from Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman (held NC State’s starting backcourt to eight points on 3/11 shooting).

A couple of weeks ago, when Virginia was shooting lights out from downtown, this game would’ve seemed much easier. But Justin Champagnie is a very good perimeter defense and can make things difficult for Sam Hauser on the outside. And that could make for a closer game than many Virginia fans expect.