The No. 23 Virginia Cavaliers kick off ACC play tonight, December 30, with a road trip to Notre Dame. Virginia is coming off of a blowout loss to No. 1 Gonzaga in which the Hoos turned the ball over on nearly 22% of their possessions, allowed the Zags to score 1.46 points per possession, and gave up the most points under Tony Bennett since 2010.
Virginia sits at 4-2 on the season, with both losses coming to WCC teams. The good news? There aren’t any more WCC teams on Virginia’s schedule.
Before tonight’s game — 6pm on the ACC Network — we are going to take a look at some of the big storylines.
A fresh start
The beginning of the 2020 season has undeniably been a big disappointment. We’ve had pauses, delays, and cancellations. Virginia was supposed to have marquee games against Michigan State and Villanova, both of which were either postponed or canceled as a result of COVID issues with the Virginia program. The matchup with Gonzaga was exciting in theory, but less so in execution.
While all of that matters as we look at the season, in some ways none of it does. Virginia has plenty of opportunities to get big wins in conference play with Duke, Florida State, and Virginia Tech all currently ranked and North Carolina, NC State, Louisville, and Clemson getting votes. Virginia’s goal of winning the ACC is still very much doable, and no team in conference play has really set themselves apart at this point.
What is going on with the defense?
The defense so far has been difficult to watch. The Hoos have fallen to No. 11 in KenPom, down six spots after the loss to Gonzaga. Virginia hasn’t finished a season outside of the KenPom top-10 since the 2013 team was No. 25. There is more than enough time for Virginia to right the ship defensively, but there are significant issues to fix.
The offseason was bizarre for all teams as the NCAA dealt with delays and issues with the coronavirus pandemic. The reduced practice time, delayed start, cancellation of scrimmages and reduced out of conference play created a perfect storm for a Virginia squad trying to introduce and integrate many new faces into the program.
Marquette transfer Sam Hauser has struggled, an issue amplified by falling short of lofty offensive expectations heading into the season. Fellow transfer Trey Murphy and first year Reece Beekman have also suffered by not having a “normal” preseason, or — in the case of Murphy — even knowing whether or not he would play this season.
The defensive struggles certainly cannot all be placed on newcomers. Virginia has missed rotations, lost players, and allowed baseline drives for easy buckets. That’s the stuff that has to stop. Last year’s team had Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key to erase defensive breakdowns, but the Hoos don’t have the defense to that point yet.
Notre Dame will be yet another good test for this squad. They shoot 41% from three, but also like to play a slower and more deliberate pace.
This is all about Virginia
No offense intended to Notre Dame, of course, but for us, this game is about what Virginia can do. Can Virginia figure out its defense? Can they set the tone for ACC play? Can they work out the communication issues on both ends and work better together? Can they string together two serviceable games instead of this alternating good game/bad game thing they have going on?
When you play a team like Gonzaga, a lot of what happens is on them. Virginia will not play another team remotely as dominant as the Zags for the rest of the season. Now it’s time to settle in, get comfortable with a rotation, and win some games.
Virginia’s offense, now at No. 49 in KenPom, is much better than it was a season before. Both Murphy and Huff are in the top-20 nationally in ORtg, but both need to take more shots. The Notre Dame defense is No. 185 nationally, so this is a good chance to try and get in a rhythm on the road.