BLANK: Which version of Virginia will show up?
With March Madness swiftly approaching, people around the country with only a passing interest in college basketball are filling out their brackets. As a University student, I commonly get asked by family members and high school friends what to make of this year’s Virginia team.
In response, I’ve found it difficult to make any sense of the 2016-17 Cavaliers — who have shown such inconsistency that they almost feel like two different teams.
On the one hand, there are the good, Dr. Jekyll Cavaliers. This team can compete with any in the country. They feature strong depth, with 10 players averaging double-digit minutes per game, and upperclassmen leadership across the board.
KenPom ranked the Cavaliers as the No. 1 defense in the country by and deservedly so. They faced four of the top eight KenPom offenses in the country throughout the season — Villanova, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest — and held them, on average, to fewer than 60 points per game.
The Cavaliers are individually talented on defense as well. Senior guard London Perrantes, and juniors Isaiah Wilkins, Devon Hall and Marial Shayok all rank in the top ten of the ACC in terms of defensive rating — a measure of points given up per possession.
This version of the Cavaliers beat three top 15 teams, based on the AP rankings as of the time they played, two of which were on the road. This team should be a national championship contender regardless of the opponent.
However, while all the above stats are true, that version of the team didn’t feel like the one that always showed up to play.
The Mr. Hyde version of the Cavaliers can’t score, ranking No. 313 in points scored per game. They have no go-to offensive star nor a player projected to be taken in the NBA Draft.
While Perrantes has been tasked with bearing the star’s burden, his efficiency has fallen, as his three extra shots per game have cost him. While he was No. 6 in the ACC in true shooting percentage last year, he doesn’t come close to cracking the top 20 this season.
The bad Cavaliers have no strong inside presence. They rank — No. 277 out of 351 teams in the country in rebounding. They also struggle to get to the free throw line — ranking No. 349 in free throw attempts.
The team also has defensive flaws. The pack line approach generally struggles against good three-point shooters, and Virginia is no different. While the Cavaliers have given up the fewest field goals and points in the country, they rank only No. 29 in three-pointers conceded.
This version of the Cavaliers fell to four unranked schools — Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Miami — and two of them were not even good enough to get into the tournament. This team lost six of its eight games from Jan. 29 to Feb. 20. The Cavaliers had a record that, despite the difficulty of their opponents, might not merit an invite to the NIT, let alone a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. This team may have a tough time getting past a feisty UNC-Wilmington program, let alone advancing deep in the tournament.
Projecting Virginia’s performance in the tournament is less of an exercise in knowing Virginia basketball and more like predicting the flip of the coin as to which of the two teams shows up. In fact, it has been roughly a coin-flip for the past seven weeks, as the Cavaliers have been exactly .500 since Jan. 24.
The inconsistency can be maddening for Cavaliers fans. It’s stressful to simultaneously be the No. 11 most-likely NCAA tournament champion by FiveThirtyEight’s measure and be a popular round one upset pick.
However, in the bigger picture, this season was always going to be a rebuilding year for Virginia after graduating five guys last season, and only losing one this year. Virginia fans can take solace in knowing that any tournament experience for their talented freshmen will be helpful going forward.
While “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” concludes with the evil Mr. Hyde winning out, Cavalier fans will have to hope that Virginia’s tale this March has a different ending.
Jake Blank is a Senior Associate Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Jake_33.