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Virginia is still playing efficient pack-line defense, but its offense may be the best ever under coach Tony Bennett.

By Luke Winn
December 09, 2015

NEW YORK — Report filed to the SI Scouting Department on 8–1, No. 10-ranked Virginia ...

Game scouted

Virginia’s 70–54 win over No. 14 West Virginia in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden—a contest that UVa trailed at half, 36–30

Making sense of Virginia

Nine games in, and I’m still having trouble getting a read on these Cavaliers. Not in a sense of what coach Tony Bennett is doing schematically; like always, he’s running blocker-mover motion on offense and the Pack-Line on D. What I can’t tell yet is if they’re better offensively or defensively, and that isn’t normal.

This might be the best offensive team Bennett has ever had, and this could be the first time in his career that his offense finishes ranked ahead of his defense in efficiency. For a program that preaches D—“Coach Bennett won’t allow anything less than striving to be the No. 1 defense,” senior forward Anthony Gill said—this is an interesting situation.

The power of Gill

Virginia just happens to have better offensive weapons right now than it does individual defenders. Gill, who had 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting against the Mountaineers, has incredible instincts for putting himself in the optimal position to score once the defense reacts to his guards’ penetration. He naturally glides to open space, always has his hands ready to make a catch and finishes nearly every everything around the rim despite lacking elite leaping ability. He also excels at putbacks and has a few reliable post moves, all of which combine to make him ultra-efficient. He’s averaging 1.309 points per possession and turning the ball over on just 7.0% of his possessions—a remarkably low rate for a big man with a sizable role in an offense. (Virginia’s biggest offensive strength, as a whole, has been turnover-avoidance; Press Virginia is the only team that’s been able to force the Cavs into mistakes.)

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While Gill doesn’t have a great reputation as a defender, and is by no means a rim protector, his defensive rebounding percentage (20.0%) is at a career high, and he had 12 boards against West Virginia. He also deserves credit for helping hold WVU star Devin Williams to 10 points and three rebounds while forcing him into five turnovers. It was the Cavaliers’ big-to-big doubles that did most of that damage, but Gill anchored the interior in small lineups—and that’s not something the Cavs relied on him for as a sophomore or junior. Two years ago, Akil Mitchell drew the big front-line defensive assignments, and last season it was ACC Defensive Player of the Year Darion Atkins who had that responsibility. With those two departed, Gill said, “I’m just trying to be that physical guy down low, and trying to get stops.”

I would like to postulate that Gill is deriving power from his hair, a black mop that he has to restrain with a thin headband. The mop is already approaching Robin Lopez levels after two months of growth, and Gill has aims of getting it to shoulder-length—at least. “A year and a half, I told myself,” he said of his intended wait time until his next cut. “A year and a half.”

The three-guard mix and small(er) ball

Virginia’s three-headed backcourt of senior Malcolm Brogdon, junior London Perrantes and sophomore Darius Thompson theoretically should’ve helped it handle West Virginia’s pressure with ease, but ... as Bennett said after seeing his team commit turnovers on an uncharacteristic 32.4% of their first-half offensive possessions, “We looked like we had three centers on the floor [instead].”

Anthony Gill (above) says he plans to grow his hair for more than a year. Is that the source of his power?
Paul Vernon/AP

The Cavaliers fixed things in the second half—and cut down their turnover percentage to 24.2—by making a few key adjustments. They used 6'7" sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins at the four, giving him 17 minutes that were almost all alongside Gill at the 5, and kept centers Mike Tobey and Jack Salt on the bench. Wilkins didn’t commit a single turnover, the offense seemed to open up with him on the floor, and he was their most active second-half defender, recording four steals. I doubt Virginia’s small lineup will be effective against fellow ACC title contenders North Carolina and Louisville, but it could match up well against Duke, Miami and Notre Dame.

The other, subtle adjustment was that although Perrantes is the Cavaliers point guard, he had more looks created for him by his backcourt teammates (Thompson, Brodgon and Devon Hall) in the second half. Perrantes is a steady, sure-handed creator, but he’s also the team’s most dangerous shooting weapon on the wing, having knocked down 53.8% of his threes as a junior. He was 3-for-3 from deep, all from the left wing, and scored all of his 13 points in the second half. That this came in his first game back following surgery for an appendectomy that happened nine days ago makes it all the more impressive.

The state of the defense

Even though Virginia is ranked No. 4 in adjusted defensive efficiency on following the win over West Virginia, and it held the Mountaineers to 0.83 points per possession—their lowest output of the season—I’m hesitant to view this UVa defense as being similar to the suffocating team we witnessed last season. The Cavaliers came into the game lagging in rim protection, ranking 110th nationally in two-point field goal percentage allowed. They were not excelling at defending jump shooters, either, and were fouling far more than they did in ‘14–15, ranking 160th in defensive free-throw rate after finishing 22nd last season.

The Mountaineers were, in a few ways, the perfect team to get killed by Virginia’s Pack-Line D. The Cavaliers pack it in and West Virginia can’t shoot from outside, ranking 334th in three-point percentage (27.0). As their coach, Bob Huggins, said afterwards, “We take shots. We take shots out of rhythm, we take shots off balance, we don’t do a good job of stepping into shots.”

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Also: Williams, for all his strengths, is not a strong passer out of double-teams ... and double-teaming the post is a Virginia staple. West Virginia’s best offense comes on putbacks of short-range misses ... and the Cavaliers are very much focused on defensive rebounding. They gave up an uncharacteristic nine offensive boards in the first half, but limited WVU to just four in the second half.

If you’re an aggressive team, you can exploit the new, freedom-of-motion rules and force this Virginia defense to foul more than it has in the past. The Mountaineers had 21 free-throw attempts against 50 field-goal attempts, a much higher ratio than the Cavaliers want, and in their lone loss this season, at George Washington on Nov. 16, the Colonials had 28 free-throw attempts against 51 field-goal attempts—an even more alarming ratio. Bennett is not happy with the touchy way his physical defenders are being refereed in 2015–16. “My hope is there is still a feel to the game as an official. And I understand freedom of movement, I understand a lot of things, but ... you’ve gotta be able to let guys play,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll get to a better spot. It needs to.” 

And Virginia, both in adjusting to refereeing and locking down in a way that more resembles ‘14–15, needs to get to a better spot. Everyone around the program seems to agree on that. Gill said “we’re not where we want to be yet” on defense. Bennett talked about still needing to “take the next step.” The Cavaliers have been far from perfect, know where they need to improve—and still rank No. 1 nationally in overall adjusted efficiency. That is not a bad place to be in on Dec. 9.

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