Only a Strong ACC Run Can Rescue VirginiaPosted by Lathan Wells on December 31st, 2013
When the year began, the Virginia Cavaliers made it a point to avoid the types of missteps that derailed their season a year ago and relegated them to an NIT bid. There were three main areas the team had to lock down: a solid showing in the non-conference schedule; more offensive production from the point guard position; and avoiding a late-season collapse in ACC play. Conference play is now on the horizon, and the Cavaliers will have to look themselves in the mirror knowing they failed miserably at the first area of emphasis, have more questions than answers about the second, and will absolutely have to reverse the trend of the third to make an NCAA Tournament run. Nothing is as head coach Tony Bennett expected for his team roughly a third of the way into the 2013-14 season.
Virginia had two match-ups against ranked foes prior to conference play. They suffered a heartbreaking loss to VCU at home in November and then bowed out of a horrifically low-scoring affair against Wisconsin in December, again at home. A bad loss to Wisconsin Green-Bay, Bennett’s alma mater, followed, putting the Cavs in a precarious position with only a game at Tennessee left as a possible noteworthy non-conference victory. That evaporated early and often Monday night, as Virginia was overwhelmed by the Volunteers from start to finish in a crushing 35-point loss. The demoralizing score and performance would be devastating enough if it weren’t also serving as a microcosm of their entire season.
Bennett’s goal of having his point guard become more than just a defender and facilitator is rapidly falling apart. Freshman London Perrantes was given every chance to take the reins of the team, but he was on the bench as holdover Malcolm Brogdon manned the point from the start against the Vols. Brogdon and Perrantes combined to go 1-of-12 from the field; it’s been this level of inconsistent offense from the point that has stymied Virginia’s chance at unearthing another offensive threat to complement Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. On top of their inability to score, the point guards are also prone to turnovers that lead to easy fast-break points and early deficits. A team that prefers a slow-it-down, half-court slugfest of a game isn’t built to come from behind, especially when the players who have proven themselves as consistent performers have been anything but thus far.
Joe Harris was a front-runner for ACC Player of the Year when the season began, but he has been a shell of his former self. His seven points in the Tennessee loss was lower than his season average (11.4 PPG, down five points per game from a year ago), but perhaps amazingly, his shooting percentages are up even if his aggregate production is down. Harris’ problems are byproducts of the muddled point guard position and the struggles of his teammate, Akil Mitchell. Without another perimeter scorer to pull the opposition’s defenders off Harris (who has never been the best at creating his own shot or breaking a defender down off the dribble), he’s finding it much harder to hoist up shots. Mitchell, mired in a season-long slump, and Mike Tobey, a seven-footer who was supposed to emerge as a dominant force at the five, have done nothing to ignite fear in the opposition as legitimate offensive threats. This allows teams to play outside-in defense against Virginia, with little danger of the ball going into the post on a consistent basis. This season the Cavaliers’ offense is in a complete state of flux that has been sputtering since day one.
Tony Bennett’s teams are predicated on defense igniting offense. Most of their games are low-scoring affairs that the Cavs hope to win with solid rebounding and effective offensive possessions. But this methodology only works when the guards demonstrate an ability to create their own shots or challenge defenders on the perimeter, and the frontcourt becomes a viable option to jumpstart an offensive set. With the offense struggling mightily at providing those things, Virginia has to count on its defense. After surrendering 87 points to Tennessee with little production from preseason all-ACC picks Harris or Mitchell, it’s difficult to envision this team capitalizing on any of its supposed promise. The Cavaliers’ hopes of avoiding another late-season swoon may not matter if the precursor to the end of their season continues on its current path.