BLANK: Too tough of a schedule?
Virginia finding success amidst tough stretch
Virginia basketball, by any standard, had an exciting week. The Cavaliers went to Notre Dame and beat the then-No. 14 ranked, former ACC-leading team handily on the road. Then, they traveled to then-No. 1 ranked Villanova and outplayed them even until losing on a heartbreaking buzzer beater. Combined, those performances make for almost as impressive a week as any team could expect against such quality teams on the road.
With that in mind, in a week where 14 other ranked teams and seven of the top 10 lost, it seems the Cavaliers should have skyrocketed in the rankings. However, they only moved up three spots — from No. 12 to No. 9 — in the AP poll and only two — from No. 13 to No.11 — in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
This small shift doesn’t match with where the computers have Virginia ranked, either. As of Tuesday, KenPom had Virginia ranked second in the nation, and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index has the Cavaliers ranked third. Due to an ugly-looking four losses — three of which have been to teams currently in the AP Top 15 — Virginia seems to be under-appreciated by the traditional rankings.
Virginia’s schedule has been brutal. ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index has it ranked the twelfth toughest in the country, and only one team above the Cavaliers in the AP rankings has had a tougher slate — ACC foe Louisville. According to KenPom, only four teams in the country have had to face tougher defenses.
The toll playing fantastic defenses has taken can be fairly visibly seen in one statistic — with 11.9 points per game, senior point guard London Perrantes has the lowest scoring average of any single-season leading scorer in Virginia’s history. Virginia basketball, for better or worse, has been through trial by fire with a young roster.
The schedule doesn’t show any signs of easing up. In fact, it will get comparatively harder. ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index has the Cavaliers with the ninth-toughest schedule going forward, with the meat of their ACC games coming up. It’s fair to wonder whether such a difficult slate is more challenging than this Virginia team ought to have been tasked to handle.
The most comforting response is that this tough schedule helps Virginia prepare for the NCAA tournament. While this may be true, it’s no guarantee of success. According to ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index, Virginia faced the toughest schedule in the country last season. As Cavalier faithful are well aware, those trials were not enough to get the team through to the Final Four.
However, much of this difficulty is just inherent in being a part of the constantly-stacked ACC. Virginia’s non-conference schedule was only ranked No. 94 toughest out of 351 by KenPom — not out-of-line with other elite teams. The ACC has had 10 teams in KenPom’s top 50 in each of the past two years, and it currently has four of the top six in ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index as well as 11 teams in the top 50. Given that seven of the top 20 2016 recruiting classes — according to 247sports — belong to ACC schools, this gauntlet may not slow down anytime soon.
While it may speed the graying of coach Tony Bennett’s hair, the increased difficulty in schedule does seem to be helping the Cavaliers. Last season featured an improved NCAA tournament performance that came after following a much tougher regular-season schedule — the Cavaliers went from No. 27 to first in strength of schedule, according to ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index.
Additionally, Virginia has managed to play well through its tough schedule. The Cavaliers’ hallmark defense has been up to the task, as they lead the nation in scoring defense at 53.7 points per game and have the second fewest offensive turnovers per game with 9.7.
There could also be concern that such challenging opponents, while fine for experienced players like Perrantes, could prove too much for the players towards the bottom of the roster. This hasn’t been the case — Virginia’s bench has outscored opponents by a wide margin, averaging 28.9 points a game to opponents’ 13.2. Freshman guard Ty Jerome, who went into the season’s toughest week with the fewest minutes of any scholarship player on the team, averaged 11.5 points and 19 minutes against Notre Dame and Villanova and led the team in scoring against the latter.
Overall, it seems that a tough schedule may be unavoidable for Virginia going forward. While it may keep Virginia artificially low in the rankings and could provide more heartbreaking losses than otherwise, it doesn’t seem that the tough schedule harms the Cavaliers in any long-lasting way. In fact, it may well help them find the success in the NCAA tournament that has long eluded them.
At times, it can be heartbreaking to see Cavaliers lose close games now. However, it may well be worth it when March comes around.
Jake Blank is a weekly Sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Jake_33.