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The Big Preview: Virginia looks to get back on track vs. Miami

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Hoos hoping to end three-game skid.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Miami-Florida Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Things haven’t been going well for Virginia Basketball as of late as the Cavaliers have lost three straight. Opponents have started to clog the inside, forcing Virginia to take more outside shots. When those shots drop, Virginia is very difficult to beat. When they don’t, the defense hasn’t been good enough to consistently win.

In Virginia’s last game — a loss to NC State — the Cavaliers shot just 28% from three on 25 attempts (almost half the total FGA). Only Sam Hauser (5-for-11) was knocking down shots, and most of those came in the second half. The rest of the team shot 2-for-14, and that just is not going to get it done. Some of these guys are playing way more minutes than they ever have before, especially with Kadin Shedrick, Tomas Woldetensae, and Kody Stattmann unavailable.

Jay Huff was fantastic on the inside with 19 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks, but his outside shooting is a big part of the offense and helps keep the paint open. When he’s not hitting those shots, there’s less space inside. Plus, when he shoots from outside, there’s no offensive rebounding threat inside. That doesn’t matter if the shot goes in, but it matters a great deal if the shot misses.

Whatever reason you might assess to the recent swoon, Virginia fans are understandably concerned. Still, they do have some time to figure things out, and this game is a good time to do that. Miami is simply not very good, and currently sits dead last in the ACC standings. They have lost nine of 10 and have not won on the road since January 9th. The Hoos also have an advantage because the Canes played on Saturday (loss at Clemson), while Virginia hasn’t played since Wednesday. That break was much needed following the three game losing streak, and hopefully Virginia has used it to get some rest and get back to playing Virginia Basketball.

Miami’s top offensive star, senior Chris Lykes, has not played since early December because of an ankle issue and is unlikely to play again this season. Will he return for next season? Possible. Does that matter for this game? No.

With Lykes out, the top offensive weapon for the Canes is sophomore wing Isaiah Wong. Wong leads the team in minutes (over 35 per game), points (almost 18 per game, third in the ACC) and FGA (nearly twice as many as anybody else on the team). Wong is at his best going to the rim, but settles for far too many outside shots. He’s under 35% from downtown, but has taken over 40% of his shots from downtown. One of the best things Wong does is draw contact and generate FT attempts. He is second in the ACC in FTA, and has more attempts than Virginia’s top two combined. Keeping him out the paint will be key, especially in an effort to keep Jay Huff out of foul trouble.

That is a heck of a move from Wong, basically taking on the entire Duke team. But one-on-one (one-on-five for that matter) doesn’t generally work very well against the Pack Line. If that’s Miami’s offense tonight, they aren’t going to be very successful. Also, how is that not a foul on Duke?

We’ll see a couple of guys get the chance to guard Wong. Kihei Clark probably gets the first chance, and he has the quickness to stay with Wong. But Wong (6’3, 180 pounds) may have the size to just shoot over Clark. Reece Beekman and Casey Morsell will also both get shots to stick with Wong.

The only real big man on the team is Cincinnati transfer Nysier Brooks. The starter was supposed to be senior Rodney Miller, but Miller is also out for the season with a knee injury. Brooks is strong on the glass and a decent interior defender, but he’s not much of an offensive threat, and he isn’t going to be comfortable on the perimeter with Jay Huff. Hopefully, that means Huff can have some success on the perimeter.

Clemson big man Aamir Simms led a barrage of outside shooting on Saturday (11-for-22 for the team, 3-for-4 from Simms). Brooks does not look comfortable guarding the pick-n-pop on the sideline here and leaves Simms wide open.

Here is another instance of Miami struggling to defend a screen-based offense. In this case, Brooks is trying to hedge, but gets off-balance and it leads to a layup for Simms. Seems like maybe Brooks is trying to draw a charge, but that’s not going to happen.

Look for a lot of similar looks from Virginia. Whether it’s Huff at the top of the key or Hauser on the sideline, this is a good way to get open looks for shooters. We could also see Trey Murphy as a screener in the sideline pick-n-pop, because Murphy should have a good size advantage on his man.

The only other big guy on the team is 6’11 junior Deng Gak. Gak was a big time recruit, but hasn’t panned out yet. His minutes are up this year, largely out of necessity, but the production isn’t there.

This is a nice give-and-go between the two bigs. Good read from Gak and nice pass from Brooks.

Along with Wong, all of Miami’s offensive threats are wings, and almost all of them want to use the dribble to get to the rim. With Lykes out, the only real outside threat for Miami was freshman Matt Cross, but Cross announced in late January that he’d be leaving Miami.

After Wong, the team leaders in FGA are Cameron McGusty, Harland Beverly, Elijah Olaniyi and Anthony Walker. Walker is the only “big” in that group, at 6’9, but he’s still a perimeter player.

Walker has a big size advantage over his defender (the 6’4 Clyde Trapp), and is able to shoot right over him. He’ll likely have Sam Hauser in front of him this game, and won’t that look. Then again, if that’s the shot Miami gets, Tony Bennett will be OK with that.

McGusty is under 33% from downtown and barely over 40% from the field. He’s athletic and can get to the rack, but he simply can’t shoot it enough for defenses to play him honestly. And while Beverly is a solid playmaking PG (leads the team in assists) and defender (also leads in steals), he can’t shoot a lick (14% from downtown and just 40% from the FT line).

Olaniyi is a transfer from Stonybrook, where he was the leading scorer a year ago. He’s very similar to McGusty. At his best getting to the rack, but not a good enough outside shooter to keep the defense honest.

In the upset win over Duke a month ago, the Canes shot 7-for-13 (53%) from downtown (led by 3-for-5 from Olaniyi). That forced Duke to defend further out, which gave more freedom getting to the rack. Also, Duke didn’t make their threes (5-for-18). And still, Miami won by just two points.

The Hurricanes can’t shoot, don’t really defend the perimeter, aren’t particularly strong on the glass, and are missing two of their best players. If Virginia loses this game, there are much bigger problems than we previously thought. What fans will want to see is a big early lead, allowing for some extra minutes for Justin McKoy and some of the other youngsters.

The game will tip off at 6pm and will be televised by the ACC Network.