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The Big Preview: UVA basketball’s road trip continues versus the Pitt Panthers

The Wahoos try to extend their winning streak to three tonight at 9:00 PM.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 31 Virginia at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After two losses, the Virginia Cavaliers were able to shake off some rust and get a couple wins to close out 2022. The new year begins with a third straight ACC road contest (with a home win over Albany thrown in there too) against the Pittsburgh Panthers, who have won four in a row and nine of ten. They are coming off a big home win over UNC in which they trailed late but managed to pull it out with some key late buckets.

Pittsburgh is 3-0 in the ACC, 10-4 overall. This is a strange team. Just two of last year’s main rotation players returned, Jon Hugley and Jamarius Burton. Hugley has barely played, seeing time in just eight games and averaging just 18 minutes in the games he has played. He has missed the past three games. He has a knee injury, and some “personal issues,” which have kept him out. His status for this game is unknown.

Burton has been outstanding, including scoring 31 points against UNC on 14/17 shooting.

This is Burton’s game. He’s a physical player who also has the quickness to get inside. He has been hitting both outside and inside at a career best rate. He’s never been much of a three point threat, attempting just around two per game for his career. He’s making 44% this season, but the volume (or lack thereof) remains. But on the inside, where he is a career 45% shooter, he’s up over 60% this season. With shots like the two above, it’s no wonder the field goal percentage is up. But is that sustainable for the entire season? He was just 1-6 inside against Syracuse’s zone. Far from the first player to struggle against that zone, though.

With so much of last year’s team gone (largely via transfer), it means the Panthers are getting almost all of their production this year from newcomers, again mostly transfer. Point guardNelly Cummings (Colgate), wings Blake Hinson (Ole Miss) and Greg Elliott (Marquette) plus Finnish big man Federiko Federiko (JUCO) have all been important pieces for a team that is surpassing expectations. The Panthers currently rank 66th on KenPom, after falling as low as 123rd earlier in the season.

Burton is the Panthers’ second leading scorer, behind Hinson. Hinson averaged 10 and 5 last season in Oxford. He’s up to 17 and 7 this year, in roughly the same playing time. Again, is this sustainable? Unlike Burton, Hinson does not hesitate from behind the arc. He is attempting six three pointers per game, roughly half of his shots. Like Burton, he is shooting well above previous years, making 61% from inside the arc, up from 53% for his career.

Hugley’s absence has been a huge impact on this team. In two meetings last year, Hugley had one poor game (12 points on 2-11 FG) and one good game (23 points on 7-14 FG). When he’s right, he’s a beast inside who draws contact at an elite rate and can dominate on the glass on both ends. Without him, the Panther offense is entirely on the perimeter and they can struggle inside on both ends. Syracuse shot 53% and grabbed 33% of their own misses. But they couldn’t get stops.

That is Pitt’s game. They can score. They shoot a lot of threes, but they are mediocre in knocking them down. Elliott is the only real knockdown shooter they have (over 40% for his career). Over two-third of his shots come from downtown. Mostly, the rest of his shots come in transition, often off turnovers. Pitt wants to run, especially against a good half-court defensive team like Virginia.

But, to run, they will need to force turnovers. That is not something they have proven to be any good at. On the other hand, the Wahoos are forcing turnovers at a very high rate (and not turning it over themselves). Against Georgia Tech on Saturday, Virginia forced 23 turnovers and turned that into 30(!) transition points.

This is a transition three from Armaan Franklin, who is up to 40% three-point shooting for the season. It seems that Franklin sometimes struggles when he has too much time to think about this shot. When he get a rhythm jumper in transition like this, he’s always been better. It’s always nice when the guy who gets the steal gets rewarded on the other end with a bucket.

This is more fun, as we get the big dunk from Jayden Gardner. Also, what an incredible play from Beekman for the steal. If Virginia continues to get this kind of production in transition, they will be awfully tough to beat.