Can Virginia Duplicate the Success of Its 2015-16 Squad?

Posted by Mick McDonald on November 23rd, 2017

It’s still early in the season, but the initial returns are all positive on Virginia this year. Certainly home wins over UNC-Greensboro, Austin Peay and Monmouth are nothing to boast about, but a road win at VCU is typically a nice resume booster. There are, however, some revealing similarities to a recent group of Cavaliers that should make the good people of Charlottesville smile. The 2015-16 Elite Eight team that featured Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill started in much the same way. Early comparisons between the two teams seem fair.

A lot to potentially smile about for Tony Bennett and Virginia this season. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

We know that Tony Bennett teams live and die by their defense. In the first four games of this season, the Cavaliers are allowing their opponents to shoot just 37.5 percent from the field. Through four games of the 2015-16 season, Virginia held its opponents to 37.4 percent shooting. This year’s team relies more on steals (8.3 vs. 5.0 SPG) and blocks (3.8 vs 2.5 BPG) than those Cavaliers, thanks to a starting front line (Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt) that is a stronger defensive unit than Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. Bennett has also been adamant that his team get to the line more often. The 2015-16 team attempted 67 free throws in the first four games of the year; this year’s group has notched 74 attempts. That team had a deep backcourt, so when London Perrantes or Brogdon went to the bench, Bennett could turn to Darius Thompson, Marial Shayok or a young Devon Hall.

This year, the options are better. Graduate transfer Nigel Johnson hasn’t shot the ball well yet this season, but he has a minuscule 8.9 percent turnover rate and gives Bennett the flexibility to play starting point guard Ty Jerome off the ball. Redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter has already scored in double figures twice while putting up a 75.0 percent effective field-goal rate. Hunter completely took over the game against Monmouth on Sunday, scoring 23 points. To be very clear about the comparison — There is no Brogdon on this roster. Nobody will win ACC Player of the Year or become a first team All-American. That said, Kyle Guy is off to a much better start offensively than Brogdon’s campaign two years ago. The sophomore is shooting 50 percent from three-point range while averaging 18.0 points per game. So far, his PER (32.3 to 25.1) and effective field-goal percentage (60.6% to 53.2%) are both higher than the numbers Brogdon put up during his award-winning season.

Much of this comparison is inflated by Guy’s 29-point performance at VCU, but his development as a go-to scorer is one of the things most necessary for Virginia’s return to greatness. We’ll know a lot more about this team after the NIT Season Tip-Off, beginning tonight in Brooklyn. The Cavaliers will face a talented Vanderbilt team that recently took USC to overtime, and wither Seton Hall or Rhode Island will follow in a second game. In 2015-16, it was three straight wins against West Virginia, Villanova and California that showed Bennett might have a special team. If the Cavaliers can get a pair of wins this weekend at the Barclays Center, we might realize this weekend as the moment something special was happening again in Charlottesville.

Mick McDonald (70 Posts)

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