With nonconference play officially over, the Virginia men’s basketball team enters the bulk of its ACC schedule with some clarity.
Entering the season, there were questions surrounding UVa’s offensive ability. Those questions have shifted to concerns, while Tony Bennett’s Pack Line defense remains one of the best defensive systems in the country.
Before ACC play intensifies, let’s grade how the Cavaliers (10-2, 2-0 ACC) performed in the season’s first 12 games.
Handing out a D feels harsh, and it probably is, but Virginia’s offense has been abysmal through 12 games.
Virginia ranks 175th nationally in offensive efficiency according to KenPom, and the Cavaliers have the 12th-worst 3-point shooting percentage (27.5) in the country.
The Cavaliers’ KenPom offensive efficiency rating comes in one spot behind Houston Baptist. The Huskies are 0-10 and lose their games by an average of 24.6 points per contest. Virginia’s inability to make shots combined with sloppy ball handling put the Cavaliers in the same offensive class as a team that is currently winless.
On the bright side, Virginia ended nonconference play with its best offensive showing of the season. UVa tallied 18 assists to eight turnovers while shooting 53.2% from the floor and 42.1% from 3-point range in a 65-56 victory over Navy. Kihei Clark was particularly brilliant, finishing with 13 assists to just two turnovers.
Braxton Key also played well. The senior finished with 15 points and on 7-of-11 shooting, including a 7-of-8 mark on 2-point shots.
With ACC play heating up, Virginia needs better offensive efficiency from Casey Morsell and Kody Stattmann, and the Cavaliers could use fewer turnovers from Mamadi Diakite. Bennett’s squad has the pieces to become a solid offensive team, but players need to step up and knock down shots throughout conference play.
For as poor as the shooting has been, the defense remains a constant under Bennett. Virginia ranks No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency, which ranks directly ahead of the four teams ranked 1-4 in KenPom’s overall rankings. The Cavaliers play defense at the level of a national title contender.
Given its pace — Virginia operates at the slowest adjusted tempo in the country — the Cavaliers rarely allow high-scoring games. Two UVa opponents have scored more than 60 points. Three Cavalier opponents have scored fewer than 35 points.
Defensively, the Cavaliers are excellent across the board. Diakite, Jay Huff and Key prevent opponents from scoring at the rim, while Clark and Morsell lock down guards in the backcourt. Francisco Caffaro adds size and toughness in the post, and players like Stattmann add decent length on the perimeter.
Virginia’s defense deserves most of the credit for the team’s 10-2 record and national ranking.
Losing three players to the NBA has been a challenge for Bennett and company, but they’ve done well to adjust lineups and work in younger players. Among the most notable adjustments by the coaching staff was putting more on Caffaro’s plate after the Purdue loss.
He played significant minutes against North Carolina, and his play led to a win.
Bennett’s ability to remain calm and encourage his younger players to keep shooting through slumps is important. Morsell’s jumper has been inconsistent at best, but Bennett advises Morsell to keep shooting and focus on defensive energy.
In its current form, this Virginia team doesn’t look like much of a Final Four threat, but the Cavaliers are young. Morsell won’t shoot below 15% from 3-point range for his career, and encouraging the young players only helps in their development.
Bennett’s adjustments throughout conference play will be fascinating to observe. Virginia finished with 11 fast-break points in its win over Navy. Implementing more transition opportunities goes against UVa’s offensive philosophy but it may be a necessary change to jump-start a stagnant offense.
The offense needs work, while Bennett and the defense remain great. Given the loss of three stars to the NBA, it’s not surprising that the Cavaliers took a step back on the offensive end. With a few months left in the season, there’s plenty of time for UVa to improve and become a contender in a college basketball season defined by parity.
The Cavaliers don’t earn an A, but the inexperienced Wahoos compete hard defensively and shouldn’t be docked too hard for poor offensive showings.