Night Line: Virginia Falling Fast, Failing to ScorePosted by EJacoby on February 15th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Remember when Virginia played Duke to a one-possession game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in mid-January, then followed that up with a 32-point road win at Georgia Tech and was ranked No. 15 in the succeeding AP Poll? That Cavaliers team looks completely different from the one that scored just 48 points in a 12-point loss on Tuesday night at Clemson to fall to 6-5 in the ACC. What once looked like a surging team with top four NCAA seed potential has turned into a squad in a bit of a free fall. UVA has not only lost starting center Assane Sene to injury, but also three of its last four games and four of their last eight overall to drop to sixth place in the ACC. Virginia needs to turn things around if they want to make the Big Dance with a chance to win in the postseason. They’ll have that opportunity with both North Carolina and Florida State coming into John Paul Jones Arena in the next two weeks.
Back on January 16, the then-No. 15 Cavaliers were not only on a nice winning streak but also had developed a strong identity as a slow-paced, defensive team that was difficult to execute against. Their average game includes 60.5 possessions, one of the 20 slowest tempos in the nation. Led by fifth-year senior Mike Scott, who has developed into one of the best all-around forwards in the country, Virginia had the goods to beat opponents in a grind-it-out style that came down to whose offense could be most efficient in the half court. At 15-2, the results showed that they were making it work. However, the downside to that style of play given the tempo is always the potential to allow teams to hang in a game. And when you’re not executing well enough on your own end of the court, then the style can turn ugly in a hurry. That is exactly what has happened to Virginia.
Since January 16, the Cavaliers have dropped four of eight including a home loss to 3-7 Virginia Tech. They also lost tough road games to North Carolina and Florida State and barely escaped with a victory at NC State. Tuesday’s loss to 5-6 Clemson was not a good performance at all, and Tony Bennett’s team is now simply having trouble scoring the ball. Their offensive efficiency of 97.7 in ACC play ranks eighth in the conference, and they rank last in both free throws and three-pointers made. Sophomore guard Joe Harris (12.0 PPG) is the only other Cavalier that averages in double-figures alongside Scott (16.9 PPG), as three-point specialist Sammy Zeglinski has struggled to hit just 34.4% from three for only 8.0 points per game. Options are limited for this team now that opponents can key on double-teaming Scott in the low post.
It’s one thing if you’re not scoring a lot of points but can be a completely dominant defensive team. That’s what Virginia was doing back in January, when their defensive efficiency of 82.5 was among the top three in the entire country. They are still a terrific defensive team, averaging a conference-best 91.5 defensive efficiency during ACC games, but it’s not at that totally dominant number that can win games alone. Things have also changed since the Sene went down with an ankle injury on January 20. He was the team’s leading shot-blocker, and his void has left it extremely thin in the frontcourt behind Scott. Akil Mitchell has stepped in as the starter and filled Sene’s minutes, but his averages of 4.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 0.4 blocks per game aren’t making much of an impact.
It’s not looking like Virginia is a very scary team to play against at the moment, but that can change if they make some necessary adjustments. A patient offensive style has a history of being successful in the NCAA Tournament if a player like Scott can carry the team. Virginia also needs to start hitting the offensive glass, as their 27.8% offensive rebound percentage is currently second-worst in the conference. Lacking consistent shot-makers and not collecting misses is a bad combination. A greater emphasis on being as tough on the offensive boards as they are on defense could shape Virginia back into the physical force they were just a month ago. With an upcoming schedule that includes home games against UNC and FSU, the opportunities are there for Tony Bennett’s to make a splash again before meeting their NCAA Tournament fate.