What an unbelievable weekend it is to be a Virginia Cavalier fan after a flurry of upsets to begin the New Year. Starting last Thursday, #4 Arizona State was upended on the road against the Colorado Buffaloes 81-90. On Saturday, magic was dispersed around the country with NC State upsetting #2 Duke Blue Devils by double figures, Providence over #5 Xavier, and West Virginia over the upstart Oklahoma Sooners. But we cannot forget the great all-around performance by Virginia Basketball over the University of North Carolina Tarheels 61-49.
Pretender or Contender: Virginia Cavalier Basketball
Virginia has been criticized this entire season for their slow pace, ranking last in NCAAM, averaging about 71 points per game. They have totally different offensive schemes than powerhouse teams such as Michigan State, Duke, and Villanova, who all run high-tempo offenses that score in bunches. All three of these teams average more than 86 points a game and contain star-power and savvy veterans.
For Virginia, offensive efficiency has been the difference-maker, as they have been able to score 1.1 points per possession, ranking them 36th in the country. Virginia’s head coach Tony Bennett has installed a blocker mover offensive basketball scheme that predicates on the reality that not all players are natural scorers or ball-handlers and that we want to produce shots for the best shooters.
It is a motion offense that relies on extensive screening and cutting to the basket, where players will react to the defense accordingly. Players are assigned the roles of movers or blockers, where the movers are the primary scorers. In this case, the top two movers for the Virginia basketball team have been guards Kyle Guy and Devon Hall, who average 14.9 and 11.9 points per game (PPG) respectively. Both players have been lights out from outside the perimeter, shooting 44% and 46% respectively.
Another standout who has been given little credit to the team’s overall play is senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, stepson of NBA legend Dominique Wilkins. He doesn’t pad the stat sheet with scoring but has proven to be the glue-guy whose intangibles are unmatched by most of the nation’s college players. Coming into the season, Wilkins was one of seven ACC players averaging one block and one steal per game, and was viewed as one of the top defenders in NCAAM. In 2018, he’s lived up to the spotlight, blocking 7.4 % of opponents two-point field goals while on the floor. That’s up from 6.8% last season. In Saturday’s game against rival North Carolina, Wilkins was stout on the defensive end, preventing very little scoring chances for North Carolina forward Luke Maye who only had six points and eight rebounds. Maye came in averaging 18.1 PPG and 10.5 RPG.
Is Virginia worthy of being in the top five?
In two months, Virginia has gone from unranked to #3 in the country. But how impressive was the road to this feat? Critics can argue both sides especially with their fairly weak non-conference, but I see a vast transformation in how this team has played especially in its conference games. Though a tight-game against Boston College, Virginia’s defense was able to insert a stranglehold on the scoring prowess of sophomore guard Ky Bowman, who scored a disappointing five points on 2-10 shooting. His season average coming into the game was 15.7 points.
The following game, Virginia came into Blacksburg to face off against rival Virginia Tech and completely embarrassed them by 26 points. This obliteration of the Hokies was shocking especially for only being a four and half point favorite and losing the past two road matchups.
To put a cherry on top, Virginia’s double-digit victory over the North Carolina Tarheels inserted them into the national conversation for one of the top teams in college basketball today. Confidence hasn’t wavered at all for any of Virginia’s starters and the play of their bench has made it difficult for opposing teams to take advantage. Specifically, the rise of freshman forward De’Andre Hunter has created troubling for defenses. His quickness,length, and finishing ability have added another strength to this Virginia offense that has often been viewed as stagnant and boring. If you don’t believe it, watch his posterization of UNC’s senior guard Joel Berry II here.