As the calendar turns to 2019, the Virginia Cavaliers’ basketball’s schedule will undergo a similarly monumental change — the team’s final 18 games will all come against ACC opponents. Especially considering UVA’s underwhelming out-of-conference slate, things get serious quickly when #9 Florida State visits JPJ on Saturday.
The Hoos will enter the conference season with not only a perfect 12-0 record, but one achieved in dominant fashion. Per Bart Torvik, UVA’s win probability dipped under 50% on just one of its 749 possessions:
Here's the one moment so far this year where UVA's win probability dipped below 50% pic.twitter.com/jbvn50COCq— Bart T rvik (@totally_t_bomb) December 31, 2018
What has UVA off to a such a successful start? Here are five takeaways from the team’s first 12 games.
1) Virginia has made efficient use of its best players on offense.
UVA’s “Big 3” of DeAndre Hunter, Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome boasts offensive ratings of 132, 124, and 121, respectively; they also lead the team in usage - Jerome at 25%, Hunter at 24%, and Guy at 21%.
To compare with last season, Devon Hall led the team with a 123 offensive rating, but was 5th in usage, shooting at a less frequent clip than Nigel Johnson (ORtg of 95) when he was on the floor.
The Cavaliers have a deep understanding of their roles on the team. Hunter, Guy, and Jerome have carried the offense, while supporting players like Kihei Clark and Braxton Key have also picked their spots wisely, and the front court (an area of relative weakness on offense) has been efficient by not trying to do too much. Diakite, Huff, and Salt all have eFG%s over 50% (Huff actually leads the team at 69%), a result of limiting their attempts to high-percentage looks.
There’s room to improve here if Hunter could find a few more attempts per game as well.
2) The Hoos have managed to get to the free-throw line at a somewhat more respectable clip than last season.
Free throw rate will never be a stat that Tony Bennett’s squads are highly proficient in, but UVA finished each of the last 2 seasons in the bottom 10 in the nation in getting to the line. To date, Virginia has improved its FT rate from .25 FT/FGA last year (albeit a bit higher in non-conference play; we can’t see the exact stat, but likely about .28 during that stretch) to .35 through 12 games.
Ty Jerome already has 41 free-throw attempts in 12 games after taking 42 all of last season, and Kyle Guy has taken 29 already (51 last season). Adding in Kihei Clark (.38 FT/FGA) and Braxton Key (.44) to the mix has helped also. We’ll continue to track this stat heading into conference play, but the ability to be aggressive and get points at the free-throw line will be important in alleviating any inevitable cold streaks.
3) UVA has attempted more shots from behind the arc or at the rim...and fewer two-point jumpers.
Thirty five percent of Virginia’s field-goal attempts last season were two-point jumpers, which is on par with each of the past five seasons (all over 30%). This year, just 24% of the team’s shots are in that category.
Why is this so great? Two-point jump shots are the least efficient on the floor, featuring a similar degree of difficulty as three-pointers (UVA actually shoots at a higher clip from behind the arc - 39% vs 36% for two-point jumpers), without the reward.
The 11% decrease in this stat has moved about evenly toward shots at the rim and from three. I believe the improvement here is both because of a more concerted effort by the team to do so (a similar pattern has been seen in the NBA), as well as a result of being more assertive early in the shot clock to avoid being left with a low-percentage jumper later in the possession. Again, we will see if this holds as conference play gets underway, and opponents are better able to limit what UVA wants to do on offense.
(More detailed player-by-player shooting stats available at hoop-math.com)
4) Virginia’s defense is a less dominant than last year’s version...but that’s okay.
After adjusting for strength of schedule, UVA is actually 5th in the nation in defensive efficiency, behind Texas Tech, Kansas State, Duke (!), and Michigan, allowing .02 PPP more than last season.
First of all, that is still excellent. Without Isaiah Wilkins around the rim, UVA has dropped from 3rd in the nation in opponents’ 2PT FG% to 35th, and has seen a slight downtick in turnovers forced as well. But it remains solidified as one of the nation’s elite defenses.
Secondly, that’s been mostly negated by an improvement of .015 PPP on offense; basketball is a game of trade-offs. Virginia is offensive rebounding at a much better clip than last season to date (27% vs. 31%...albeit, once again, without the grind of conference play yet this season). Coach Bennett could surely “shut off” offensive rebounding and save a few easy points on the other end, but that wouldn’t maximize overall performance. The Packline Pledge campaign may lose a few dollars this season...but readers are welcome to add a bonus if the team breaks 100!
5) Fine, the schedule hasn’t featured any huge tests.
The Hoos are playing great basketball and are well set up for the conference season, but it is important to remember that the team is about to face it’s first true showdown against a similarly talented team against Florida State (though Wisconsin should end the season a strong neutral-court win).
Virginia’s non-conference ranks 264th in the nation - the program’s worst since 2013, when its poor out-of-conference schedule led to an NIT bid. Beyond the lack of a true “elite” matchup, the issue has been depth, as the likes of George Washington, Middle Tennessee State, Dayton, VCU, South Carolina, and Marshall are literally all having “down” seasons. Its 12 opponents to date have combined for a grand total of 4 top-50 wins and 2 top-25 wins (Wisconsin’s victories over Oklahoma and NC State).
At the end of the day, this is fine. The Hoos have 17 tough ACC games ahead of it (plus a home game against Wake Forest*), which will feature plenty of “tests” before the postseason. And by taking care of business as one of just four undefeated teams on New Years Day, it shouldn’t cause any issues come Selection Sunday either.
*sorry, couldn’t help myself