In an absolutely shocking turn of events on a Tuesday night two weeks ago, Virginia men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett did the unthinkable. Struggling on the road against ACC bottom-dweller Wake Forest — a team that currently has one conference win this season — the Cavaliers were at risk of dropping their fourth road game against an unranked ACC opponent in as many tries. So to give his team a little spark in the second half, Bennett sent his team out in a zone defense.
This was seemingly blasphemous to Virginia fans. The massive success Bennett has brought to the program during his six-year tenure has rested on his stifling pack line defense, so to turn away from it at such a critical moment seemed to spell disarray. I can’t claim to remember every minute of Virginia basketball under Bennett, so I don’t want to say a zone was unprecedented, but the scheme has certainly never been turned to in a moment of desperation like that.
While we’ll all remember the ending of the Wake game best, in reality, it was an all-around ugly affair ending in a 72-71 win that gave no relief to a general unease about the Virginia defense. Virginia had held an opponent under 60 points just once over the previous seven outings, including giving up 70 to Virginia Tech in early January. In 2015, the only time Virginia gave up 70 or more in an ACC regular season game was in a double-overtime affair at Miami.
But then, as if Darius Thompson’s buzzer beater broke some sort of evil curse, the pack line was resurrected. After giving up 45 points to the Demon Deacons in the second half of that contest, Virginia held No. 16 Louisville to just 14 points in the first half of the very next game. Virginia never looked back, and has now held opponents to 50 points or fewer in four consecutive games — the first time a Bennett-coached team has ever done that.
Specifically, in the last four games against Louisville, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers have given up 47, 47, 50 and 49 points, respectively. In terms of defensive efficiency — the number of points allowed per 100 possessions — three of Virginia’s top four performances of the season have come in that four game stretch.
And it’s not like these were four cupcake teams. Virginia’s one other sub-50 defensive performance of the season came in the season opener against Morgan State, but that team is 5-17 on the year and 3-6 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. With the exception of Boston College — who really is as futile on offense as they looked — the offensive talent of these most recent opponents is well above average. Tech is scoring 74.3 points per game, which is good for a tie for 153rd out of the 351 Division I teams, while Louisville and Pitt are both scoring 78.4 a game, good for a tie for 61st in the nation. Tuesday’s performance was particularly sweet, given that Tech dropped 70 against the Cavaliers just six weeks ago.
No, this isn’t on the same level as holding Harvard, Rutgers and Georgia Tech under 30 points as the Cavaliers did last season. In fact, Virginia held 15 different opponents to 50 or fewer last season, compared to just five thus far this season. But remember that the shot clock was reduced from 35 seconds to 30 seconds, giving Virginia opponents more opportunities to score. Looking at defensive efficiency, the Boston College and Louisville games both would have been top-10 performances last season — though even when you look at defensive efficiency, these recent games still don’t come close to the three aforementioned sub-30 games.
The most promising aspect of this defensive surge is the timing. Last season, Virginia started the season impeccably, but seemed to peak in late January and begin declining after the Justin Anderson finger injury. Even when Anderson returned, the Cavaliers never got back to dominating in the way they did earlier in the year.
In these last few games, Virginia is again looking like the unstoppable force of the height of last season, but instead of storming out of the gates on top, the Cavaliers have slowly built up to this point — albeit with a few stumbles along the way. Here’s hoping this is a sign of sustained dominance to come with deep post-season runs to cap off the season.
Matt Comey is a weekly Sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @matthewcomey.