The Virginia Cavaliers basketball team faces off against the Vanderbilt Commodores at the Barclays Center for the NIT Season Tip-Off, which will be featuring four NCAA Tournament teams.
The Cavaliers have been off to a stellar season under head coach Tony Bennett, who have continued to make easy work of their non-conference schedule, posting a 4-0 record. This is accredited to the rise of sophomore guard Kyle Guy who has been red-hot so far, averaging 18 points and 2.3 assists a game behind a 50% clip from three-point range. His ability to create his own shot and separation has allowed him to dominate so far this season, but it only gets harder as the competition stiffens. They have also have improved mightily with redshirt freshman forward De’Andre Hunter, who just came off a career-high game against Monmouth, scoring 23 points and grabbing eight rebounds. So far, he is averaging 9.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per game, as he continues to creep up in minutes for his play.
This offense has undergone a complete transformation after getting pummeled in the second round of the NCAA tournament to SEC opponent Florida 65-39. Their stagnant offense could not penetrate or find any holes against the Florida defense, which signaled to Bennett that something in his offensive schemes needed to be changed.
Virginia’s increased pace was the effect of this change as Tony Bennett felt that it was essential to keep the defense on their toes and show more aggression driving into the paint. After ending the season as one of nation’s slowest teams based on possessions, they have made an effort to produce more possessions and speeding up the offense. They are now averaging nearly five more possessions per game over last season’s pace. Virginia is averaging 76.0 PPG, 10.0 PPG more than last season. He has called upon his team to exude confidence in drawing fouls and contact in the paint so that they can get to the charity stripe. The team has done exactly that, averaging 18.5 free throw attempts per game. Free points will be essential in tougher conference games, where every possession and point will matter down the stretch. Breaking in the habit of attacking the paint will not only lead to free throw opportunities but cause other team’s star players to get into foul trouble, which can completely open up mismatches defensively.
Virginia’s packline defense is one of the most formidable defensive schemes coaches have to face in college basketball today. They currently are top 10 in the nation in opponents PPG and have caused opposing offenses to turnover the ball beyond their game average. This defense encourages dribble penetration into help and takes away post touches. Teams are forced into contested jumpers over the top of the defense. Virginia’s defense is anchored by senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, who has similar attributes to Draymond Green in the sense that the stats don’t show up on the scoreboard. His ability to communicate to his defenders on where to go and be a defensive stopper in the paint explains his team high rebounding average of 7.3. Wilkin’s also is quick to provide help defense on double-teams and close out to shooters, after dribble penetration into the paint. His experience with this defense will dictate how well they come out against Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt is coming off a dominant offensive game against the #10 ranked USC Trojans in a close 93-89 loss. The offense runs through senior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis, who just went off for 31 points on nine of 18 shooting, and hitting six of 13 three-point shots. Fisher-Davis can hit from any spot on the court and will have to be on high-alert for the Virginia defense. The only question is, how will he handle the packline defense? Will he be able to make the necessary adjustments to keep this a close game?
The defense has been short of spectacular, allowing 73 points per game, and struggled mightily guarding the three-ball against the starters in their matchup against Belmont. Two of Belmont’s forwards combined for 46 points and 18 rebounds, shooting 44% from downtown. Virginia will look to exploit this suspect perimeter defense behind sharpshooter Kyle Guy and the rest of the backcourt including point guards Ty Jerome and Devon Hall who can both score from deep range. Look for Bennett to continue implementing flair screens using big men Mamadi Diakite and Jack Salt to create shots for their playmakers.
The Virginia Cavaliers will move towards 5-0 and into the finals after handing Vanderbilt a 60-50 loss. Vanderbilt will find early success scoring in the first half, hitting some tough contested shots, but will lose that magic late in the second half. The Virginia packline defense and transition offense will be the difference maker for Virginia as they come away victorious against a tougher foe. This team has shown has resiliency and clutch it can be after their road win against a respectable VCU squad, who has the same level of talent as Vanderbilt.