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Virginia’s offense struggles in season opener but shows potential

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Guy drops 16 against UNC Greensboro as Hoos pick up win number one.

NCAA Basketball: NC-Greensboro at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers kicked off their basketball season Friday night with a 60-48 win over UNC-Greensboro. As one has come to expect from a Tony Bennett coached team, the defense was solid, especially for the first game of the year. The Hoos held the Spartans to 29.4% shooting from the field (and an abysmal 4-for-26 from three) and forced 17 turnovers. Virginia added eight steals and four blocks as they generally made life miserable for UNCG on the defensive end.

“We’re not that bad shooting the ball, and we’re not that bad turning the ball over, I just think their defense is that good,” Greensboro head coach Wes Miller stated in his opening statement following the game.

But Virginia’s question this season doesn’t lie with the defense. It has been two seasons since the Hoos lost the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, and Mike Tobey, and one since London Perrantes graduated. Last season, even with Perrantes, Virginia struggled to find easy buckets and couldn’t manufacture points when shooting droughts plagued the entire team late in the season. For a fanbase desperate for a sign of life after Virginia’s 39-point output in their second round loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament, this game might not have been very reassuring.

There are, however, some positive takeaways from Virginia’s double-digit opening win.

UNC-Greensboro finished last season at #121 according to Ken Pom and returned 11 players that helped the Spartans to a 25-10 record last year. This game isn’t your typical cake-walk opener against a directional state school. Junior Francis Alonso, who finished with nine points and three rebounds, has a legitimate shot at being the Southern Conference player of the year.

UNCG plays a physical brand of basketball, something that is helpful as a test and stepping stone early in the season as the Hoos have to face the ACC gauntlet in about two months.

“First of all, Greensboro is a physical team.” Bennett said after the win. “Defensively, they make you work. Nothing came easy on the defensive end or the offensive end.”

“I think it was absolutely great to be tested,” fifth year Devon Hall commented. “The schedule is designed like that.”

Virginia shot 18-for-42 (42.9%) from the field and 4-for-16 (25%) for the game. Not outstanding, but not terrible. More concerning were the 13 turnovers to just eight assists, but considering the offense has several young or new pieces, growing pains are to be expected.

The Spartans extended defensively on the Hoos, forcing them to take the ball into the paint more off the bounce.

“I think when teams like that try to pressure you, you have to use the bounce a little more and try to get in the lane a little more to make plays.” Hall said. “I think we started to do that and at first were a little bit stagnant with it and we kind of made adjustments of being more aggressive.”

With the eight assists coming on 18 made field goals, the Hoos only assisted 44% of their made buckets. Last season, Virginia assisted 56% of their made shots. Some of this, Coach Bennett said, was due to the pressure they saw from the Spartans.

“The way they were playing us, they were kind of pressuring us and forcing us to make some plays off the dribble. I thought to start the second half we were getting some nice looks, the offense was moving, some guys were moving, but then we went away from it. We needed to be aggressive to try to get to the paint, to try to draw some fouls and be aggressive with the way they were playing.”

Part of that, however, is an attempt to be more aggressive and get the ball into the paint and create that contact they lacked last year. In Friday night’s win, Virginia got to the line 24 times, converting 20 of them (83.3%). For reference, the Hoos averaged just shy of 14 free throws a game last season. In their overtime loss at Pitt last year, Virginia attempted just five free throws.

Their new emphasis on getting to the line is already showing results. Kyle Guy (16 points) shot a career high 10 free throws, making a career high eight of them. Hall and fellow captain Jack Salt both went a perfect 4-for-4 from the charity stripe. Guy, Hall, Ty Jerome, and transfer point guard Nigel Johnson all made a concerted effort to put the ball on the ground and get into the paint.

Two players - DeAndre Hunter and Johnson - made their Virginia debut in the opener. Three more - Jerome, Guy, and Mamadi Diakite - averaged between 13 and 18 minutes in their first season last year. Virginia’s offense needs time to gel. A lot of good looks went up in the opener that just didn’t go in, something that will likely change as the season progresses.

Guy is more aggressive (on both sides of the ball) and has a true knack for scoring. Jerome looked out of rhythm early, but showed flashes of his offensive potential down the crucial stretch where the Hoos put the game out of reach. Hall - who had a particularly efficient game with 13 points, on 4-for-5 shooting - created contact in the lane, but could pull back and drill a three if needed. Johnson highlighted his quickness and ability to get to the rim. All three big men that played (Wilkins, Salt, and Diakite) made solid moves in the post to beat their man and get a basket. Jay Huff, the stretch-four that’s oozing potential, didn’t even get in the game (coach’s choice).

This offense is certainly a work in progress, but a one game sample size is definitely too small to make judgement. With Guy, the Hoos have a sure handed shooter. Jerome can quarterback the offense, but also has the physicality to get to the rim and take on a defender. Wilkins and Hall are consistent, underrated players who have upped the ante this season. Virginia has more developed pieces this season and a higher ceiling than last.

“With the new guys, it’s going to be a process,” Bennett said. “Hopefully they’ll get more and more comfortable and know when to be assertive and know when to let it come.”

I guess what we’re saying is...trust the process.

Next up, Virginia hosts Austin Peay on Monday night at 7pm.