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RUTHERFORD: Five ways the Virginia women’s basketball team can improve

After starting the season 0-5, the Cavaliers hope to revive their season in the new year

<p>Although it is still early in the season, the Cavaliers need to fix several issues if they want to be relevant in the ACC.&nbsp;</p>

Although it is still early in the season, the Cavaliers need to fix several issues if they want to be relevant in the ACC. 

The Virginia women’s basketball team has not recorded a win thus far in the 2020-21 season, and the team’s struggles haven’t been limited to the court. The Cavaliers (0-5, 0-2 ACC) have yet to pose any sort of threat towards their opponents, which has left them ranked 14th out of 15 teams in the ACC. 

After a disappointing 2019 season and the loss of key playmakers, there were already limited expectations for the young Virginia squad. However, inexperience is not all that has hindered the embattled team, as it has also struggled to manage injuries, find consistency and establish leadership.

Although it is still early in the season, the Cavaliers need to fix several issues if they want to be relevant in their conference. With that in mind, here are five ways Virginia can get its year back on track and hopefully secure its first win of the season.

1. Come back healthy

The women’s basketball team has struggled immensely with player health and availability since the beginning of the season. The Cavaliers have 13 players listed on the roster — however, so far this season, the squad has yet to have more than nine available players for a game and has competed with as few as seven players. 

After the first three games of the year, Virginia even had to cancel its scheduled Dec. 6 game against George Washington because of injuries. The Cavaliers quickly returned to action Dec. 10 and played twice more — against Clemson and Florida State

Since then, Virginia has had three consecutive games — two which were against ACC opponents —  postponed because of “positive tests and subsequent quarantining and contact tracing within the Virginia women’s basketball program.”

When the Cavaliers hopefully return to action Tuesday against Wake Forest, 30 days will have lapsed since they last played.

Virginia certainly didn’t expect to start its season with five losses, but the Cavaliers also didn’t expect to have one game canceled and three games postponed in the opening month. It is imperative that the team comes back from the extended break healthy and game-ready, especially amid their busy upcoming schedule.

The lengthy time period between games is concerning as Virginia’s players may not be in the best shape and may need time to adjust to competitive action. However, if Virginia returns with healthy players, this break could be exactly what the Cavaliers need to turn their season around.

2. Establish an early lead 

This season, Virginia has yet to start the second half with a lead. The Cavaliers were outscored 33-23 by Central Florida, 32-15 by East Carolina, 34-26 by James Madison and 43-27 by Clemson in the first half. The closest the Cavaliers ever got was in their most recent match against Florida State when they entered halftime tied with the Seminoles at 28 points. 

Comparatively, in the second half, Virginia has scored more than or equal to its opponent in three out of five games. Clearly, Virginia is a second-half team that often has to fight back from early-game deficits.

One of the biggest improvements the Cavaliers can make is transitioning from a team that fights back from behind to a team that forces other teams to fight back.

If this team learns how to start games with intensity — both on offense and defense — the Cavaliers will have a much better chance of winning games, especially given their tendency to perform well in the second half. Being able to play solid basketball consistently across both halves would be a huge step in the right direction.

3. Demonstrate leadership on the court 

The Cavaliers have a young team that includes seven new players — five freshmen and a pair of transfers — and five sophomores. As a result of its youth, Virginia needs a few players to step up and lead the team.

In past seasons, the team was led by former Virginia guard Jocelyn Willoughby — who was the ACC’s top scorer in 2019-20 and the 10th overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. This season, the Cavaliers need new leaders to take over for Willoughby and guide Virginia’s next generation of players.

So far, sophomore guards Amandine Toi and Carole Miller have begun to step up into this role. Toi leads the team in scoring with 14 points per game and has been the only consistent three-point shooter on the Virginia roster, knocking down 15 three-point shots and shooting at 45 percent accuracy. Miller is averaging nine points per game while leading the team in total assists and rebounds.

Though both young in age, Toi and Miller played in every game last season and have a lot of experience under their belts. Further, they are the only two players to have started all five games so far this season and have played the most minutes of any players on the roster — Toi has played 194 minutes and Miller has played 183. 

Virginia’s start to the season has made it clear that Toi and Miller will be the two players entrusted to shape and lead this team. Over the course of the year, both guards will have to continue growing as team leaders and help the young team navigate a difficult campaign.

4. Create more shooting opportunities and capitalize on them

Virginia is currently ranked 14th in the ACC, only above Boston College. To rise from the bottom of the standings, the Cavaliers need to improve their offense by both generating more shooting opportunities and taking advantage of each attempt they are given. 

Scoring has been a major issue for Virginia this year. Currently, the Cavaliers rank dead-last in the ACC in scoring, averaging just 51.6 points per game, and there’s a substantial gap between them and every other program in the conference. The second-worst team is Miami who scores almost 16 more points per game than the Cavaliers. Virginia also ranks last in field goal percentage, having made only 95 of 261 attempted field goals.

At the moment, just two Virginia players score in the double digits on average — Toi and sophomore forward Meg Jefferson. Moreover, just four players — Miller, freshman guard Kaydan Lawson and the aforementioned pair — average more than five points per game. While this quartet must continue to improve as scorers, other Cavaliers also need to contribute more on the offensive end. If Virginia’s scoring woes aren’t resolved, the losses will keep piling up.

The good news is that these statistics aren’t permanent, and the Cavaliers still have over two-thirds of their season left to play. As the young team gains more and more experience, their offense will likely become more consistent and effective.

5. Be patient and build confidence

It’s easy to write off the winless Cavaliers, but it’s important to remember that Virginia has only played in five of its 21 scheduled regular season games. In other words, there is still plenty of time for the Cavaliers to improve and find the winning formula. 

Notably, even in the few games that have been played this season, there have been glimpses of hope for the Virginia squad. 

For example, in the tight matchup against James Madison, four players — Miller, Toi, Jefferson and Lawson — combined for a staggering 59 points. For Toi, this was just one of several impressive performances this year, which also included scoring a career-high 23 points against Clemson. 

Additionally, 10 players — including four freshmen — have been given minutes this season and are slowly gaining experience and confidence. On top of that, the team has worked hard and displayed grit even when playing games with just seven players. 

The Cavaliers would be the first to admit that their team is a work in progress with much improvement to make. On the other hand, Virginia still has time to prove that it can be a formidable opponent. With a little patience and confidence from the Virginia faithful, the Cavaliers might just turn a few heads in ACC play.

Virginia is scheduled to restart its season Tuesday against Wake Forest in Charlottesville. The game will tip off at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast on ACC Network.

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