The Cavaliers have had a strange season so far. While they boast a seemingly solid 10-3 record, those losses have looked uncharacteristically ugly. Notre Dame drubbed Virginia 76-54 Saturday, throttling the Cavaliers instantly to deliver a shocking result. The loss altered Virginia’s outlook. A 77-54 loss two weeks ago to then-No. 23 Memphis, viewed by many as hopefully only an outlier, now seems more like a prelude.
Mired in a tortuous rebuild, Notre Dame — which last year posted an 11-21 record (3-17 ACC) — has a new coach and a young roster, who were forecasted to spend the season in the ACC dungeon. The Fighting Irish entered Saturday’s game 5-7, including tough losses to Western Carolina and The Citadel, and last week barely escaped against Marist.
Then they shelled Virginia. Notre Dame controlled the game from the beginning, sprinting out to a 13-0 lead. Virginia rarely pushed closer than 10 points.
It was Virginia’s third loss of the season, all by 22 points or more. Following the loss, Coach Tony Bennett acknowledged that if Virginia fails to shore up its defense, similar blowouts could ensue.
“We’re gonna have to be harder to score against than we are,” Bennett said. “Or this will continually happen to us.”
The words sound gloomy and almost defeatist. But Bennett simply decided to state, bluntly, the reality. He said that Virginia's offensive production could not make up for problems on defense.
“We don’t have enough offensive firepower to just say, all right, we can kind of exchange possessions, and we’ll get it going and score in a flurry,” Bennett said.
If uninspiring, Bennett’s comments at least provide a blueprint of Virginia’s identity. The Cavaliers must be much stronger defensively, powerful enough to hold on when the offense evaporates. They have done reasonably well on that front, ranked No. 6 in kenpom.com’s defensive efficiency ratings despite Saturday’s performance.
Defense must form the foundation, Bennett said. Everything else can follow. Success will depend on the team’s ability to work together to improve.
“It’s going to take a real connected, unified effort,” Bennett said. “First defensively, because when the defense goes, it’s not good. And today the defense was gone. Or they took it from us. And then we weren’t able to even stay in the game.”
The loss ruptured any notion that Virginia presently belongs in the ACC’s top tier. It also raised, for the first time, true NCAA Tournament worry, sending the Cavaliers tumbling 23 spots down the NET Rankings.
While it may be too early to begin parsing NCAA Tournament resumes, the loss dealt Virginia a sizable blow. It currently stands as a Quad 3 loss, which could be damaging given that the Cavaliers do not have myriad opportunities to earn a Quad 1 win this season. The selection committee invariably punishes such losses.
A Quad 4 game looms Wednesday in Virginia’s home matchup against Louisville. If ever a team faced a must-win game three days into the new year, this is it. The Cardinals, unlike Notre Dame, have seemingly worsened each week, contributing to a losing record. Virginia, still undefeated at home, will not face an easier game the rest of the season.
This week's game against Louisville and the softer upcoming schedule give Virginia time to focus on developing as a team. The Cavaliers face a comparatively easier upcoming ACC schedule, with all of the conference’s putative contenders — North Carolina, Clemson and Duke — lurking a month down the road. This schedule provides the Cavaliers an opportunity to improve while amassing some conference wins. Development, sophomore guard Andrew Rohde said last week, should take precedence over wins and losses.
“There’s gonna be ups and downs,” Rohde said. “There’s gonna be wins and losses. But just maintaining the course of trajectory getting better, yeah, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Virginia will need to prove it can develop, particularly after Bennett's first solution to the Cavaliers’ weak defense failed to work. Against both Memphis and Notre Dame, the deficits seemed grim enough that Bennett made a surprising coaching decision — he deployed a zone defense. The coach almost never plays zone defense, rarely straying from his patented packline defense.
But the packline showed holes Saturday. Bennett resorted to a small lineup — smaller, even, than usual — and it struggled to rebuff the Fighting Irish. Freshman forward Blake Buchanan and senior forward Jordan Minor, Virginia’s big men, have seldom played this season, leaving 6-foot-9 graduate forward Jacob Groves as the only big man on a crumbling packline defense.
But Groves played only 18 minutes Saturday. Without any interior presence, the packline struggled, and shifting to a zone was perhaps an attempt to insulate the paint. Hope of a comeback, though, had already disappeared by the time Bennet’s solution was implemented.
Bennett fielded a question Saturday about his message to the team following the lopsided loss. He talked about looking ahead, and within, in order to find new solutions and improve.
“Take a good look,” Bennett said he told the team. “All of us. Look in the mirror, and say, this has happened now. We’ve gotten beat pretty handily, for sure, three times, and haven’t been able to hang in there.”
He also mentioned “finding ways,” a Bennett buzz word — implying significant improvement is a requisite in order to reach this squad’s full potential. The Cavaliers will search for a way against Louisville.
“Hopefully we can regroup and fight and get back to it,” Bennett said.
Although the two recent losses are hard to ignore, Bennett’s acknowledgment of the team’s issues indicates he does understand what needs to happen for this team to move forward and succeed. But with a softer couple of weeks coming up, Virginia only has a short window to improve before taking on tougher ACC opponents.