Once or twice each season, Tony Bennett’s Virginia basketball team tests my bifocals. An opponent scores so few points that scouring the small print of year-by-year, game-by-game results is mandatory.
The latest case was the Cavaliers’ 56-36 victory over Florida State.
Virginia limited Drexel to 35 points last season, so Saturday’s effort wasn’t the Cavaliers’ stingiest in Bennett’s four seasons. But when it comes to ACC opponents, 36 points were historically low.
Indeed, the Seminoles’ production matches the fewest of any Virginia ACC opponent ever. The Cavaliers defeated North Carolina State 39-36 in 1982.
Miami bounced Georgia Tech 54-36 in last year’s league tournament, but an ACC team scoring fewer than 35 points in a conference game? Maryland lost to N.C. State 40-28 in the 1982 league tournament, before college basketball adopted a shot clock.
If Virginia can limit an ACC opponent to the 20s, more power to Bennett and Co., but I’d prefer to be elsewhere.
The next challenge for the Cavaliers’ defense is intriguing: Virginia Tech on Thursday in Blacksburg.
While Virginia ranks second nationally in scoring defense at 50.6 points per game, and ninth in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, Tech averages 75.5 points. Moreover, Hokies guard Erick Green leads the nation in scoring at 24.6 points per game.
Only one Cavaliers opponent has scored that many points this season. Morgan State forward DeWayne Jackson had 32 in a 75-57 Virginia rout.
“First of all, their transition defense is very good, so … getting easy baskets on them is gonna be very difficult,” Hokies coach James Johnson said Monday of the Cavaliers. “Then, they protect the paint, keep the basketball in front of them, so penetrating the defense, whether it be on the dribble or the pass, is gonna be very difficult. They keep the basketball in front of them and force you to make contested jump shots.”
Point guard Jontel Evans, who likely will check Green, is Virginia’s best on-the-ball defender. He’s not only quick but also strong, the latter a holdover from his tailback days on Bethel High’s football team.
“It starts with Evans and his ability to put some pressure on the basketball,” Johnson said. “He's strong, he's quick, he's athletic. It starts with him, but all those guys, they're big guards, they're strong and physical and they keep the ball in front of you and they have a lot of hands action, what we call, 'handsy.'
“They don't let you get a direct look at the basket or direct passes. They've got their hands up and they play with a lot of hands and a lot of size. They've got very good help-side defense, also, and they're gonna load to the ball. They're not gonna give up too much space on drives and then if you post, they're gonna trap and do some different things, trap the post and try to take the basketball out of the post guys' hands there.”
Green scored a game-high 22 points in Tech’s 66-65 victory over Wake Forest on Saturday, but few came easily. The Deacons trapped Green off ball screens, and the pressure was especially effective in the first half, when Green missed 7-of-8 shots.
Green made 7-of-10 shots after intermission and did a much better job splitting, or passing out of, the traps. He’ll likely get similar treatment from Virginia and Bennett, who has watched Green evolve from a reserve to secondary scorer to team leader.
“Well, he learned from a good one in (former teammate) Malcolm Delaney, how to score and get to the free-throw line,” Bennett said. “He's just complete. I'm sure it's rewarding for him and James and their staff to see a guy improve who has just sort of stayed with it and gotten better each year. …
“You look at him statistically particularly and it's impressive. When you look at his conference stats, shooting the 3-point ball well. He's got a mid-range game gets to the rim, scores in transition, plays off ball screens. Yeah, he's complete. You can't say well, if we take this thing away from him, then he's in trouble.”
Thursday’s game also will match contrasting tempos. Pomeroy’s stats show Virginia averages 59.7 possessions per game, which ranks 344th among 347 Division I teams. Only Idaho State, Denver and Western Illinois average fewer.
Virginia Tech’s 70.1 possessions per game rank 49th nationally. But as North Carolina learned earlier this month in a 61-52 loss at Virginia, good luck speeding up the Cavaliers.
By my unofficial count, the Tar Heels had 63 possessions that night. They average 73.2, fourth nationally.
Can Tech force Virginia to play faster? Much will hinge on how often, and quickly, Green can break down the Cavaliers’ defense.
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