BLANK: Measuring up men's hoops
By most standards, Virginia’s performance on the basketball court this season has been exceptional. They have the best defense in the country as measured by points allowed per game, a respectable ranking of sixteenth in the nation in the AP poll, and a resume that includes a road win over a then top-ten team in Louisville.
However, coach Tony Bennett’s teams of the past few seasons haven’t settled for meeting the standards of most. This week marks the second straight week Virginia has fallen out of the top 15 of the AP poll, after a string of 54 consecutive polls in the top 15. Despite their successes, it still feels as if this team is somewhat of a disappointment given its lofty standards.
One reason for concern over the drop-off in play is the turnover from last year. The Cavaliers lost three of their four leading scorers, in Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, and Mike Tobey. The four seniors accounted for 58 percent of the team’s points.
So far Bennett has looked primarily to role players from seasons past to fill the void. His go-to players alongside stalwart senior guard London Perrantes have been junior guards Devon Hall, Marial Shayok, and Darius Thompson, junior forward Isaiah Wilkins, and redshirt sophomore center Jack Salt.
These five players have gone from averaging roughly 16 minutes a game last season to over 22 this season, a 35 percent increase, in addition to being relied upon in crunch time.
While each has performed admirably, the Cavaliers have struggled down the stretch of late, with three of their last four games turning into nail biters, of which Virginia lost two. Replacing Gill and Brogdon seems to be an even tougher task in crunch time, and so far Virginia hasn’t found an answer.
The obvious solution is to lean more heavily on Perrantes, as Virginia did against Clemson, where he led the team with 25 points. However, Perrantes has already stepped up his game as much as can be reasonably expected. His usage rate is 20 percent higher than last it was season, and he’s still managing a career high effective field goal percentage, while continuing his streak of improving his turnover rate every season.
Additionally, since defenses know Perrantes is Virginia’s go-to scorer, a secondary option may be necessary against good defenses. One possible candidate is Shayok, who scored a career-high 17 points against Clemson. While Shayok is capable of creating his own shot, he may not be capable of taking on any more than he is. Shayok leads all scholarship players in usage rate, and his effective field goal percentage has already taken a 13% dip in comparison to last year.
The best players to help fill the Cavaliers crunch time void may not be any of the aforementioned players. Bennett might be best served by giving increased run to freshman guard Kyle Guy and redshirt freshman forward Mamadi Diakite.
Guy and Diakite have each given fans plenty of memorable highlights, with Guy’s lights out shooting -- making over 52 percent of his three pointers -- and Diakite’s Mutombo-esque blocks -- he’s blocked 14 percent of two point field goals while he’s on the floor. They haven’t, however, been able to gain consistent playing time down the stretch.
Guy and Diakite only rank seventh and ninth respectively in terms of minutes played. Despite this, advanced statistics think they’ve been among the best players on the Cavalier’s roster when they’re on the court.
Their offensive ratings -- a measure of points a player produces per 100 possessions -- are the two highest on the team. Diakite leads the team in defensive rating as well. The two also lead the team in win shares per minute, an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes per minute played. By this metric both freshmen rate higher than anyone on last season’s team as well.
Replacing players as dynamic as Brogdon and Gill is not an easy task, as Virginia’s performance thus far this season has showed. While Perrantes has undoubtedly become the alpha dog in their absence, he still needs help. Even though the upperclassmen have played well, it might be time for Virginia to rely more on a couple of precocious freshmen. While no one seems to doubt the role Guy and Diakite will play on this team some day in the future, it may be time to ask them to play a larger role sooner than expected.
If Virginia is to become a powerhouse program, replacing marquee talent will have to become the norm. This season may serve as a test to see whether or not the Cavaliers are up to the challenge.