All in a day's work
Leaner lineup, defined roles fuel Virginia's sizzling conference start
Monday’s win for the Virginia men’s basketball team was utterly workmanlike. The Cavaliers’ opponent never truly troubled them in the second half, and looking up and down the score sheet, there was no clear star — just a coordinated, complete win. It was just another win for a team on an impressive roll, a cut-and-dry affair to send the crowd home happy.
The game had the feel of an early-season non-conference win, but Monday’s win was not against some patsy team. This was not how a game against North Carolina — the North Carolina with two national titles in the last ten years — has traditionally unfolded. That Virginia made a 76-61 win against the Tar Heels seem unsurprising shows how far the Cavaliers have come this season.
Three weeks ago, Virginia looked like it had lost its way. An 87-52 loss to Tennessee sent the Cavaliers reeling into the new year with three losses in five games, including an embarrassing home loss against Wisconsin that saw the team score just 38 points. The Cavaliers certainly didn’t look like the team that had started the season ranked in the Top 25, and the team’s looming ACC schedule offered little hope for a turnaround.
But to poorly paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the Cavaliers’ demise were apparently greatly exaggerated. Virginia kicked off its conference schedule with a road win at Florida State before blowing out Wake Forest and North Carolina State. A close loss to Duke was a minor setback, but the Cavaliers bounced back to beat the Seminoles for the second time and head into their game against the Tar Heels on a hot streak.
Something had clearly changed — a team that had routinely struggled to break 50 points was suddenly hanging scores of 74, 76, and 78 points on conference opponents and playing as well as it had all season. Virginia was winning and winning emphatically, seizing control on early leads and holding on.
Against North Carolina, the story was more of the same. The Tar Heels battled early — the teams traded leads for much of the first half — but Virginia took the lead with just more than five minutes to play in the half and never relinquished it. The second half was much more to the Cavaliers’ liking, as they tightened up and cruised to a blowout victory.
Coming into the season, much of the analysis focused on coach Tony Bennett’s deep lineup, with eight or nine players possessing a legitimate case for a starting job. Bennett routinely fiddled with his starting lineup, initially starting sophomore Malcolm Brogdon at point guard before moving him to shooting guard in favor of freshman London Perrantes, and using four different frontcourt players.
Each of the players showed flashes of their ability, but they didn’t truly have defined, consistent roles on the court. Bennett even admitted early on that he was struggling to find the exact mixture that the team needed to succeed.
Recently, Bennett has trimmed that lineup down. Sophomore forward Anthony Gill has been relegated to a situational bench role, and classmate forward Evan Nolte has played just 12 minutes in the past three games. The starting lineup has been solidified, and that seems to have paid dividends.
Against the Tar Heels, the team’s most prominent advantage was its fluidity; every player on the court seems to know his role and how to best execute it. Senior Joe Harris, often the team’s workhorse last season, hasn’t been called on as much. He scored the team’s first nine points and was hot in the first half, but he had a stretch of more than thirty minutes when he didn’t make a field goal — and the team didn’t lose a beat.
“Joe is playing efficient games,” Bennett said. “It is rare to have a player of his caliber with his unselfishness, who really doesn’t care if he takes the shots or not. The other guys give us the balance and better chemistry. The guys are more shot discerning and they are making plays. To see Joe have four assists and no turnovers, he is unique in that way.”
Brogdon still remains one of the team’s primary ball handlers — he has scored in double figures in every ACC game — but Perrantes has firmly established himself at point guard. His nine assists against North Carolina is the culmination of an impressive run of play for a freshman playing beyond his years. Virginia is still relying on its depth when it brings in Gill or sophomore Justin Anderson off the bench, but the duo know their role as reserves. All in all, it adds up to a sense of cohesion that has driven the team in the new year.
“I think it’s starting to balance,” Anderson said. “The year that I got here, a lot went through [Harris], but we still had great defense. Now, it’s like myself, [Brogdon], [Harris], [Perrantes]. We have guards that are really effective, and our bigs are very effective with [Gill] playing like a guard at the high post and making plays and finishing. It’s tough to handle when it’s that way.”
Much of the early season for Virginia was spent trying to find the team’s identity, understanding how to fit a bunch of talented players together. If the team’s recent stretch of play is any indication, the team seems to have found it, and at exactly the right time.