Breaking Down Ivan Rabb vs. Virginia’s Defense

Posted by Adam Butler on December 26th, 2016

Virginia basketball doubles the post. This is less opinion than fact. Tony Bennett’s teams double the post and they double it effectively. In using Internet search devices you’ll discover a fifty-two-second video compilation of Virginia post-doubles when searching the terms, “VIRGINIA BASKETBALL DOUBLES POST.” And then another video with three minutes of post-doubles. Core to the pack-line defense is denying the paint, to ensure help is always available. In sending the immediate double-team, these tenets are fulfilled: help arrives immediately, and the post – and player – is denied.

Ivan Rabb Was Often Swarmed by Cavaliers (USA Today Images)

Ivan Rabb Was Often Swarmed by Cavaliers (USA Today Images)

The ultimate point I’m beleaguering here is that California center Ivan Rabb didn’t touch the ball for the final four minutes in last week’s 56-52 loss to Virginia. Rabb, the second-highest vote-getter in Preseason All-America voting, took only four shots on the evening and did not touch the ball for the final four minutes of a crucial non-conference home game. OK, to be fair, he did get a touch with 18 seconds remaining. It was with his back turned 24 feet away from the basket and resulted in an immediate handoff to teammate Jabari Bird (and zero threat to score). Ignoring that touch fits this final four-minute narrative but also demonstrates two key points: 1) Bennett is indeed the best defensive coach in America; 2) Cal is ineffectively using its greatest asset.

Let’s expand on the latter because to this point we’ve effused on the former. Bennett’s teams have never finished outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency and have been among the top 25 in nine of his 11 head coaching seasons. That point is clear. So, back to Rabb. If Virginia denies the post and Rabb is one of the nation’s best post players, what’s a Berkeley to do? First of all, one of the things that makes Rabb special is his pronounced versatility. He can score from all over the floor, create on his own and draw fouls. To quantify: he shoots 84 percent at the rim and 41 percent in the mid-range; only half of his shots are assisted; and he owns the 45th best free throw rate in America. Furthermore, his 12 percent assist rate suggests that, while he won’t soon rival Lonzo Ball in his passing capabilities, Rabb will find the open man (for context, that’s roughly the fifth-highest assist rate among Pac-12 bigs). So what was Cuonzo Martin‘s team trying to do at the end of a winnable game against a top 10 team? Well here’s a detailed look at Rabb’s 34 touches on the evening (including the last second, back-to-the basket, moment):

1st half 2nd half
Touch Result Touch Result
OR pass LW pass
FT pass RW pass
FT pass LW pass
LW pass LW foul
RB TO FT pass
LW pass RB double – pass
OR assist LB FGM – dunk
LW pass OR FGA
LB pass RB double – foul
LB double – pass RB double – foul
RB foul RW Pass
LB double – pass LB double – pass
FT TO LB pass
LW 3FGA LB double – pass
LB foul LW pass
RB assist
RB foul

Now it’s important to note that this is handwritten data, not Synergy Sports (meticulously logged basketball plays) or SportsVU (sensor-realized data points). I concede that there are basketball technologies far more sophisticated than my mind. But even with this manual, live-action data log, we can easily recognize that Rabb’s nine-point, four-shot performance had little effect on the offensive part of last week’s game. Knowing that Virginia doubles the post and Rabb is a prodigious post scorer, Cal only found him moving toward the rim without the ball once. It resulted in a dunk. Beyond that, Rabb was put in isolation on the blocks for about 50 percent of his remaining touches. Beyond that, all of his touches were in spots stretched away from the basket, positions the pack-line defense thrives upon. In explaining the game plan and the doubles, Rabb noted that he didn’t turn the ball over and that he had set out beforehand to make the right decisions. He finished the game with eight free throw attempts and only three turnovers. Of course, he was involved in a season-low 18 percent of the game’s possessions. Cal left a lot of Rabb to be desired.

But to better understand how Virginia handles this kind of player, I took to exploring some old Virginia-North Carolina box scores. I wanted to see what sort of success (or otherwise) former Tar Heels star Brice Johnson had against the Cavaliers. Last year’s version of Johnson and this year’s Rabb have very similar efficiency and usage numbers.

Usage eFG% Ast Rate FTRate Rim FG% 2 FG%
2016 Brice Johnson 24.6 61.4 9.7 42.3 87.5 46.2
2017 Ivan Rabb 25.2 55.2 12.2 68.8 82.4 41

In two contests against Virginia last season, Johnson took just 17 shots and four free throws. He did, however, log his second and third highest single-game assist totals of the season (four in a loss; five in a win). In losing to Virginia in late February, Johnson committed five turnovers. In beating Virginia two weeks later, Johnson committed just two turnovers. For California, solving the nation’s stingiest defense isn’t a challenge it will face on multiple occasions. From the experience of Johnson, we can recognize that even the most skilled post players are forced outside their traditional skill set range against the Cavaliers.

Was it Cal’s responsibility to game plan for its most skilled player to be optimized? Absolutely. The Bears noted that after they game they felt they could have won the game — that they didn’t hit some shots they usually hit. Charlie Moore, a 42 percent three-point shooter, for example, was one-of five from distance. But that’s what Virginia does. The Cavaliers force teams into bad shots and very often that’s a bad three-pointer. Virginia’s 40.1% eFG rate against suggests nearly any shot against them is a bad one. So were we asking too much of the nation’s 156th-best offense to solve the nation’s second-best defense, even at home? Probably. But Rabb is the type of transcendent talent who we expect (assume?) can raise above the efforts of five to score. On Wednesday night, in his home gym, it wasn’t clear that he had the best opportunities to do just that.

Adam Butler (47 Posts)

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