TOBIN: Defense can only take men’s hoops so far
Losing was not an option for the No. 23 Virginia men’s basketball team against No. 5 North Carolina. Having lost the previous four of five games, the Cavaliers were in dire straits and desperately needed a win. So, they did what they do best — play suffocating defense.
Holding the Tar Heels to 43 points on 17-48 shooting, the Cavaliers controlled the rival. Considering North Carolina has put up 85 points per game this season — making it the No. 11 best scoring offense in the country — Virginia’s play is no small feat. If that weren’t impressive enough, nobody has held the Tar Heels to this low of a scoring total since 1979.
''We made a commitment about three weeks ago or two weeks ago that we're just going to be a better defensive team by the end of the year,'' coach Tony Bennett said following the team’s major win. “We just have to be.''
Bennett is not kidding. Although Virginia has the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation — holding opponents to 55.3 points per game — the defensive play has not been nearly as strong in the team’s nine losses of the season. In all but one of these defeats, the Cavaliers failed to hold teams under 60 points.
Considering only three teams have held opponents to less than 60 points per game on average throughout this season, it is perfectly reasonable for the Cavaliers to slip here and there. However, the fact that the Cavaliers have lost games where opponents have hardly put up over 60 points demonstrates the team’s biggest flaw — they simply do not have the talent to score.
Take the North Carolina game, for example. While Virginia’s stellar defensive play carried the team to victory, its offense struggled — shooting a putrid 32.2 percent from the field. Despite scoring a combined total of 24 points, senior guard London Perrantes and junior guard Devon Hall could only convert on eight of a whopping 26 attempts. With 53 points overall, the team had its third-worst scoring performance of the season.
Virginia fans would be completely misguided to have hope at the moment. While the old adage goes that “defense wins championships,” without consistent offensive productivity, the Cavaliers won’t make it past the Sweet 16.
Things are bleak for the Cavalier faithful. Currently, Virginia is tied for No. 310 scoring offense in the nation with 66.6 points per game. Perrantes leads the team in scoring with 12.4 points per game, and nobody else is on the team is averaging in double digits. When compared to a Virginia squad that was averaging 71 points per game and had three players scoring in double digits last season, this team does not even come close.
To be sure, the pack line defense will be crucial in helping Virginia win games come March. But, it’s too much to expect that defense to completely shut down teams as it did the Tar Heels.
Across the nation, 40 teams currently average 80 or more points per game. While Virginia’s defense is certainly remarkable, all it takes is one or two opposing players getting hot and it’s game over.
Think a few weeks back to the Cavaliers’ frustrating loss against Duke. In the first half, Virginia executed its gameplan to perfection, holding the Blue Devils to a meek 21 points. Yet, even while running a similar defense in the second half, the Cavaliers could not stop the freak athlete that is Duke’s freshman forward Jayson Tatum. Outmuscling Virginia and making video game-like shots, Tatum scored 21 of his 28 points in the second half and led Duke to a 65-55 victory.
If Virginia goes up against one Tatum-like performance in the NCAA Tournament, its season will end. One need not look far back in the history of Virginia men’s basketball to know this as fact. In their Elite Eight matchup against Syracuse last season, the Cavaliers stifled the Orange offense, holding them to 21 points in the first half. The Cavaliers were up by 14 points, and it really looked like they had the game in the bag.
However, Syracuse’s then-freshman Malachi Richardson had a different agenda. Sensationally putting up 21 of his 23 points in the second half on a succession of unbelievable plays, Richardson led his team to a 68-62 victory and single-handedly bounced Virginia from the tournament. The bottom line is Virginia cannot keep up with teams who break open its defense.
Virginia’s lack of offensive talent will be its downfall come March. Though stellar on the other side of the ball, defense can only take men’s hoops so far.
Ben Tobin is an Assistant Managing Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TobinBen.