New year, new team

If the Virginia men’s basketball team’s New Year’s resolution was to go undefeated in 2014, then they have kept theirs much longer than I have kept my own resolutions.

The Cavaliers limped into conference play after an embarrassing 87-52 blowout to Tennessee, the second largest margin of defeat under coach Tony Bennett’s tenure. That loss meant the squad lacks any marquee non-conference wins — it also squandered chances against Virginia Commonwealth and No. 4 Wisconsin — which will hurt the team come tournament selection time.

But, at 9-4, Virginia managed to avoid any unsightly non-conference losses that could cripple its tournament chances, which is refreshing given the team’s early season losses to CAA teams George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion last year. The team is currently 5-0 against teams with RPIs outside of the top 150, after dropping three games to such teams in the 2012-13 season.

Whether or not they came away with any tournament-quality wins, Cavalier fans can breathe a sigh of relief that Virginia beat James Madison, the lone CAA team on the schedule.

But there was still cause for concern. Senior guard Joe Harris’s point production and shooting percentages were down across the board. His 11.1 points per game through non-conference games was his lowest output since his freshman campaign. It appeared as if opponents might have figured out how to stifle Virginia’s offense — by making its star guard work for every shot — as Harris seemingly could not find easy looks.

The effect of Harris’s decline in production was exacerbated by senior forward Akil Mitchell’s simultaneous drop off. Mitchell, the ACC’s leading returning rebounder, averaged just 5.5 rebounds per game — down from 9.2 last year — and 6.1 points during non-conference play, after scoring 13.1 last season.

Part of Mitchell’s struggles undoubtedly resulted from breaking his hand at the LeBron James Skills Academy in July. He is also playing an average of five minutes per game less this year due to Virginia’s depth in the post. But even taking that into consideration, this was not the same Akil Mitchell as last season.

Sophomore guard Justin Anderson tried to pick up the slack in Virginia’s scoring as he did at the end of last season, while redshirt sophomores Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon have both contributed substantial points after sitting out last season. But the Cavaliers still fell short in big games, games that they needed to depend on their seniors to produce.

After preseason optimism abounded — particularly among Cavalier fans seeking a reprieve from the trials of football season — 2013 play quickly tempered expectations. The team predicted to finish fourth in the ACC and earn an NCAA Tournament berth after watching from the NIT last year looked as if it may fall victim to the hype, like the Nationals, Redskins and every other team of which I’m a fan.

The most frightening part of the Tennessee loss was not the lack of offense — that’s to be expected from Virginia’s slow pace. No, 87 points and an over 60 percent 3-point percentage were the truly unsettling numbers. For a team that prides itself on its defensive prowess, how could an unranked team absolutely throttle Bennett’s pack line defense? Or the even scarier prospect: what would ACC teams like Syracuse and Duke do to that defense?

The likely explanation is that Tennessee played far above its potential, while Virginia played an exceptionally bad game on both ends of the floor.

But the Cavaliers regrouped in the ACC opener against Florida State — despite losing Harris after just two minutes — winning in the state of Florida for the first time since 2002. They then followed up that performance with 23 and 31-point blowouts against Wake Forest and NC State, respectively.

Freshman point guard London Perrantes is coming into his own, looking more comfortable handling the ball as Virginia prepares to enter the most difficult stretch of its schedule. Anderson continues to provide a spark off the bench, while Brogdon is increasingly becoming a threat to shoot or attack off the dribble.

The defense has also shown it can do more than just compete in the conference. Against the Wolfpack, Virginia’s defense held T.J. Warren — the ACC’s leading scorer — to just four points.

But the most significant difference in this team is Harris and Mitchell beginning to look like their old selves. Harris has looked increasingly confident shooting the ball from beyond the arc, while Mitchell has led the Cavaliers’ domination of the boards the past three games.

Despite its substantial depth, this team still relies heavily on its seniors and will continue to do so as ACC play heats up. It’s no coincidence that as Harris and Mitchell’s play has begun to improve, the Cavaliers have started blowing teams out.

This Virginia team has shown that it has the potential to be very good. A 31-point win on the road against the Wolfpack bodes well for a team who was knocked last season for not being able to win on the road. Its dismal free-throw shooting percentage is steadily improving, and things finally seem to be clicking for the Cavaliers.

A true road test presents itself Monday, when Virginia visits Cameron Indoor Stadium. Already one of the most difficult places to play in the nation, the Duke Blue Devils are coming off of a loss to Clemson and are certainly seeking revenge for the Cavaliers upsetting them in Charlottesville last season.

Anything is possible, including Harris delivering an encore 36-point performance or an outcome less desirable to Virginia fans. The Cavaliers appeared inconsistent during 2013, and Monday night will go a long way toward revealing whether or not this 2014 team is for real.

But if not, there’s always 2015, right?

Published January 12, 2014 in Sports

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