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DOUGHERTY: No “best defender” on the nation’s best defense

Junior forward Braxton Key has been integral to Virginia's defense in his first season with the Cavaliers.
Junior forward Braxton Key has been integral to Virginia's defense in his first season with the Cavaliers.

If anything in life is certain beyond death and taxes, it may very well be that the Virginia men’s basketball team will consistently have the best scoring defense in the country.

Virginia Coach Tony Bennett has his team on track to boast the best defense in the NCAA for the fifth time in the past six seasons. His signature “pack-line” defensive strategy has brought the Cavaliers to yearly national dominance, and despite roster changes this year, his team only allows a measly 54.6 points per game.

Though a newfound offensive spark has differentiated this Virginia team (21-2, 9-2 ACC) from that of years’ past, this team has additionally changed in a less obvious way.

There is no single star defender. 

There has always seemed to be a face of Virginia’s defense every year — one player that suffocates his man at every matchup and makes countless hustle plays. One can point to ACC Defensive Players of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and Isaiah Wilkins — and ACC All-Defensive Team honoree Akil Mitchell before them — as anchors of a defense no one wanted to play.

Now that Wilkins has graduated, no single player can claim to be the team’s best defender — and that’s not a bad thing. Many players bring some indispensable defensive skills to the fold, contributing to another year of pack-line dominance. 

To see where certain players thrive in Bennett’s system, let’s look at some telling advanced metrics for leading Cavalier defenders, as well as some major impacts each has made. 

Junior guard Braxton Key

With a similar length and game to Wilkins, Key was looked to as a major candidate to replace his role as the team’s best lockdown artist. Thus far, Key has more than delivered, ranking first in the country with a 81.8 defensive rating. 

This metric takes into account isolated defensive metrics, including the amount of blocks and steals a player makes, as well the amount of times a player is bested one-on-one.

Key has been consistently called upon to take on tough defensive assignments as a lengthy forward that can generate constant pressure. He turned in perhaps his best performance against then No. 9 Florida State — known to be one of the lengthiest teams in the ACC — helping hold all of the starting Seminole guards under 10 points.

The transfer junior has also proven to be far and away the team’s best rebounder, hauling in 5.9 per game. Since every offensive possession carries weight with the Cavaliers’ incredibly slow pace of play, Key has given them many extra opportunities to get points and keep the ball away from their opponents.

Junior forward Mamadi Diakite

After two years of logging reserve minutes, Diakite has taken a giant leap forward as a starter this season, with much of the credit going to his improved defense. Diakite currently leads the ACC in fewest points-per-play allowed in man-to-man defense by a fairly wide margin at 0.51.

The Conakry, Guinea native has adapted to his role as a rim protector against power forwards by finding a knack for blocking shots. He has registered a block in 18-straight games.

Most recently, Diakite starred with a block-party in a monumental showdown at North Carolina. The junior blocked four shots and helped hold star Tar Heel senior forward Luke Maye to only four points, after he averaged more than 20 points in the three prior games.

The point guard duo: Junior Ty Jerome and freshman Kihei Clark

The backcourt pairing of Jerome and Clark gets lumped together because they have proven to be incredibly effective on the floor together. Jerome has become well known as the leader of Virginia’s improved offense and for his incredible three-point range, but he also has a case as the team’s best defensive guard. He leads the team with 1.5 steals per game and 2.1 estimated defensive win shares, indicating he is the most valuable defensive player in contributing to wins.

Meanwhile, Clark has established himself as arguably the best on-ball defensive guard on the team his short time in Charlottesville. He ranks behind Diakite at fourth in points-per-play allowed in man-to-man in the ACC with 0.57, earning an apt nickname of a “pest” for his aggressive style of play. 

Functioning together, the pairs allow Virginia to keep its ideal pace and limit guard scoring. Clark often presses from the start of a defensive possession, preventing high-tempo teams from running the floor. This allows Jerome to sit back and plug up the lane, using his 6-foot-5 frame to keep opposing guards out of the paint. Working in tandem, they have been able to slow down the ACC’s best point guards – including Duke freshman Tre Jones and North Carolina freshman Coby White – from initiating their quick-strike, pound-the paint offenses.

Sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter

Though he doesn’t lead the team in a statistical category, Hunter may very well be the team’s most well-rounded defender. A likely top-10 pick in this year’s NBA draft, the sophomore has shown he can guard any position with his length and and athleticism.

His defensive prowess was on display in Virginia’s latest win at No. 20 Virginia Tech. Guarding fellow NBA prospect sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Hunter starred by holding him to 4-14 shooting, including 0-6 from beyond the arc. Hunter registered a key block and shot-clock violation in the second half on Alexander-Walker, before a highlight-reel steal and dunk that quieted the Hokie crowd for good. 

It is this conglomeration of defensive studs that makes Bennett’s system so effective and insulates the team from the drop-off a team may experience after the departure of a defensive star. West Virginia — known for its trademark “Press Virginia” aggressive defensive style — suffered that fate this season after losing National Defensive Player of the Year Jevon Carter to graduation. Coach Bob Huggins’ squad went from a NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen appearance with Carter in 2018 to having the worst record in the Big 12 Conference this season.

All of this considered, Bennett may find his team is better off without a single player expected to carry the team’s defensive load. After all, 2016 — when Brogdon won National Defensive Player of the Year — was the only year Virginia did not top the country in scoring defense.

It’s looking like they will accomplish the feat once again this year, though, with a group of gritty, hard-nosed defenders leading a star-by-committee approach towards defensive dominance.

Correction: This article previously referred to senior forward Luke Maye as a freshman forward. It has been updated to reflect his accurate year. 


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