I spoke with UVA blog Streaking The Lawn contributor Paul Wiley this week to get caught up on Virginia, which is riding a two-game winning streak but getting ready for its first game without Justin Anderson. His answers to my questions are below. I answered some questions for Paul as well, and those will be up on STL.
BTP: Obviously the big questions right now center around Justin Anderson. How do you think his absence affects Virginia on Wednesday night, and over the long term? How do you expect the Cavs to reorganize themselves offensively in his absence? Who takes on a larger load?
STL: The biggest difference is going to be not having Justin's athleticism on the floor. He established himself last year as one of the best trail blockers in the ACC and had the combination of length, strength, and quickness to confound opponents. There are lots of other talented guys on UVa's roster, but none so freakish as JA. The guys who are most likely to see more playing time are Evan Nolte, Marial Shayok, and potentially Devon Hall. Nolte has the experience, Shayok most closely approximates the athleticism (in part thanks to a big ol' wingspan), and Hall could replicate some of the outside shooting. Coach Bennett plays matchups about as well as anyone, so the roles will be fairly fluid unless someone establishes himself as Justin's clear successor.
BTP: In terms of performance on the court, have there been any surprises for the Cavs, good or bad, since league play started?
STL: The performance against the zone has been the most unpleasant surprise. Duke used it to shut Virginia down during their comeback and even lowly Va Tech was able to make a game of it by using a zone defense. The Hoos were able to break down Louisville's more easily, which was an encouraging development. The most pleasant surprise has been the ease with which the team has busted press teams this year. From VCU all the way through to Louisville this weekend, London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon have taken care of the ball and gotten it into the front court against any type of press. There's the old adage that it's easier to slow a game down than to speed one up. Now that Virginia has been able to keep from getting sped up, the Hoos have seen a lot more success.
BTP: I'm fascinated by great defensive teams because they might as well be unicorns for as often as we see them at NC State. How much of UVA's success is tied to recruiting the right type of player? Are there specific attributes that Tony Bennett's staff is looking for that maybe other coaches emphasize less?
STL: I think some of it has to do with Bennett being a coach's kid, because he's recruited guys who are either coach's kids or have grown up immersed in the game: Joe Harris was a coach's kid, so is BJ Stith, and of course Isaiah Wilkins had Dominique teaching him up. Even for kids who aren't, the same attributes are important-play team-first basketball, buy into the idea that your best chance for success comes by playing as part of the system, and be willing to take coaching. There's also an underdog/chip-on-the-shoulder mindset that seems important. The team has a door knocker hanging by the exit from the locker room at JPJ and they take it with them on the road; the message from Coach Bennett is "Keep knocking on that door," a reminder that this program is still fighting its way up.
BTP: What's the best way to beat UVA these days, you know, other than just "be Duke."
STL: As I mentioned above, zone defense seemed to be the key to slowing down the offense. The blocker-mover is predicated on opening guys up with screens, and it's harder to do that against a zone. To beat the defense, run and run HARD off of made baskets at the other end. It seems counterintuitive, but both Duke and Davidson had success running right after UVa hit a basket, especially if it was off an offensive rebound or an inside post move. If you can't beat the defense down the floor, move the ball very quickly and hit open long-range shots. The hard post doubles can be cracked with a big man who passes well. You're going to have to get lucky a couple times, because odds are you won't wear down a Virginia defense over the course of a game.
BTP: I would not be doing my job if I did not give you a chance to jinx Virginia, so what's your prediction for Wednesday night?
STL: This Virginia team plays best when it has something to prove: it did so against UNC-Chapel Hill after the Duke loss and it did it again against Louisville to reestablish home-court advantage. Losing Anderson hurts but it gives the team something else to play for. KenPom has it pegged as a 9-point Virginia victory. I'm going to be slightly more optimistic and say Hoos by 11, 64-53.