College basketball: Virginia's defense vaulting the Cavaliers to elite status
The hardest single feat to accomplish so far this basketball season?
Try scoring against Virginia. It has been a miserably futile pastime, with more dry spells than the Sahara, as four shackled opponents can attest. Let the bad times roll...
Against UNC Greensboro: An 11:19 scoreless streak for the Spartans, a 22-0 run for Virginia, a 76-51 final.
Greensboro coach Wes Miller: “We can talk for days about their defense.”
Against St. Francis Brooklyn: A 10:02 scoreless streak for the Terriers, a 20-0 run for the Cavaliers, a 72-32 final.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett: “We want every possession to be a battle for the other team, and so far they have embraced that.”
Against Yale: An 8:10 scoreless streak for the Bulldogs, a 16-0 run for the Cavaliers, a 62-38 final. This against a Yale team that had just put up 98 points at Washington and 89 against Lehigh.
Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite: “We just come out to play defense. That is who we really are.”
Against Grambling State: A 9:46 scoreless streak for the Tigers, a 26-0 run for Virginia, a 49-9 halftime score, and a 90-34 final.
Grambling coach Shawn Walker: “I don’t think you can imagine what it’s like to play against that defense.”
Put all that together, and this is what you have: The 4-0 Cavaliers are allowing 38.8 points per game. There are eight FBS football teams giving up more. Their opponents are shooting under 29 percent, with only 21 assists all season. You don’t pass for baskets against Virginia.
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Some of this is not so surprising. Bennett is to defense what Steve Jobs was to iPhones. It is Virginia’s calling card and the reason why heavy personnel losses from last year’s Elite Eight team have not kept the Cavaliers off this year’s top 10.
“That is going to be our ticket,” Bennett said of his defense.
“We work on that all year round,” guard Marial Shayok mentioned.
To be sure, this is the early-season schedule, so the lifting will obviously get heavier for the Cavaliers, and soon. They have a meeting with Iowa on Friday, for example. But still. Three consecutive opponents held under 40 points in the age of the 3-pointer and 30-second shot clock? The last time Virginia did that was the 1945-46 season.
We can go to Bennett’s longtime assistant Ron Sanchez for an idea of what’s happening in Charlottesville.
“We have our breakdowns but it’s what we hang our hat on, trying to be as good as we can defensively," he said. "It’s something that we don’t take for granted, let’s just put it that way.
“It’s simple. We just want to force an opponent to take a tough shot, a contested shot, and not give up anything easy. We don’t overcomplicate it. At this level, there are so many talented guys, you’re not going to shut anybody down. We just want to make it as hard as possible for them.”
That’s been the message at Virginia for years. Defense is not romantic. Defense rarely shows up on the highlights at 11 p.m. Defense is labor and commitment, and not every player wants to be on board with. But defense wins. Clearly, the Cavaliers keep finding believers, and now have a replenished wave, even without the likes of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill.
“Our identity isn’t based on the individuals that were here. Our defensive identity is more of a culture,” Sanchez said. “Anybody who’s here understands that, even the guys that were waiting for their turn. Except now, their opportunity is on the floor.
“It actually helps us in recruiting because we end up identifying the kids that want to play that way. The worst thing is to bring in a kid who doesn’t want to play defense. So that is our identity nationally. When we’re recruiting kids we do talk about our commitment to the defensive side of the floor, and how that can result in tremendous success for them individually and our team. To be honest, it’s not a hard sell at all. It kind of weeds out that guys who don’t want to be a part of defensive play.”
The question now is if the current Cavaliers are as suffocating and impregnable as their early numbers suggest.
“I think we are on the verge of really buying in completely to the Virginia way of playing basketball,” Sanchez said.
That’s not good news for future opponents. But it’s a long season. Sooner or later, someone might even break 60 against Virginia.