The Virginia Cavaliers head into exam week with a 7-3 record; the Hoos dropped two games against ranked squads and lost another tough one on the road, while taking care of business the rest of the way, including a win in its preseason tournament.
If the above sentence were written about any other season in recent memory, the Wahoo faithful would be jumping for joy about a start to the year that has UVA hoops in solid position headed into conference play. But this year, it brings myself and other fans bitter disappointment, and rightfully so. For a season in which fans and pundits alike expected something special, with a unique combination of talent years in the making, it's tough to imagine the year going much worse (barring injuries). A last minute victory against SMU is all that is separating the UVA season from slight disappointment to disaster.
Through it all, I think the first 10 games of the Virginia basketball season can be summed up with two points: 1) The team's performance has been disappointing so far. 2) But, the team will have plenty more chances to put together something special and still has the talent and ability to do so.
The non-conference schedule to date has been a polar opposite of last year's. In 2012, Tony Bennett's squad won its 2 most difficult games, at Wisconsin and vs. Tennessee. But they had already dropped 2 games against CAA squads by the exam break, and were about to lose a third before Christmas.
This year, the team is 6-0 against teams outside KenPom's top 100 (including top-150 wins at neutral sites against Davidson and Missouri State). However, the Hoos are 1-3 against top-100 teams; UVA picked up a solid win against #52 SMU, but dropped games against Wisconsin (8), VCU (35), and at Green Bay (76). In a non-conference schedule rife with opportunity, the team has yet to take advantage of a big one.
The struggles to date this season have centered on the inconsistent offense. And issue number one with the inconsistent offense has been a consistent struggle with turnovers. Caring for the ball is usually a strength of Tony Bennett squads; in his previous 7 years coaching, he's had 3 teams ranked in the top 20 in TO%, and all 7 were in the top 85. This season, UVA is a brutal #295 in the nation, with 21.1% of possessions ending in turnovers. 11.3% of possessions end in steals (#322), which is even more damaging, as the live ball gives the opposing offense an increased chance of scoring too.
It's tough to pinpoint the reason for the dramatic increase. Malcolm Brogdon's ball-handling has been suspect all season, as he has been forced to transition to time at point guard. And even London Perrantes, who has done an admirable job at point all year and been lauded for taking care of the ball, has struggled at times - he has 3 turnovers in UVA's 7 wins, and 9 turnovers in the 3 losses. But the issues are team-wide, and are probably attributable to a broad chemistry issue. The NCAA average TO rate is 18.5% of possessions...but Perrantes, Brogdon, Tobey, Harris, Gill, and Mitchell, all have turned it over on more than 20% of possessions they have used.
Whatever that "broad chemistry issue" is, Coach Bennett is tasked with fixing it. Roster depth is supposed to be a benefit, but somehow the Hoos have turned it into a disadvantage; players' roles haven't been well-defined, as a variety of lineups and rotations have been featured. This team is LOADED with offensive weapons, but they somehow haven't clicked yet.
The team's other notable offensive issue has been FT shooting, though this has been regressing to the mean of late for all players not named "Joe Harris."
It's extremely difficult to criticize the defense, which is 5th in the nation in adjusted efficiency (and #4 in defensive rebounding), despite an offense that turns the ball over often and has grabbed a relatively high number of offensive rebounds (both of which should lead to transition points and harm defensive efficiency). However, a defensive letdown was the reason for the Green Bay loss, as the Hoos allowed a season-high 75 points in 62 possessions. I think Coach Bennett would like to see a more consistent and inspired effort. Not everyone could bring Justin Anderson's game-face, but the team has had some frustrating lapses in intensity.
It's not all doom and gloom for the Hoos. This is still a loaded team with tons of promise for ACC play and March Madness. Tony Bennett is still Tony Bennett, Joe Harris is still Joe Harris, and I trust them as the primary figures who will need to iron out the offensive chemistry issues and provide some badly needed senior leadership.
One aspect that Coach Bennett seems to have been struggling with is the appropriate balance of offense and defense. Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill are big-time offensive weapons, but struggle defensively. Darion Atkins is an active and athletic defender, but doesn't bring the same firepower. Where does Justin Anderson come in? How does the team maximize Joe Harris's output while still utilizing its interior strength? In what situations should the team give Brogdon more room to operate? These personnel issues have been scattered so far, and I expect Bennett to clean things up.
Looking ahead, it is absolutely vital for UVA to take care of UNI and NSU at home after the break. Then, they have a great chance to erase the bad tastes from our mouths and get a big resume win at the road against Tennessee. In non-conference play, when focus is all placed on a few "big games," tough losses are magnified. Once ACC play starts, and the Hoos are playing those big games once or twice per week, the team should be looser, the gameplan tighter, and we'll learn what this team is really made of.
A 7-3 start isn't what Wahoo fans dreamt of. But it's the next 21 games will tell us whether this has been a mediocre beginning of a memorable season or the early signs of a disaster. A bit of worry and frustration seems unavoidable at this point, but let's not despair; everything we hope for the team to accomplish is still right there in front of them.