At certain points this season, such as the first half of its 66-60 loss to Georgia Tech last Sunday, the Virginia men’s basketball team has resembled an ACC juggernaut. Implementing coach Tony Bennett’s renowned man coverage scheme on defense to a tee, the Cavaliers have occasionally complemented their defensive dominance with a solid, if unspectacular, inside-out offense. When the Cavaliers produce at the offensive end, they end up in the win column more often than not, even against top-flight competition.
In other moments, however, Virginia has sputtered against lackluster competition. From scoring 15 points in the first half of a home loss to Delaware, to mustering four points against lowly Old Dominion during a pivotal seven-minute stretch late in the contest, to managing only one field goal in the final 9:46 against Georgia Tech Sunday, the Cavaliers have vanished offensively so often this season their NCAA Tournament resume remains markedly flawed and far from guaranteed to punch Virginia’s second straight ticket to the Big Dance.
“We played well enough to come away with a win at Georgia Tech,” Bennett said. “But the last six or seven minutes had too many empty possessions because of missed shots, a turnover or breakdown that really cost us in that game.”
As has come to be expected under Bennett, Virginia is excelling defensively, holding opponents to a scant 52 points per game on 37.3 percent shooting. But the offense, despite shooting a respectable 45.4 percent from the field, averages just 62.5 points, thanks to the Cavaliers’ preference for using as much of the shot clock as possible and their tendency to deteriorate offensively for minutes at a time. Even though the Cavalier defense shouldered some responsibility for the team’s loss Sunday, yielding more than 60 points for the first time in ACC play this season, the offense’s sloppiness and inability to generate any output down the stretch ultimately doomed Virginia’s chances.
“It was a few of the empty possessions in the last six, seven minutes that [contributed to] a couple of breakdowns defensively,” Bennett said. “We missed some good looks that cost us.”
The flashes of offensive competence the Cavaliers occasionally demonstrate only further frustrate Bennett and Virginia fans. The team’s offensive rating, which accounts for its excruciatingly slow pace by measuring the number of points per 100 possessions, actually ranks above average among Division I teams. Meanwhile, the combination of junior forward Akil Mitchell and junior guard Joe Harris has terrorized defenses attempting to protect the post while also harassing Virginia’s perimeter shooters. Sunday, Harris and Mitchell spearheaded a 20-8 run during which the squad drilled its last seven shots to close the first half.
For all the Cavaliers’ indications of adequacy at the opponent’s end of the court, though, stagnancy still afflicts Bennett’s squad more frequently than it should for a tournament hopeful. After freshman Justin Anderson sunk two free throws to push the lead to 57-48, Virginia allowed Georgia Tech to bully its way to an outcome-deciding 18-3 surge by becoming uncharacteristically lethargic with its ball control and rebounding. Sheer poor shooting crippled the Cavaliers, as well. Of the six games in which Virginia has shot 40 percent from the field or less, the Cavaliers have won only one — against Tennessee Dec. 5.
“Certainly the inconsistencies of dealing with those things I think can sometimes affect younger players more,” Bennett said. “But there’s a lot of young players out on the floor on both teams, so you just try to work through that, and it’s not always the young guys.”
In all likelihood, no Virginia team under Bennett will ever lead the traditionally high-powered ACC in scoring. Since he arrived in 2009, Bennett’s squads have never averaged more than 65.5 points, due in large part to a scheme that rewards tenacious defense and long possessions. Still, the Cavaliers are craving a little more consistency on the offensive end before they enter the stretch run of their conference schedule.
“I just think you keep looking at quality of shots and try not to have empty possessions, and empty possessions are, again, a forced shot, a silly turnover or the wrong kind of guy shooting it at the wrong place,” Bennett said. “Those are the ones that you try to eliminate.”
Senior point guard Jontel Evans believes the Cavaliers’ commitment to Bennett’s scheme has and will continue to benefit Virginia.
“All the guys have bought into the system and are playing their roles at a very high level,” Evans said. “As coach Bennett says, we have to be hungry and we have to be humble.”