College basketball: Regardless of personnel, Virginia is a machine
Lost in Tuesday night’s upset mayhem was a result out of South Bend that probably didn’t make you blink. Virginia went on the road and downed Notre Dame by a score of 71-54.
It doesn’t carry the magnitude that a top-four team losing does. Road wins should never be taken for granted in college basketball, as Villanova, Kansas and Kentucky just learned. But Virginia just played a superior opponent to any of those three teams on Tuesday, and the Hoos straight up dismantled them. Based on everything Virginia lost at the end of last season and the beginning of this year, what the Cavaliers are doing is all the more impressive.
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Virginia lost NBA first round pick Justin Anderson after the 2014-15 season; the Hoos went 29-8 and captured a No. 1 tournament seed in 2015-16. Virginia lost Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, arguably its two best players, this past spring. Brogdon is one of the best rookies in the NBA this season, and Gill was a double-double machine during his college career.
Wahoowa!— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) January 25, 2017
No. 12 Virginia gets 22 from London Perrantes en route to high quality 71-54 road win at No. 14 Notre Dame. pic.twitter.com/N7XMmq4F3W
Brogdon seemed irreplaceable (he still is – but Virginia has improved in other areas to make up for his loss), but the Cavaliers appeared to have a capable Gill replacement waiting in the wings in Memphis transfer Austin Nichols. Nichols was the rare big who could shoot 3s and intimidate foes at the rim, but he was dismissed from the team earlier this season.
After Nichols’ departure, it was fair to wonder: While Virginia’s culture and system is great, does it have enough talent to overcome everything it lost? Especially in the loaded ACC?
The answer has been a resounding yes. What’s not surprising: Virginia’s defense is as stout as ever. UVA ranks third in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, and given its combination of size and scheme, this is expected.
What’s surprising is that Virginia has its second-best offense of the Bennett era – the Cavs are scoring more efficiently than they did in 2014-15, when they finished 30-4.
Virginia boasts all of two players that score more than 10 points per game. London Perrantes is the team’s leading scorer and is averaging 12 points per contest. The Hoos have the country's 16th-ranked offense this season, though nothing about what they do is sexy; Virginia curl screens you to death. This is an unofficial stat, but it has to lead the nation in screen quality. Jack Salt and Isaiah Wilkins are cinder blocks with precise technique, and Marial Shayok and Kyle Guy are the main beneficiaries.
Shayok is taking on the Brodgon role from last season, and while he’ll never fill those shoes, he’s been awesome this year. The junior guard is averaging 10 points per game in less than 20 minutes of action per night; he’s a dynamite two-way force that will see more time as the season rolls along.
Wilkins’ raw numbers are ordinary, but he’s a plus-minus hero. His 123.4 offensive rating in conference play ranks 12th in the ACC – which is pretty impressive for a guy who doesn’t really, you know, score. Wilkins averages 6.8 points per game.
The Virginia forward is an expert screen-setter, and UVA’s pet set is Perrantes running point with its two bigs setting down screens for wings. Perrantes (understandably) tends to lean towards Wilkins’ side, and with good reason. Shayok, Guy, Devon Hall or Darius Thompson usually has plenty of breathing room after Wilkins eliminates their man, and the defense is left to choose between an uncontested floater by the wing or a dunk by Wilkins. Most of Virginia's buckets last night were a function of good picks.
Where some teams are loaded with 3-point shooters, athletes or ball-handlers, Virginia is loaded with guys whose impact extends beyond the stat sheet. Cliché, but true. It’s also stocked with guys who have taken their development process seriously. Most of these players were no-names as freshmen; now, they’re key contributors on one of the best teams in the country.
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Just when the Cavaliers seem like they’re about to crack, they reel off five ACC wins in a row including a 17-point triumph at Notre Dame. At some point, you’d think Virginia’s (perceived) lack of starpower would catch up to it. It hasn’t happened in about four years. At this point, it’s safe to say that you shouldn’t hold your breath.