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Virginia lives at the extremes, surrounded by a mountain of bricks

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Virginia is far more vulnerable this year, but that doesn’t mean anything about its defense has changed.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Georgia Tech Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia is hardly the first program to slump the year after winning a national championship, but give UVA credit for doing it in a distinctly UVA fashion. The Cavaliers have been a college basketball unicorn for some time now, and this season they are among the most bizarre combinations of horrible offense and great defense that you’ll ever see.

UVA looked the part of a title team at both ends of the floor in 2019—second in offensive efficiency, fifth in defensive efficiency. That offense was led by three players—Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter—currently in the NBA and it’s not surprising that was the most effective offense Tony Bennett has had in Charlottesville.

With those guys out of the picture, Virginia went plummeting well below average in 2020. The Cavs head into Monday night ranked 232nd in offensive efficiency, which happens to be the lowest ranking of Bennett’s tenure.

But of course, that defense is still as good as ever, which makes Virginia weird as hell. Prior to its win against Georgia Tech on Saturday, UVA had the least-efficient offense in conference games, and yet the team is still projected to at least break even in ACC play.

To get a sense for how strange that is, I compared the Cavs to the teams with the worst offenses in each of the last nine ACC seasons.

The Worst ACC Offenses, 2011-20

Year Team Conf-Only Off_Eff Conf-Only Eff. Margin ACC Record
Year Team Conf-Only Off_Eff Conf-Only Eff. Margin ACC Record
2020 UVA 88.6 8.0 11-9 (projected)
2019 Georgia Tech 90.9 -12.9 6-12
2018 Pittsburgh 86.8 -29.4 0-18
2017 Georgia Tech 94.4 -5.3 8-10
2016 Boston College 85.3 -25.6 0-18
2015 Georgia Tech 94.0 -7.8 3-15
2014 Virginia Tech 90.9 -16.9 2-16
2013 Clemson 93.0 -8.3 5-13
2012 Boston College 87.8 -17.4 4-12
2011 Wake Forest 88.3 -26.5 1-15

Virginia is the only one of the bunch with a positive efficiency margin, outscoring opponents on average because its defense is so preposterously effective. (Doesn’t hurt that it’s a down year for offense within the ACC and across college basketball, but still.) Usually an offense this bad is the sign of a real bad team, but Virginia is good at re-defining things in a basketball context.

The closest proxy to UVA this year is 2017 Georgia Tech, which finished the season ranked 259th in offensive efficiency and sixth defensively. The Jackets came close to hitting .500 in ACC play and ended up playing for an NIT title. And yet they were by a wide (efficiency) margin worse than this UVA group, which is 33 spots higher in the Pomeroy Ratings.

It’s a lot to try to wrap your brain around.

Now here’s a glance at all the stuff that’s broken within the UVA offense this season:

Virginia Offense

2020 Cavaliers Off_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
2020 Cavaliers Off_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
Offense 98.0 (232) 45.7 (313) 20.6 (260) 28.4 (169) 24.6 (329)

UVA was an elite perimeter-shooting team last season, but is hitting a deeply regrettable 26.7% of its threes in 2020, which ranks 345th nationally. The Cavaliers are an average two-point shooting team, so their struggle from three really is the bottom line here.

And the individual numbers need to be seen to be believed. Casey Morsell, 9-62 (14.5%) from three. Kody Stattmann, 8-41 (19.5%). Braxton Key, 8-40 (20%). So many attempts, so much horror.

Starters

Kihei Clark (5’9, 163) — Out of necessity, Clark almost never sits, and has gone the distance in three ACC games. He’s the team’s best three-point shooter at 36.7% but remains an appalling possession-killer inside the arc, where he’s a career 35% scorer. With more responsibility this year, he’s also turning the ball over a lot.

Tomas Woldetensae (6’5, 196) — By UVA standards, he’s a competent outside shooter at 32.8%. He’s also 6-21 on twos this year.

Braxton Key (6’8, 230) — Key brings some much-needed reliability in the paint and in the past has been a better outside shooter than he’s shown in 2020. He’s an excellent defensive rebounder and one of the team’s more disruptive defenders.

Mamadi Diakite (6’9, 224) — Diakite owns the highest workload on the team and is holding up pretty well thanks in part to his expanded range: more than half of his career three-point attempts have come this season, and he’s hit 35% of those. No question he is the Cavs’ most gifted scorer, though that’s a low bar to clear.

Jay Huff (7’1, 243) — Huff is central to what Virginia does defensively because he cleans up the glass and blocks shots at an elite rate. He’s also hitting 67% of his twos. One of those annoying guys who is more effective than he seems to have any right to be.

Bench

Kody Stattmann (6’7, 200), Casey Morsell (6’3, 195). Kody Stattmann, a cavalier consonant consumer. And probably some other things.

Morsell has seen his playing time decline of late, and given that his effective field goal percentage is south of 29%, that’s not terribly surprising. He doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, well, unless you’re playing against him—then he has tons of redeeming qualities.

Virginia Defense

2020 Cavaliers Def_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
2020 Cavaliers Def_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
Defense 83.4 (2) 42.2 (4) 22.1 (55) 23.2 (18) 21.8 (11)

You’ll see plenty of occasions where a team lacks effort defensively because it is struggling on the offensive end, and I think a lot of that is just human nature. The Cavaliers definitely haven’t succumbed to that this year, but they have a culture that is different from most. Basketball unicorn and all that.

So as usual, playing Virginia is a nightmare trip to the dentist’s chair, since there ain’t a single thing that the Cavs do poorly at this end. Their lapses are few and far between, and it’s really difficult to out-execute them. None of us have to like it, but this doesn’t change the task at hand.

Across the offense and defense, the theme this year for Virginia is bricks. Bricks out the wahoo’s wazoo. Bricks everywhere. On the one hand, the good bricks, the ones the other team makes; on the other hand, the bad bricks, the ones they can’t help but produce themselves. It might help if we consider this whole deal they got goin’ on a dark comedy.

The Pomeroy Predictor likes UVA by three.