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Virginia vs. Marshall Basketball: THE BIG PREVIEW

We officially turn our attention to Virginia Basketball now.

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NCAA Basketball: William & Mary at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers are back on the basketball court on New Year’s Eve with one final non-conference game before opening the ACC season next Saturday. This game, against Conference USA’s Marshall Thundering Herd, will help Virginia get ready for some of the up-tempo teams in the ACC.

Marshall is coached by Dan D’Antoni, the brother of Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. If you aren’t familiar with the D’Antoni family, they are the creators of the “7 seconds or less offense”. This was the offense that Mike ran as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns with Steve Nash and company. The D’Antoni brothers both played at Marshall and are both in the Marshall Athletic Hall of Fame.

Marshall is the seventh fastest team in the nation, just behind North Carolina. Two other ACC teams (Duke and NC State) are in the top 15. Virginia is, of course, the slowest team in the nation. Virginia hasn’t exactly struggled with up-tempo games, but they do have a bit of history with pressing teams, although this year, the Hoos have fared well against a couple of pressing teams, most specifically VCU.

Marshall is going to press and trap in the backcourt. They want to force turnovers, and they are 17th in the nation in turnover rate and 20th in steal rate. The goal is to turn those steals into layups and dunks. Once the press is broken, they drop back into a fairly standard man-to-man defense. The speed is almost entirely on offense. They rank 124th nationally in average defensive possession length, but fifth in offensive possession. Every game they’ve played this season has had at least 69 possessions, which is still faster than every game Virginia has played this year.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The Thundering Herd have been in the top eight in tempo for all five of D’antoni’s seasons as coach. They are generally one of the fastest offensive teams, but middle of the pack defensively. That’s what the “7 seconds or less” is. The goal is to get a shot off in less than seven seconds after moving the ball up the court.

Of course, that’s easy to do with Steve Nash at point guard. Marshall doesn’t really have the talent level to pull it off. They are 7-5 this year, with a home win over 84th ranked Hofstra. But they’ve also lost (on the road) to 165th ranked Ohio and 160th ranked Duquesne. They also got absolutely demolished by Maryland, 104-67. (All ranks are from KenPom.)

As is often the case with up-tempo teams, Marshall does not have a lot of size. They’ll generally play with four wings and a single big man. They have a couple of “bigs”, but only one of them is actually big. Freshman Iran Bennett is 6’9” and 350 (not a typo). For a guy that big, he’s actually very mobile. Here’s an example of him moving well inside for a bucket.

He started the first seven games, but hasn’t played much of late. Getting a majority of the minutes in the middle has been sophomore Jannson Willaims, who is 6’9”, 215 and isn’t really a post player. He actually leads the team in 3PT percentage, at just under 40%. He’s a good shot blocker, but is too weak to really bang around in the post and isn’t a particularly good rebounder.

Senior PG Jon Elmore is essentially in Steve Nash’s role. He leads the team in scoring and assists, at just under 20 and 5, respectively. He’s also second in rebounding. He’s shooting jus 38% from the field, which includes 37% from 3. Next to him in the backcourt is 5’11” Jerrod West. West is a strong perimeter defender and shoots 38% from three. But he is too small to finish inside and isn’t really a great ball handler or passer. He’s shooting just 32% from the field and 1.8 assists per game in 28 mpg. He’s just not much of an offensive threat. Because of that, Kihei Clark will probably get the assignment of guarding Elmore. Clark has shut down better players than Elmore, but if he’s able to keep Elmore from going off, this game becomes much easier.

That would likely leave Kyle Guy on West and Ty Jerome on wing C.J. Burks. Burks is probably the best overall player on the team. At 6’4” 185, he’s tough in transition and can really score off the bounce. He shoots too many threes though, and is a poor shooter.

Virginia is second in the nation at not turning the ball over. That’s what happens when you play two PGs along with a number of other strong ball-handlers in Kyle Guy, DeAndre Hunter and Braxton Key. If Iran Bennett is in the game, figure on seeing Jack Salt in there to combat his interior play. Otherwise, expect to see Tony Bennett go with his small lineup of Clark, Jerome, Guy, DeAndre Hunter and either Braxton Key or Mamadi Diakite.

This is a good final tune-up for ACC play because it gets Virginia out of their comfort zone. If Virginia can’t handle Marshall’s quickness and speed, how can they manage UNC and NC State? Ultimately, Marshall really doesn’t have the horses to play with Virginia, especially in Charlottesville.