Normally, over the summer, we like to put together season recap articles like “The X worst moments of the season” or something similar. This year, there’s really no point in that. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what the worst moment of the 2017-18 Virginia Men’s Basketball season was.
Ugh, I’m just going to say it so it’s out of the way:
Virginia became the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Other than De’Andre Hunter’s wrist injury, which went hand-in-hand (no pun intended) with the worst moment of the season, there were only two other blemishes on the Cavaliers’ record. Frankly, it would seem silly to even mention a seven-point road loss at West Virginia or the one-point overtime debacle against Virginia Tech as “worst moments” considering the enormity of the season-ending failure.
Sadly, it’s impossible to just ignore the loss. It was historic, embarrassing, and on top of all that, a blowout. We can’t run from it, so I’m leaning into it. Think of it like a call-sign or nickname you don’t want. The more you protest, the more likely it is to stick (I have numerous examples from my time in the Navy to prove this point). It sucked, but it happened and now what is important is what we can take from it and what we do with it.
So, what went wrong?
The short answer? Everything.
The in-depth answer is even harder to quantify, but three-point shooting, defense, momentum, and DeAndre Hunter (or lack thereof) were all factors.
Over the course of the season, Virginia shot 39% from beyond the three point line as a team. Against UMBC? That would be an abysmal 4-for-22, or 18.1%. Two of those came from Ty Jerome, one from Nigel Johnson, and one from forward Isaiah Wilkins, someone who was 2-for-15 over the course of the season.
Fifth-year captain Devon Hall led the Cavaliers with a 45% (57-of-126) mark before meeting the Retrievers. He went 0-for-6. Kyle Guy was making them at a 40% clip (83-of-210) and went 0-for-2.
You can’t even point to the numbers being terribly skewed as the Hoos tried to come back from behind in the second half as they attempted nine threes in the first half and 13 in the second.
Where the Hoos couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, the Retrievers seemingly couldn’t miss. Before meeting UMBC, Virginia held their opponents to 30% shooting beyond the arc. The Retrievers connected on 12-of-24 attempts (50%), including a blistering 58.3% in the second half.
The Retrievers were not a bad three-point shooting team last season, coming into the NCAA tournament making 39% of their attempts over the course of the season. In their next game — against Kansas State in the Round of 32 — they went just 6-of-22 (27%).
In the first half, three-pointers kept the Retrievers in the game as five of their seven made field goals were from beyond the arc and helped the underdogs take a tie into the break. From there, they stayed hot, Virginia stayed cold, and the Hoos were outscored by 20. Every time it looked like the Cavaliers could make a dent in the lead, Jairus Lyles (28 points) would drill a three.
I know, who would have thought that defense would ever be the problem for the No. 1 rated Virginia defense in the country? UMBC’s 74 points was the most Virginia’s vaunted D gave up all season. The next closest? The 68 points given up to West Virginia in one of UVA’s other losses. Opponents broke 60 just nine times over the course of the season, and three teams (Wisconsin, Clemson, and Pitt) failed to break 40 points.
The Pack Line is notorious for being susceptible to allowing threes and playing the odds that the opponent won’t make enough to win (see above) and to smaller, quicker guards that can cut the lane. When both happen, bad things follow...especially when the Hoos struggle beyond the arc themselves.
Obviously there are no stats to quantify “momentum,” but there’s something to be said about UMBC’s soaring confidence and Virginia’s plummeting confidence in this game. The Hoos looked uncomfortable early on offense and were unable to get shots to drop. Isaiah Wilkins ran into early foul trouble that sent the ACC Defensive Player of the Year to the bench. While they held UMBC to just 21 points, they themselves scored just 21.
Enter the hope for UMBC and the doubt for Virginia.
This isn’t to say the Hoos ever gave up, but the Retrievers played like they couldn’t miss. With every shot they made, the next one seemed more likely to go in. Over the course of the season, when Virginia would struggle (especially offensively), DeAndre Hunter provided a much needed spark. Which leads us to...
DeAndre Hunter, or the lack thereof
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that if DeAndre Hunter had played that Virginia would have won. There were several pervasive issues in the game that led to the 20-point blowout.
However, when news broke of Hunter’s injury, the Hoos lost their security blanket. Success was still possible, but no one player of the big three (Hall, Guy, or Ty Jerome) could afford to have an off night. You certainly couldn’t get a combined 8-for-20 (0-for-8 from three) from Hall and Guy while failing to come up with any answer for Lyles defensively.
By the end of the season, Hunter was at the very least the third best defender on the team behind Wilkins and Hall. I would at least entertain an argument that the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year was more versatile than either of those players as he can guard a variety of positions.
Long story short, the Hoos had no room for error and picked the wrong time of the season to all go cold at the same time.
So, what happens now?
We move on. This is obviously way easier said than done, and I’m sure there are a lot of readers who didn’t make it this far because it’s still too painful. I understand that, I do. Some of the fanbase won’t get excited about Virginia basketball until a Final Four appearance. To each their own.
But the long and short of it is what’s done is done.
Virginia would benefit from Coach Bennett allowing some flexibility on offense. There were definite improvements on working the ball inside over the past season, but no one will ever confuse Jack Salt with a points-first player. Adding Mamadi Diakite to the starting lineup brings some offensive diversity to the team. Guy, Jerome, and Hunter are offensively competent and adept players that can score. Bennett will never be run and gun, but some more dynamic sets would be welcomed in Charlottesville.
The “system” didn’t fail the Hoos in the NCAA tournament. The “system” saw Virginia to a 31-3 record, the regular season and ACC tournament title, and their first No. 1 ranking in almost four decades. That’s not negated by an off shooting night. Unfortunately the “Virginia can’t get it done in the postseason” narrative will be true until it’s not (ask Villanova).
Three of five starters return to this year’s team, as does DeAndre Hunter. First year Marco Anthony showed moments of brilliance (vs. Louisville in Charlottesville, especially), and Jay Huff’s potential is still high. Springy forward Frankie Badocchi is coming off of a redshirt, and Kody Stattmann, Kihei Clark, and Argentinian big man Francisco Caffaro will all be joining the roster this season. Diakite will be a crucial piece.
How the team rebounds will be crucial. Will they mope and stay in their feelings, or will they follow in the footsteps of Guy and use it as motivation? Only time will tell, but something tells me it’s the latter.
Reasons for future optimism exist and life goes on. Just steel yourself for asinine tweets, inevitably becoming the answer to a future trivia question, and painful highlights during games.
Just remember, you can’t make me feel bad about it unless I let you.