Virginia women’s basketball came so close to ending a drought last season. Failing to reach the NCAA Tournament for the prior six seasons, the Cavaliers racked up several momentous victories — including an upset over then-No. 4 Florida State — en route to a 20-win season. For the first time in years, the team gave fans reason to be excited.
However, when Selection Sunday rolled around, the Hoos came up empty handed. A couple of costly late-season losses and an early ACC Tournament exit spelled doom, as the team barely failed to make it to the Big Dance.
This shortcoming inspired Virginia Coach Joanne Boyle to craft a simple message for her team coming into this season.
“It’s time for us to get off the bubble,” Boyle said.
The Hoos have certainly gotten off the bubble this season — but not in the way Boyle had hoped. Heading into a break for student-athletes to take their final exams, Virginia women’s basketball stands at 4-6 — its worst start in four seasons. And with myriad challenging ACC matches ahead, the Cavaliers are in real danger of missing March Madness for the eighth season in a row.
Boyle had good reason to believe in her team’s prospects at the beginning of the season. Sure, the Cavaliers had to replace leading scorer Breyana Mason, who graduated last spring. But that was the only player Virginia lost. Returning several veterans, such as senior forward Lauren Moses and senior guard Aliyah Huland El, the Cavaliers had experience — something the team sorely lacked last season.
Additionally, with a pair of up-and-coming stars in sophomore guards Dominique Toussaint and Jocelyn Willoughby — who were the 2016 Gatorade Girls’ Basketball Players of the Year in New York and New Jersey, respectively — the Cavaliers seemed poised to make a run, as they were projected to finish sixth in the ACC.
Yet, Virginia has woefully underperformed — it currently owns the worst record in its conference. Part of this is due to sloppy play. Turning the ball over 23 times in its season-opener against then-No. 7 Mississippi State, the Cavaliers set the tone for the rest of their season, as they average 16 turnovers per game, which is tied for 156th in the nation. These turnovers are costly, as they halt Virginia’s momentum and transfer it to the opposition — making it difficult for the team to stay in games.
Also lackadaisical has been Virginia’s defense. At first glance, it may seem like the Cavalier defense is impressive, as it is only allows a relatively low average of 59.8 points per game. However, upon delving deeper, Virginia’s defense has one glaring hole — fouls. Fouling opposing players a whopping 179 times this season — which puts Virginia tied for 323rd out of 345 teams for fewest fouls — the Cavaliers have given opponents’ 156 free throw attempts. Virginia’s number of fouls has proven to be detrimental this season. For example, in the team’s most recent setback — a 52-43 loss to Rutgers — a fourth of the Scarlet Knights’ points came from free throws, as they went 13 for 21 from the charity stripe.
The Cavaliers haven’t given fans much reason to be hopeful in their scoring, either. Averaging 61.2 points per game, Virginia’s scoring offense is the second-worst in the ACC. Part of this scoring struggle is rooted in the fact that Virginia doesn’t have a true scorer.
At 12.0 points per game, Toussaint leads all Cavalier scorers. However, the fact that she only places 26th in the ACC is indicative of just how poor Virginia’s offense is. With the exception of Toussaint and Willoughby, no other Cavalier averages double-digit scoring figures. Thus, when the team’s defense gets busted open and Virginia falls behind, Boyle doesn’t have many options she can use to get her squad back into the game.
Despite the poor record, Virginia women’s basketball has had some bright spots thus far. For example, with 30 blocked shots, sophomore forward Felicia Aiyeotan leads the ACC in blocks and is third in the nation. Additionally, the Hoos almost knocked off then-No. 15 Maryland, putting up quite the fight in a 60-59 losing effort.
However, Virginia’s shortcomings will only become more ruinous as the Cavaliers take on tougher opponents. With four ACC teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25 poll and several more receiving votes, Virginia will not be able to keep up with its more-talented opposition and will continue to accumulate losses.
Boyle had every right to believe that her team could get off the bubble. Yet, due to poor play, Virginia won’t even be in the conversation to make the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday in March.
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.