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Virginia Basketball off to a solid 2-0 start: what we’ve seen so far

Looking at the Good and the Bad from last week, and what to watch in the week to come

NCAA Basketball: Austin Peay at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is finally back and the Virginia Cavaliers have jumped out to a 2-0 start looking a little rusty in the first game, a 60-48 win over the UNC Greensboro Spartans last Friday night. But they did turn things around and put forth a dominating effort in their 93-49 win over the Austin Peay Governors on Monday. The defense was dominant while the offense struggled out the gate. Both performances were to be expected considering the core of this team Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, and Jack Salt are all three defensive stalwarts. The Cavaliers got great performances from Hall and Kyle Guy while De’andre Hunter and Jay Huff had solid and spectacular debuts respectively. So let’s look back and explore the good, the bad, and what to watch for...From the Rafters.

The Good

  1. Offensive Balance - Last season Wahoo fans grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of offensive production coming from the Cavaliers. And while we don’t expect to see the players flying up and down the court putting up 80 points per game, we have come to expect a particularly beauty that comes from offensive efficiency. Virginia has always been the team that passes up the good shot for the great shot, and because of that, we have all have an appreciation for the team’s offense. But last year was just bad. Too often we’d witness multiple passes around the perimeter before a three pointer was heaved as the shot clock wound down. And because of that, the Hoos became too reliant on the three pointer. But these last two games were different. Even though the offense didn’t look pretty against UNC Greensboro, I was encouraged by what I saw. The ball actually touched the paint more often that not. Whether it was passing the ball inside or a drive into the heart of the defense, the Hoos managed to work the offense inside and out vice just on the perimeter. And in no other instance is that more evident than in their performance 25 seconds into the shot clock. A year ago, Virginia took a shot 25 seconds or greater into the shot clock 27.5% of the time. So far this season, that percentage is down to 18.1%. And when they did take those shots a season ago, 37.5% of them were three pointers vice just 29.4% this season. This willingness to get the ball inside the paint has paid off in terms of fouls as well. Through two games, Virginia has attempted 24 free throws in each game. Last season, Virginia average 13.9 free throws per game. That difference is astounding and can’t be chalked up to winning by a large margin. Even with similar games last season, the Hoos only shot 24 or more free throws three times with a high of 25 attempts against UNC Wilmington in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. All in all, the offense just looks different. It’s more like it was from 2014 to 2016 when, despite its slow pace, was smooth and fluid and impressive to watch.
  2. Brogdon Lite - Two years ago in this column, I ran a weekly feature in the “Good” section on the exploits of Malcolm Brogdon. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Devon Hall is a candidate for ACC Player of the Year and All-American Honors (though how sweet would that be?), but the way he played in the first two games reminded me a lot of number 15. What stood out most about Brogdon’s senior year, and career for that matter, was that he was never flashy with the way he put up his points. He’d be going along fine and all of a sudden *Yawn* you’d look up at the scoreboard and see he had 20 points and 8 rebounds. He scored inside, he scored outside, he scored at the free throw line. And that is exactly what Hall did against UNC Greensboro and Austin Peay. While Jay Huff provided the highlights in Monday’s win over the Governors, Hall quietly led the Cavaliers in scoring with 19 and that was after he was second in scoring Friday against UNC Greensboro behind Kyle Guy with 13. All told, his early season usage stats look very similar to Brogdon’s in his final season with the Hoos.

Devon Hall vs Malcolm Brogdon

Player ORtg Usage % Shots Def Reb Rate Assist Rate Fouls Drawn
Player ORtg Usage % Shots Def Reb Rate Assist Rate Fouls Drawn
Devon Hall 145.9 24.0 22.1 21.2 20.5 6.0
Malcolm Brogdon 120.0 26.9 30.1 13.3 19.5 4.5

Hall's offensive rating is likely to come down, but there is no reason to believe he can't keep up the rest of the numbers through the course of the season. What jumps out to me is their similarity in usage, assist rate, and fouls drawn. Both Hall and Brogdon play off the ball, but can handle it if need be. Those stats show that regardless if they are taking the shot, they are making themselves a focal point of the offense. Hall has come a long way in his years in Charlottesville and it's been a pleasure watching him grow as a player. And now in his fifth year, it's his turn to be the man, a distinction he's more than earned.

