Virginia’s defense this basketball season was stingier than ever. The Cavaliers allowed 54.2 points per game, lowest of any ACC team in the shot-clock era, second-lowest in conference history to North Carolina State’s 49.1 in 1981-82.
If you’re new-aged and prefer a tempo-free metric: Virginia ranked third among ACC teams in field goal percentage defense at 40.0, the program’s best since 1996 and far better than last season’s 43.6. Indeed, all of the Cavaliers’ defensive stats exceeded coach Tony Bennett’s previous two years in Charlottesville.
But Virginia wilted at season’s end. In three of the final four games, opponents shot 50 percent or better. That only happened twice in the first 28 games.
Not coincidentally, Virginia was 0-5 when foes made at least half their shots, including a 71-45 NCAA tournament loss to Florida. The Cavaliers (22-10) simply didn’t have the scoring ability to overcome an opponent that shot well.
Given its depleted roster and backloaded schedule, Virginia’s staggering finish – six losses in the final nine games -- was hardly a shock. For the final four contests, the Cavaliers’ only reserves were freshmen Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson, and in the season’s final month, Virginia faced North Carolina twice, Florida State, North Carolina State and Florida.
For the season, seven of the Cavaliers’ 10 defeats came against teams that advanced at least one round in the NCAA tournament. The exceptions were Texas Christian in November, Virginia Tech in January and Clemson in February.
So discouraging March aside, the season was an unqualified success for a program that hadn’t reached the NCAAs since 2007.
During a teleconference Tuesday, I asked Bennett about the team’s defensive slide.
“Certainly that was something we really addressed last year,” he said, “and we worked at it and we improved defensively. Now heading into those last games, I think a few things took place that maybe we weren’t as effective. Starting with the very last game, Florida.
“That’s the best perimeter we had gone against in terms of quickness, (at the) 1, 2 and 3 (positions) and sometimes when they put the fourth player out there. They all were so adept, they all could beat you off the dribble, and all were capable of shooting the ball, and that really put pressure (on us). We had trouble with the ball screen defense against Florida, that’s kind of where the breakdowns took place more than just our system. But also their ability to just beat you off the dribble.”
The Gators shot 52.8 percent for the game, 69.6 percent in the second half. After intermission, Florida made 13-of-15 attempts from inside the 3-point arc.
Untenable, to say the least.
Bennett said that once reserve guard Malcolm Brogdon was lost to a foot injury in late February, the Cavaliers couldn’t even practice effectively, despite the best efforts of assistant coach Jason Williford, whose Virginia playing career ended 17 years ago.
“We practiced hard,” Bennett said. “We had to be efficient. But we didn’t have the competition in practice to really, really be sharp. … Our walk-ons gave everything, and God bless Coach Williford, he tried to give us what he could. But to not be able to go against the playmaking ability and the sharpness on a daily basis, I think that might have something to do with it. …
“Our bench was obviously two freshmen … who just weren’t up to speed. I think our defense gradually took hits as the season wore on, it really did. It was good in stretches, but I think when we lost Assane, it took a step down, I really do.”
Seven-foot senior Assane Sene sustained an ankle injury Jan. 19 at Georgia Tech, had surgery the next day and never returned to the court. Plus, Joe Harris played the final eight games with a broken left hand.
“Certainly when we lost Malcolm, (he) gave us some things defensively, but it was just another body,” Bennett said. “And then, Joe, I don’t know if the broken hand affected him much. But I just think it slowly eroded, and then some teams took advantage of us. We didn’t have the same kind of defensive productivity or just tenacity. …
“We had turnovers that led to good shots. We just didn’t quite have the focus or the sharpness that we had through a majority of the year, and some of that was a small bench and some of that was losing a key player, some of that probably being worn down. Not excuses. I just think those are facts that happened that didn’t let us have the defensive performance the last few games that was needed to be successful.”
Junior point guard Jontel Evans made the ACC’s all-defensive team, the first Cavalier to do so since Adam Hall in 2001. Evans figures to anchor next season’s defense, and incoming freshman Justin Anderson certainly has the athleticism to be an outstanding perimeter defender.
But without senior forward Mike Scott’s 18 points a game, an offensively challenged program may take a step back. A secondary scorer his first two seasons, Harris will need to assume a primary role.
“It takes time,” Bennett said, “but we’re getting the right players in place. I like the long range. It’s always about that. … In light of all things, I think we’re in a good spot. … We’re tracking in the right direction. … As far as after three years, I like where we’re at, yes.”
With Evans the lone senior on next season’s roster, if Bennett can say the same after four years, he may be on to something.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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