The fact of the matter is clear: Tony Bennett has built a high standard for the UVA men’s basketball program that UVA simply did not meet that last season. Many will point to the lack of offense, and shooting in particular, as the main issue. It’s quite easy to jump to that conclusion, if you look at the Virginia Cavaliers’ anemic final scores or the fact that they were 12th in the ACC with 32.3% three-point percentage.
However, poor perimeter shooting was not the primary reason Virginia missed the tournament last year. Bennett has produced poor offensive teams that have made noise. 2020 was an extreme example, in which UVA was the 215th ranked offense and 310th ranked three point shooting team nationally, yet was projected to be a five seed in the big dance after finishing second in the ACC. Why? It comes down to Bennett’s staple: dominant defense.
Lack of a great outside shooting offense will always limit a program’s ceiling. But, by now, Tony Bennett and company have proved that they can still be successful without it.
Defense doesn’t win championships but it will get UVA on the right track
The last couple seasons have been a struggle on the defensive end by Bennett’s standards. In the past decade, the ‘Hoos have finished top ten in Bart Torvik’s defensive efficiency seven times. Two of the exceptions were 2021 (40th) and 2022 (42nd).
The issues that Virginia endured on that end were mainly due to miscommunication in a highly complex scheme and a less than perfectly designed set of personnel. It’s not like Bennett forgot how to coach the Packline or that it’s not effective anymore. But I do believe that the rise of the transfer portal has disproportionately hurt the UVA program. It takes time to learn and perfect Bennett’s defense and roster continuity is key.
Well, this season, the transfer portal has been beneficial to the program more than it has been harmful. And, even more importantly, the ‘Hoos return their entire starting lineup.
The makeup to return to the normal defensive dominance is there. Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman continue to be very good defensive guards, and Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner, and Kadin Shedrick have the raw skillset that will continue to be refined with more UVA experience. Plus, the depth options are much more promising. Ohio transfer Ben Vander Plas, in particular, is a versatile defender with length.
As a result, the ‘Hoos are projected to become the seventh ranked defensive team in the nation. This alone will bring them back to relevance. The next question is how far they get.
While championship teams are dominant on both sides, being great at one thing can take you far
This point can be illustrated simply by looking at some of the teams in the Bennett-era at Virginia. In their 2019 national championship run and their 2016 elite eight run, the ‘Hoos were top ten on both sides. Most years, however, they have been adequate offensively and very good defensively. The result has been quality regular seasons but underwhelming tournament performances.
Let’s look a little deeper, though, as just looking at one program is a small sample size. Over the past two seasons, 8 of the 20 (40%) top ten defensive teams have made it to at least the second weekend of March Madness, and three of those have eight shot under 35% from three point range. None of those three made it to the Final Four.
So what made those teams good? For Texas Tech, it was purely well-rounded defense, as they ranked number one in the country by a wide margin. For Houston, it was size and rebounding. For Iowa State, it was forcing turnovers and executing in transition periodically. These teams were bad at shooting, which eventually caught up to them, but they made plenty of noise beforehand.
The Bottom Line
For a program like Virginia, the main thing holding them back was a less than dominant defense. As long as that consistency on the defensive end of the floor returns, fans should be able to enjoy watching a top 25 team that can potentially win any game. The Wahoos’ ceiling is still determined by their offense and three-point shooting, but only time will tell how vast that improvement is.