Virginia’s Offense Leads to ACC Crown and Optimism for What Comes NextPosted by Lathan Wells on March 2nd, 2014
Virginia’s first outright ACC title in 33 years came about in somewhat stunning fashion, blowing out #4 Syracuse by 19 points at John Paul Jones Arena Saturday evening. Anyone who has watched Tony Bennett’s team since the calendar flipped to 2014, though, saw much of what they’ve come to expect from this squad. Their stifling defense may be the Cavaliers’ calling card, but their ultra-efficient offense is the reason they had the ability to defeat one of the nation’s best in Syracuse and are poised to make major noise in March.
Bennett’s club gets most of its accolades thanks to his trademark “Pack Line Defense,” a stout man-to-man philosophy that stagnates opposing sets and leads to low offensive output. But the way Virginia has been scoring the basketball in ACC play is why it’s boasting an astounding 16-1 ACC record with only a road match-up at Maryland left to close out the year. Twelve of the Cavaliers’ conference wins have come by double figures, a remarkable feat on its own right, and coming into Saturday’s game they were second only to Duke in points per possession. While their defense often translates to opportunities on the offensive end, their demonstrated ability to initiate back-breaking runs (a 20-1 run to close out Georgia Tech; a 30-5 stretch to blow out Notre Dame; a 19-7 streak to pull away from Miami in the second half) shows they have sufficient offensive punch to couple with their effort on the defensive end. On Saturday, they closed out the Orange with a 35-16 blitz over the final 15 minutes of the game, showing that they’re no longer satisfied playing methodical, plodding games in the 50’s. Virginia can now outscore you too, which has to be a frightening proposition for the teams matched up with them over the next few weeks.
No one on this team is a superstar on the offensive end, but every single player utilizes his strengths and shares the ball. Joe Harris, a preseason ACC Player of the Year candidate, has ceded the team’s lead scoring role to Malcolm Brogdon and his scoring average has dipped nearly five points per game. For many teams this would be a signal of some dissent or representative of a player that teams have figured out how to stop. For Virginia, it is simply a natural progression towards becoming a more unified and diverse offensive basketball team. Brogdon, in his own right, came into the year unsure of whether he’d primarily play the point guard position or man the off-guard role. But the development of freshman London Perrantes, an extremely calm player who rarely turns the ball over, has in turn allowed Brogdon to showcase his diverse skill set playing off the ball. Both Brogdon and Harris started slowly in yesterday’s Syracuse match-up, but each came up with big shots down the stretch in the second half to help the Cavaliers pull away. Perrantes came through with another sparkling performance as a distributor, dishing out seven assists with only two turnovers and hitting two huge three-pointers to ignite a run against the Orange.
If there was one player, though, who had the biggest impact on Saturday’s game and is also the key to Virginia making a very deep run in the NCAA Tournament, it’s Mike Tobey. Tobey was expected to improve significantly coming into the season, having played for Bennett on the World U-19 team over the summer. Instead, despite his prodigious size, Tobey has often found himself outmuscled down low and has not capitalized on the advantages his 6’11” frame can provide. That was not the case on Saturday, however, as he matched up with the physical Syracuse frontcourt and asserted himself to the tune of 11 points and eight rebounds, including an efficient 5-of-9 showing from the field. Tobey is the one player in Virginia’s starting rotation who is not a known offensive commodity from game to game. If he has turned the corner and can be counted on for similar output in postseason play, the Virginia offense has much more room for error.
This was obviously an enormous win for the Virginia program and the punctuation of a stunning ACC regular season, as many expected Syracuse, Duke or North Carolina to claim the crown. Instead, a team that closed its non-conference slate getting crushed at Tennessee has morphed into the conference’s best team, and one capable of building off of its amazing run by playing deep into March. The knock on previous Virginia teams under Bennett has been that using defense as a catalyst in such low scoring games left him with very little margin for error. After now running roughshod through the ACC regular season, one of the hottest teams in the nation has shown that it has a legitimate offense capable of making a dream season even more special.