College Basketball is Finally Here! Yea, I know I’m a little late to the blog with this. Between Thanksgiving, Virginia football’s improbable late season run, and just the grind of my ‘real’ job, I just haven’t had the time to devote my attention toward a season kick-off column for the 2011-12 edition of the hardwood ‘Hoos. Besides, I wanted to see who the Cavaliers matched up against the 14th-ranked Michigan Wolverines before opining on how the boys might fare this season (What? That’s not fair…?). Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers entered this season with high expectations, with the ACC media picking Virginia to finish 4thin the conference this year – the highest such preseason ranking since the 2001-02 season. Furthermore, the Cavaliers returned 10 letter men this year, including forward Mike Scott who will be one of the league’s premier players (he was selected to the Preseason ACC All Conference Team).
Fast forward a couple of weeks and it appears that the talking heads may have been on to something. Though the Cavaliers dropped a tough one to TCU in the Paradise Jam (Virginia is simply cursed when playing in exotic locales, apparently), Virginia responded nicely Drexel and Drake to close out the tournament. This past Tuesday, the Cavaliers undid any harm that was caused by dropping the TCU game by demolishing Michigan thanks in large part to a 19-2 second half run and splendid play by freshman Malcom Brogdon down the stretch. So where do the Cavaliers go from here? Sitting at 6-1, Tony Bennett’s squad is playing classic Bennett basketball – holding opponents to 47.1 points per game (1st in the ACC). While they have struggled at times to find an offensive rhythm, the Cavaliers 46 point outburst in the 2ndhalf of the Michigan game is certainly an encouraging sign for Virginia. So what’s next for the hardwood ‘Hoos?
Virginia faces 7 more out of conference opponents through the end of the year before taking on ACC play against Miami at the JPJ Arena on January 7th. Most notably, the Cavaliers take on Oregon and LSU over the course of the next couple of weeks – important road games that could go a long way toward the Cavaliers chances at post-season play come March given the Cavaliers weak out of conference schedule this year. With Virginia playing stellar defense, Mike Scott averaging a double-double (15 and 10), and Virginia’s shooters showing up as of late, there’s no reason to think that Cavaliers shouldn’t enter ACC play with any worse than a 12-2 record. Quite frankly, anything less would be a disappointment considering the level of talent Virginia will be facing (yes, I’m knocking on wood while typing this).
Now let’s look at Virginia’s ACC schedule. The Cavaliers only have to face Duke once, albeit on the road, while getting the other two preseason leaders UNC and FSU two times this year. Of course, all 3 teams have appeared vulnerable at times early in the season. Looking at the preseason bottom dwellers, Virginia unfortunately only gets Wake, GT, BC and GT once. Then you have two match-ups each with rivals VT and Maryland as well as a home-and-away with Clemson. Out of those 16 ACC contests, you have to believe Virginia should – at the very least – be able to get to the 10 win plateau. 11, in my opinion, is more likely. So how do we get there? Looking at what should be the more ‘difficult’ conference games for UVA, Virginia needs to at the very worst emerge 2-3 against the trio of UNC, Duke, FSU. Of course, it would be nice for the resume for one of those victories to come against what will be a top 5 UNC or Duke squad. Looking at the ‘middle-of-the-pack’ teams, Virginia really needs to go 4-2 against VT, Clemson, Miami and State. Finally, looking at what will likely be conference bottom-dwellers this year in Wake, BC, GT, and Maryland, the Cavaliers really need to take all 5 games against these opponents – especially considering Virginia’s slim margin for error this year with a lowly RPI due to a weak overall schedule. So that’s the recipe for Virginia to go 11-5 in the conference, coupled with a 12-2 out-of conference-record, that will put the Cavaliers at 23-7 on the season and most certainly punch a ticket to the Big Dance come March. While that’s certainly achievable, the Cavaliers will need to play very consistent basketball to get to that point – something that we all know is a problem for Virginia sports teams as of late. So, how do they get there?
We all know that Tony’s pack line defense will cause fits for most every team on Virginia’s schedule moving forward. Hell, Michigan’s John Beilein was seemingly okay with his team’s 58 points last Tuesday, remarking that ‘…not a lot of teams may score 58 points on them.’ In fact, the Cavaliers have not allowed more than 60 points in 7 outings this year. That leaves us with the offense, which has been a point of trepidation for many Wahoos during the short Bennett era. Lucky for us, the Cavaliers returned Mike Scott this year – who is already averaging a double-double through the season’s first 7 games. Having a guy that can score at will down low helps any offense, but it is especially critical for a team that likes to limit the number of possessions during the game with stifling defense. Looking to the perimeter, the Cavaliers have been paced early by Joey Hoops (Joe Harris), who is averaging nearly 13 points a game and doing a great job on the defensive glass – scooping up nearly 4 rebounds a game on that end of the court. As has been the case for several years in Charlottesville, point guard play has been erratic at times this season. That being said, Sammy Zeglinski has been banged up and Jontel Evans is a much improved player than he was a year ago. Also, based on the Michigan game, the Cavaliers will be able to rely on Malcom Brogdon to put some minutes in at the point and, more importantly, contribute to the score board as well. For the Cavaliers to achieve the year outlined above, they are going to have to do 3 things consistently: (1) Rebound the basketball – as I mentioned earlier, the Cavaliers do a great job of limiting the amount of possessions with the stout defense that Tony Bennett has made a trademark in Charlottesville. On the defensive side of the ball, the Cavaliers can ill-afford to give their opponents second opportunities at scoring. Likewise, for a team that will rely heavily on outside shots, offensive rebounding will be just as important – especially when the shots aren’t falling from the outside. With Scott, Assane Sene, Akil Mitchell, and bigger guards like Harris and Brogdon, the Cavaliers shouldn’t lose too many battles on the boards this year. (2) Have a ‘third’ scorer – Based on what we have seen so far, Mike Scott and Joe Harris are going to get their points in a majority of the games this year. Even when Harris’ shot isn’t falling, he is doing a terrific job of getting to the line and an even better job of converting his free-throws (the best in the league at .929 %). Whether it’s Sammy Z, KT Harrell, Malcom Brogdon or Sene down low, the Cavaliers will need one of these guys to step up in most every game moving forward. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same guy, but the Cavaliers must have a consistent ‘third’ scorer behind Scott and Harris in every game. (3) Limit turnovers – this goes back to point guard play, something that has been somewhat of a mess during the Tony Bennett era…which is odd considering he was such a fine player at the position in his own right. Anyway, if there is one thing the Cavaliers cannot do this season, it’s giving the opposition freebies in the way of turnovers. Not only does it cost the Cavaliers a chance at scoring, but it also leads to fast break opportunities for the opponent and takes Virginia out of the defensive rhythm that Bennett’s squad rely so much upon. Keep the turnover average in the single digits, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Virginia will make the tournament come March.
So, that’s one writer’s take on what to expect moving forward from the hardwood ‘Hoos and how Tony Bennett can put his dancing shoes on for the first time in Charlottesville next Spring. Coming off of a fantastic football season, here’s to Bennett and the basketball team keeping the positive momentum alive and well for Virginia’s big-time revenue sports. It’s a great time to be a Cavalier.