3. Guy’s Assertiveness - I guess it’s to be expected, given another year to mature and the absence of a go-to player, but Kyle Guy was very impressive as the lead dog of Virginia’s offense. In two games he put up 16 and 14 points respectively, but it was how he did it that stood out most. Last season he, like most of his teammates, hung out on the perimeter relying heavily on the three ball taking 50.2% of his shots from behind the arc. Further, only a paltry 14.6% of his shots came at the rim. His game was predictable. When he was in, there was a good chance he would take a three. In the first two games however, he’s taken a much more balanced approach to his shot section, taking 35.3% of shots at the rim and 35.3% of shots from behind the arc. When he get’s the ball, he’s looking to push the paint more so than just spotting up for three which has also led to drawing more fouls. Against UNC Greensboro, he attempted 10 free throws while a season ago he never attempted more than four in a single game. It’s the type of performances that Virginia needs from their emerging star.

The Bad

  1. Getting Beat on the Boards - It’s very rare that Virginia doesn’t dominate its opponent on the defensive glass. Since 2014, the Hoos haven’t finished worse than 18th in the country in lowest rate of offensive rebounds surrendered. So that is why it was such a shock to see Virginia yield 16 offensive rebounds Friday night to the Spartans. Add to that Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt are at their best on the defensive side of the floor and both excel at grabbing defensive boards. It’s true that the Cavaliers will sacrifice some defensive prowess to get more minutes and hopefully more offensive production from the likes of Huff and Mamadi Diakite. However, this is still a Tony Bennett-coached team and you’d better believe they’ll get things tightened up come ACC play. When a team plays as few of possessions as the Cavaliers game in and game out, they can’t afford to be giving their opponents extra looks at the basket.

What to Watch

  1. Can’t get Enough Huff - I’ll admit, I was slow to the Jay Huff bandwagon, but for good reason. I felt the hype had gotten way out of control. His impact after a year of stuffing his face full of food and spending every waking moment in the gym trying to get bigger was being compared to elite level one and done NBA prospects. And while he could turn out to be that good, to have that expectation was both unrealistic and unfair. I felt a more apt comparison, a baseline set of expectations would be to expect a season like we saw last year from Diakite. After all they were very similar, both top-75 recruits needing a year to bulk up and learn the system. After one game however, it looks like Huff’s ceiling may be closer to the lofty outlook many had for the seven footer. In 24 minutes, Huff scored 16 points on 7-8 shooting with two three pointers, four rebounds, and five blocked shots. He scored inside, he scored outside, he scored in between. It was truly a special performance and one that compares favorably to past Cavalier legend’s debuts. All I ask is that we slow down the hype train just a bit and let the kid do it a few more times. In the meantime though, I will enjoy the ride.
  2. Battle for Commonwealth Supremacy - With all due respect to Va Tech, or not, VCU vs. UVA is the best matchup in the state at the moment. While the Hokies are an ACC rival, football is and always will be their main focus. VCU is a basketball school. And while there has been some flirting between UVA and football (from about 1991-2006 or so) it too at its core is a basketball school. It just works better that way. So that is what gets me excited about this matchup. Both teams, both fan bases are up for this I-64 rivalry. Add to that, the game in being played in the Siegel Center, and this one will be basketball at it’s finest. VCU will have to feed off its crowd however, as they come into the game a shell of the program we’ve come to expect over the last 10+ years. They are 2-0, but haven’t looked themselves in wins over Grambling State and North Florida. What is missing is their patented Havoc defense. A swarming man to man pressure that seeks to cause turnovers and turn those into easy baskets. If you can beat the press, you can beat the Rams as Virginia did the last time these teams played in 2015 winning 74-57. And so far this year beating the press hasn’t been as difficult this season for the Rams’ opponents. VCU’s defense is forcing a turnover on just 18.3% of their opponents possessions ranking 201st in the country and down from 21.0% last year (33rd). Add to that, last season’s turnover rate was their lowest in the last five years as VCU has finished in the top 20 in turnover rate every year since 2012. Virginia should have the upper hand in this one as they have the horses to protect the ball in Ty Jerome, Nigel Johnson, and Hall. But win or lose, it’s a win for basketball in the Commonwealth of Virginia and a game that should be played every year.

Tip-off for the tilt between the Hoos and the Rams is 4:00 P.M. Friday from Richmond. The game will air on CBS Sports Network. Following the excursion down the road, Virginia returns home on Sunday at 1:00 P.M. when they square off against the Monmouth Hawks. That game can be seen on Regional Sports Network