CLEMSON, S.C. — Virginia has carved its niche as one of the best defensive teams in the nation during the Tony Bennett era.
Offensively, though, the Cavaliers have left a lot to be desired. Saturday’s 59-44 loss at Clemson, UVa’s lowest scoring total in two years, must have left fans wondering if Bennett needs an offensive coordinator.
Granted this wasn’t supposed to be an offensive juggernaut after losing scoring machine Mike Scott from last season’s team. In addition, being a team hobbled by nagging injuries and missing a potential scoring star like the redshirted Malcolm Brogden (foot problems) has detracted from that phase of UVa’s game.
Still, the Cavaliers are averaging but 53 points per game in their first three ACC games of the season and sit at the bottom of the league in scoring offense and a 1-2 record. Perhaps their offensive frustration reached its pinnacle at Littlejohn Coliseum when they produced a mere 44 points against a Tigers team that had scored only 10 points in the first half against Duke in its previous outing.
Maybe UVa’s two-game losing streak is a product of a young team (one senior, two juniors) hitting the ACC road. Maybe this team just isn’t talented enough offensively to win in this conference and has to overly rely on defense to have a chance.
Whatever the case, it has made for some ugly basketball over the course of this week. The Clemson loss, where the Cavaliers missed 31 shots, came on the heels of a 55-52 loss at Wake Forest, a game in which the host Demon Deacons failed to score a bucket in the final 10:22 and still won.
“I thought we got some okay looks, some rhythm looks,” Bennett said about his team, which shot 35.4 percent for the game (17-for-48) and 30.8 percent in the second half. “We actually had some at the rim that [the Tigers] played paddleball with up there (Clemson blocked six shots). We had some chances to finish, but they’re athletic and they blocked them.”
Clemson is one of the better defensive teams in the ACC. Coach Brad Brownell’s squad believes in defense just as much as Bennett’s Cavaliers, which alerted everyone beforehand that if they preferred razzle-dazzle and fireworks in their basketball, this wasn’t the place to be.
Brownell threw the visiting Virginians a bit of a curve by having the Tigers defense pack the lane as tightly as the Cavaliers are known for, which prevented UVa guards Jontel Evans and Joe Harris from driving the lane. The Tigers also spent the past few days working hard on transition defense, which prevented Virginia from getting a single fast-break point.
Still, the Cavaliers seem to be offensively challenged and until that issue is resolved then Wahoo fans might as well as accept the fact that they’re in for some low-scoring winter evenings.
Bennett said he always goes back and looks to see if his team got quality shots and when he reviews the tape after the Cavaliers return to Charlottesville, his estimation that they did will likely be correct.
They just didn’t make many of ‘em.
“We’re getting great shots, we’re just not finishing,” said a frustrated senior point guard Jontel Evans, who has clearly been off his game on this road trip. “We had wide-open 3’s and wide-open layups at the rim. We’re just not finishing.”
Evans, who scored some key baskets while driving the lane in a win over North Carolina a week ago, has gone 2-for-5 from the field on this road trip, scored four points and turned the ball over nine times.
Teammates Akil Mitchell (seven points, nine rebounds vs. Clemson) and Harris (14 points) echoed Evans’ thoughts on getting good looks and not finishing. But is that the way it’s going to be the rest of the season?
Wahoo fans understand that next year there could be a true offensive infusion with Brogdon’s return and the addition of South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill. But, what about now?
“It almost seemed like there was a lid on the basket,” said Harris, who went 5-for-13 (2-7 on 3’s). “I’m trying to understand how difficult this league is, especially these road games.”
After Clemson was bludgeoned by the then-No. 1 Blue Devils, Brownell went back to the drawing board and created more ways for the Tigers to get offensive star Milton Jennings more shots. Jennings responded with a game-high 21 points against the Cavaliers.
Maybe Bennett needs to do the same for Harris, who is the lone consistent point producer on the team. Sometimes the philosophy of “if you have a big gun, shoot it,” could apply here.
Maybe Harris, an unselfish player, needs to be a bit more greedy until some of his teammates catch up offensively.
“If I have a shot, I take it,” Harris said after the loss. “If not, I don’t try to force anything.”
Spoken like a true team player. However, can this particular Virginia team afford for him to take only a dozen shots per game, which is his average attempts in ACC play this month? It should be noted that Harris’ most high-scoring games this season (22 points at Wisconsin and 20 vs. Delaware) came when he took 19 shots.
The Tigers may have had something to do with Harris and his teammates inaccuracy, no denying that.
Clemson was the most physical team Virginia has played this season, particularly Tigers center Devin Booker, who had his way inside the lane against the Cavaliers. It almost looked like one of those classic comics where the bully kicked sand in the face of the wimpy guy at the beach and stole his girl.
Virginia, now 11-5 on the season with some really bad losses (0-3 vs. CAA teams early on top of defeats at Wake and Clemson), is 1-2 in the ACC and has exactly a week to both mend and discover a way to flex its offensive muscles. Florida State comes to John Paul Jones Arena next Saturday.
“Our guys are upset,” said Mitchell. “But it’s not the end of the world.”
True. We could all rely on that old axiom of “just wait ‘til next year,” but do these guys really want to wait that long?