ACC Team Previews: VirginiaPosted by KCarpenter on October 24th, 2011
Virginia had a run of bad luck last season. In the early part of the season, there were flashes of promise. An upset against a Minnesota team that had shellacked North Carolina in Puerto Rico and the incredible play of Mike Scott offered hope for the Cavaliers. But then, Scott, who was averaging a double-double with a ridiculous 15.9 PPG and 10.2 RPG, got hurt. The magic that led to an upset against Minnesota never returned as UVA simply failed to make much noise in ACC play. The team finished the season with a paltry 16-14 record and a meager seven wins in the conference. A season that started with promise ended in a first round conference tournament overtime loss to Miami.
This season, much like last season, Virginia looks like it has a lot of potential. Mustapha Farrakhan (graduation) is the only major contributor that Tony Bennett lost over the summer. Scott was granted a medical hardship waiver and will return for a fifth year with the Cavaliers. A talented freshman class includes four-star shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon as well as solid forwards in Paul Jesperson and Darion Atkins. After taking a redshirt, the 6’9″, 240-pound James Johnson will add even greater depth to a frontcourt that was depleted after Scott’s injury. That’s five significant pieces added to a nucleus that only lost Farrakhan.
Still, after last season, there are a lot of questions that Bennett’s crew needs to answer. One of the problems that plagued Virginia last year was a lack of offensive balance: while the Cavaliers were able to field a sweet-shooting team that led the ACC in three-pointers, the team was last in the ACC in two-point shooting percentage. The answer to this problem, as with the answer to many of Virginia’s problems is actually fairly simple: Mike Scott. After Scott’s injury last year, Bennett leaned heavily on a four-guard lineup, anchored by 7’0″ center Assane Sene, who is a fantastic rebounder and shotblocker, but who lacks the touch to score reliably from the post. Scott (and potentially Atkins and Johnson) gives the team a go-to presence down low that should offer the team a little better offensive balance.
More than balance, though, Scott offers his team a scorer, a star, and a leader. Though he slipped into the pre-season All-ACC First Team as the sixth player and was the last player on CBS Sports list of top one hundred college players, I feel confident that Scott is poised for big things this year if he can pick up anywhere close to where he left off prior to his injury. Remember, when he was last seen on the court, Scott was posting a double-double, drawing nearly six fouls a game, and shooting nearly 90% from the charity stripe. Off the court, the fifth-year senior is in great shape, coming back from his injury by losing weight and increasing his quickness. Finally, he seems eager to lead the team and do whatever it takes to win, even if that means growing a giant, partially gray afro.
One man can only do so much, however, and fortunately, last year’s crop of freshmen seem to be maturing nicely. Joe Harris, a 6’6″ wing , was pressed into playing a Singler-esque stretch at power forward when Scott went down, yet still managed to score effectively, shooting lots of threes at a 41.7% clip. His fellow freshmen in the starting backcourt, K.T. Harrell and Jontel Evans, managed great first-year campaigns from behind the arc as well, shooting 42.1% and 35.7%, respectively. When you throw in senior super-sub Sammy Zeglinski’s prolific and accurate three-point shooting, you have as deadly a brigade of three-point shooters as you’ll find anywhere in the conference.
Ironically, the problem with Virginia is these same four players. As good as they were from deep, last season was a miserable year for anything inside the arc. Harris and Harrell shot about the same from close range as they did from far away, and while 42% is a great number for threes, it’s simply a miserable rate for two-pointers. Evans wasn’t able to break 40% from the field and Zeglinski somehow shot 29.3% from inside the arc despite shooting 38.7% from outside. Needless to say, this is bad. As heavily as this team leans on the long ball, I would still be tempted to place a ban on mid-range jumpers from any of these four guards unless they show real improvement in practice. Since Virginia plays slow (and make no mistake, they are positively glacial), every possession is precious, and a trip downcourt that ends in one of these four taking a mid-range shot is a possession wasted.
The pre-season ACC media poll predicted a fourth place finish for Virginia in the conference. As good as Mike Scott is, I think that’s pushing it. Last year, this team had the best three-point shooting in the conference and yet had the second-worst offense in the conference. Only the wretched 2010-11 Wake Forest offense (if you can call it that) was worse. While Bennett’s teams will always be solid defensively, the offensive improvement needed to propel Virginia to fourth place in the conference is significant. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers also have a particularly challenging schedule this season. The non-conference schedule is highlighted by games with Michigan and George Mason at home as well as road games with Oregon and Seattle. In ACC play, Virginia will have to play North Carolina and Florida State twice while getting to play Wake Forest and Georgia Tech only once.
While Bennett’s team certainly has all the elements in place to take a step forward, it’s not clear to me that this is the year that Virginia will do so. Mike Scott is a talented player and I have no doubt that he has the potential to lead his team to an NCAA berth. The offensive limitations of this team, as well as the more difficult conference schedule are, however, a cause for concern. A more realistic expectation for this team is nine conference wins and a total of twenty one or so victories overall. Virginia is headed in the right direction, but the Wahoos still have a ways to go.