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Eighth-ranked Virginia has opportunity to prove they’re for real with three-game stretch

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Hoos head to VaTech and host #12 UNC and Syracuse back-to-back-to-back in brutal ACC play.

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Ok, time for some real talk.

If I’m being honest, I think #8 is a little too high for the Hoos.

(PAUSES FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m more bullish than most on this team, and if the AP poll had been released with Ty Jerome & co. behind Wichita State, Kansas, or Arizona, I’d be raising holy hell to everyone on the Twitters that would listen. But the fact remains, Virginia has beaten teams I expected them to beat, and lost to the one I thought they’d struggle with.

Somewhere around #12 would be where I’d slot the Cavaliers, but no one gives me a vote.

Virginia amassed an 11-1 non-conference record, outscoring opponents - on average - 72-52. The lone loss, at West Virginia (KenPom #10), came on a day where Lamont West shot 44% from three (32% for the season overall) and the Hoos got nothing out of Kyle Guy in the first half. Even then, Virginia fell by just seven points, and were in it til the end.

Virginia’s best win on the season is Rhode Island (KenPom #47), followed by Wisconsin (69), Vanderbilt (74), and VCU (94). The Rams (of the Rhode Island variety) upset Seton Hall (KenPom #21) in the NIT Season Tipoff, to the slight detriment of Virginia’s strength of schedule. Wisconsin, at 9-7 on the season, hasn’t been as big as a win as maybe would have been predicted preseason. Same with VCU. Vanderbilt on the other hand, just picked up a nice win over Alabama.

While there are no marquee victories for the Hoos so far this season, they’ve avoided a head-scratching loss, something teams like Duke (Boston College), Kansas (Washington), UNC (Wofford), Florida (Loyola Chicago), and Notre Dame (Ball State) can’t claim.

In fact, they barely spent any time trailing in their first 13 games:

Now, it’s time to show what they’re made of. The next three games for the Hoos go like this: @VT (tonight), vs. UNC (Saturday), vs. Syracuse (Tuesday). The trio is ranked #41, #11, and #44, respectively, on KenPom.

Virginia Tech in Blacksburg has consistently been tough for the Hoos, despite the fact that Bennett is 5-3 in Cassell Auditorium in his first eight seasons. The last two games have featured a two-point loss and a three-point, double overtime, ball-stuck-on-the-rim circus loss. This season, the Hokies are once more a formidable foe. They had a less-than-impressive non-conference schedule and just lost to Syracuse, but they lead the nation in eFG% at 61.5% and are ninth in the NCAA with an average of 88.8 points per game.

If Virginia can win two of the three upcoming games—with one of them being against UNC—most, if not all, of my doubts regarding this squad will be addressed. A win over the Hokies tonight would be Virginia’s best win on the season, and frankly an impressive road win (as are all ACC road wins). UNC will be a difficult matchup in the post, and will test Virginia’s offense. Syracuse has worked their way into our heads after 2016. All three pose their own specific threats.

Going forward, I have three big concerns with the Hoos:

Post Production (Offensively)

This has, and will continue to be, my biggest concern with this team. I will say, so far this season, the post has performed admirably. I cannot ask Isaiah Wilkins to do anything more than he’s done. With 7.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, (plus all the other things with the blocks and the steals and the tipped balls), he’s invaluable. I’m obviously a big Jack Salt fan, but he’s unarguably improved since last season and is now contributing 3.6 points per game and shooting 68% from the field. Mamadi Diakite has been more aggressive offensively with 6.1 points per game, but can be turnover-prone or fall victim to bad shot selection.

Tonight against VaTech, the Hoos will have a clear size advantage. This is an opportunity for all three (and perhaps Jay Huff) to do some damage. I need to see it.

Getting to the Lane/Free Throws

This is a common discussion around Virginia. One game this season - Wisconsin - Virginia attempted ZERO free throws. I don’t know how that even happens, but it did and they still won. I will say this is less of a concern for me this year than last because I think both Devon Hall, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy have shown not only more skill getting into the lane, but the aggressiveness, willingness, an ability to do it. Getting the calls is another matter, of course (and it helps when they go hard to the rim, not put up floaters or finish off away from contact). Nigel Johnson and DeAndre Hunter are also capable.

Once they get to the line, Jerome (100%), Hall (88%), Guy (84.4%), and Hunter (84%) are very effective. Even Wilkins (80%) has improved from last season.

Bench Production

I included this last, because it’s my lowest concern and one that only came about after Saturday’s Boston College game. When the starters came out against the Eagles, everything stagnated. I know Hunter, Johnson, and Diakite are high-energy, smart players, but man, nothing was going right. I don’t think this is an actual problem and it will probably (hopefully) be dismissed tonight, but this team can’t succeed if they’re not getting impactful minutes from their super-talented bench.

The next three games will show us a lot about the 2017-18 Virginia Cavaliers team. This squad has so much potential, now I just need to see it all executed.