A team coached by Virginia Coach Tony Bennett will always be known for its tenacious, suffocating defense. As I wrote several weeks ago, Bennett once again has his team atop the scoring defense rankings — one he has owned over the past half-decade.
Offense hasn’t come as easily for the beloved Cavalier coach.
Ever since a Malcolm Brogdon-led Virginia team put up 71 points per game during the 2015-2016 season, the Cavaliers have endured a long road to finding an offensive identity. A very poor offensive season in 2016-2017 looked to be corrected last season, until an untimely injury exposed the team’s major offense flaws during the NCAA Tournament.
Now healthy and loaded with scoring options, Bennett has arguably his best offense ever at his fingertips.
No. 2 Virginia (26-2, 14-2 ACC) averages 72.1 points per game this season — the highest since the Bennett era began in 2009. Despite playing at a slow pace, the Cavaliers have been incredibly efficient, ranking second in the nation in KenPom.com’s adjusted offense metric.
Last season, Virginia failed to score 80 points in an ACC game. They’ve done it four times this year — twice on the road.
After the graduation of double-digit scorer Devon Hall following last season, multiple players have stepped up to fill the void, while Bennett’s new scheme wrinkles and player rotations have largely paid off. Let’s break down some of the catalysts driving such improvement.
A legitimate “Big Three”
Bennett’s greatest long-term accomplishment since Brogdon’s departure has been the development of three bona fide stars in his system. Junior guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter have all shown they can run Bennett’s offense, with each having a versatile set of tools and a knack for smart, efficient play.
According to Virginia sports blogger Danny Neckel, the trio are three of only 13 players in the country that average at least 13 points, 4 rebounds and two 2 assists while shooting over 40 percent from three and turning the ball over less than twice per game.
In every one of Virginia’s conference wins, at least one of Bennett’s studs have stepped up to initiate offense in different ways. On the road against then-No. 8 North Carolina, Guy torched the Tar Heels’ defense by making five of his nine three point attempts — many in crunch time to close a 69-61 victory. Finally looking healthy after a mid-season back injury, Jerome broke Georgia Tech’s zone with crafty drives and floaters as he put up 19 points in an 81-51 blowout.
Hunter turned in arguably the performance of the year in a 64-52 comeback road win at Louisville, scoring 26 points. His ability to score at all three levels — getting to the rim, two-point jump shooting and spot-up threes — has been key in opening up the floor for the rest of Virginia’s scorers.
Pounding the paint and shot selection
Where past Virginia teams have often doomed themselves by relying on jump shooting, this year’s squad has found success by getting the ball inside the paint and scoring at the rim. Compared to last season, the Cavaliers take about five percent more shots at the rim and eight percent fewer two-point jumpers, which they historically make at a lower percentage.
Junior forward Mamadi Diakite’s increased role in the rotation has been a major driver of this trend. While his shot selection remained essentially the same as last year, his increased time on the floor has been a boon to inside scoring since he makes 74.7 percent of hit shots at the rim. He has been called upon to create offense inside when threes aren’t falling for Virginia’s guards, most recently chipping in 14 points against Louisville on a day where the team shot 11.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Arguably no player has benefited more from this scheme change than Hunter. Hunter has increased his percentage of shots at the rim to almost 40 percent — around a seven percent jump from last year — and his shooting percentage at the rim has bolstered by 10 percent. His increased driving aggressiveness allows him to get to the free throw line often — his 4.2 attempts from the stripe lead the team, and he converts almost 80 percent of them.
This trend rings true for most of this year’s Cavaliers, as their collective free-throw attempt to field-goal attempt ratio has gone up almost six percent. Whereas drawing fouls used to be a chore for the offense, free buckets are now easier to come by. The trend has allowed Virginia to finish some grind-it-out victories, one being a home thriller against Notre Dame in which the Cavaliers converted 14 free throw attempts on a very poor shooting day.
Look no further than a 79-53 comeback road win against Syracuse — one of the greatest three-point shooting games in Virginia history — to see this. The Big Three made 18 threes collectively as they whipped the ball around to each other constantly on the perimeter. Guy was an astounding 8-10 on his attempts, and Jerome was the main distributor of them with 14 assists.
While Bennett usually has a couple knockdown shooters in his lineup year to year, the amount of players who have shown their range this year has been a pleasant surprise.
Beyond the Big Three, Diakite and sophomore forward Jay Huff have both shot over 40 percent from deep, albeit in a limited amount of attempts. Furthermore, though freshman guard Kihei Clark and junior forward Braxton Key have hit shooting slumps this season, both are beginning to heat up and have knocked down some big-time shots when called upon.
The sheer amount of players who can stroke it from deep have sunk even the best defenses Virginia has played this season. Georgia Tech has the 33rd ranked defense per KenPom.com and the seventh best three-point defense in the country, but the Cavaliers shot the lights out against the Yellow Jackets, making over 50 percent of their 17 attempts. Clark and Key both hit two each, with looks opening up for them as Georgia Tech was forced to play more aggressive on the higher percentage shooters on the floor like Guy and Jerome.
Jay Huff logging more minutes
After what seemed like an eternity of anticipation, Huff has finally been unleashed as a key rotation player for the Cavaliers. He has one of the most versatile skill sets of Bennett’s big men, with an ability to shoot the three, handle the ball and come off screens for thunderous dunks. Though his minutes have been limited, he is currently second behind Hunter in all rotation players in points extrapolated to 40 minutes of playing time.
As Huff’s minutes continually increase, senior center Jack Salt has seen his playing time dwindle, though in part due to injury. Salt is a very limited scorer that usually functions as a screen-setter and isn’t best fit to break the zones Virginia has seen from many ACC opponents this year.
The addition of playing Huff over Salt gives Virginia a player at the five who can stretch the floor and create more driving lanes and perimeter openings for the guards while feeding into the interior scoring the last few Virginia teams have severely lacked. Salt never re-entered the Louisville game after being substituted for Huff, with the sophomore’s 12 points changing the momentum of the game in Virginia’s favor.
Not all is perfect in this Virginia offense yet — increased turnovers have been an issue — but Bennett has much less to worry about with his most versatile offense team ever. With superstars that can get pivotal buckets and role players who take smart shots and stretch the floor, this team’s offensive ceiling leaps and bounds above the one that mustered only 54 points against UMBC in last year’s infamous defeat.
Efficient offense is no longer just insurance for Bennett’s defensive genius — it’s been winning games for the Cavaliers for the first time in years.