Virginia is one of the most polarizing programs in college basketball. Critics will point to its loss against 16-seed UMBC as proof that the Cavaliers can’t win when the lights are brightest, along with previous NCAA tournament defeats. Optimists will remind you that Virginia won 31 games last season and is a powerhouse in the ACC every year.
Virginia is great. That can’t be argued. But then the debate shifts: Is Virginia’s defense-first, slowpoke style the best way to win a national championship?
But that’s also missing the point. There’s no tangible reason why Virginia’s style wouldn’t translate from February to March. But, there’s something to be said for stylistic diversity. Virginia shouldn’t change too much; it just went 31-3. But if an opponent takes away what you do best on a given night, as UMBC did, what’s your counter?
Virginia needs to develop better counters; simply put, it needs more ways to win. Tinkering with foreign concepts might even hurt Virginia’s regular season win total. But that's O.K. It if helps come NCAA tournament time, it will be worth it.
Here are some things Virginia can do this year to better prepare itself for March.
Apply token full-court pressure occasionally
Virginia had the No. 1 defense in the country last season and opponents’ average possession length was 18.8 seconds against Cavaliers, the fifth-longest in the land. The former is obviously great, and usually, the latter is too. It means Virginia is forcing a bunch of last-second heaves.
The Cavaliers shouldn’t deviate from the Pack Line too much. But Virginia’s most glaring weakness is that it struggles when playing from behind. Its system is predicated on playing with a lead (and UVA usually is), but during the rare times it’s not, bleeding the clock does Virginia no favors.
Virginia should take a page out of Villanova’s book every once in a while. Villanova uses a soft 1-2-2 press with its best, longest defender (Mikal Bridges last year) at the top. It’s a good way to speed up the opponent and make them take shots they wouldn’t otherwise take. Virginia shouldn’t become West Virginia; that would be completely altering its identity. But applying some token pressure in certain spots wouldn’t stray too far from the system while also speeding up the tempo.
De’Andre Hunter is the perfect player to man the Bridges spot; Virginia has the personnel to run this type of defense. The Hoos should try to get comfortable playing something besides the Pack Line on every possession. The Villanova 1-2-2 press seems realistic, and perhaps beneficial.
Seek out transition offense
Duh. Virginia played at the slowest pace in college basketball last season, which usually worked. But once it went down by double digits against UMBC, it looked lost.
That’s because the Cavaliers hadn’t ran all season. Virginia probably shouldn’t vault into the top 300 in tempo, but perhaps it should try to finish closer to 300th than 351st. UVA isn’t as athletic as Duke or North Carolina, but it has some athletes. Hunter is explosive. Mamadi Diakite (more on him soon) is a very large and very fast human. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome aren’t going to show up on many highlight reels, but they’re fine athletes for their positions.
Virginia should look to grab and go off of defensive rebounds every now and then. If it does so with more regularity, it won’t be such a foreign feeling when it’s trailing by 10-12 points in a game that really matters. That 10-12 point deficit won’t feel like a 20-point deficit like it did against UMBC.
Virginia doesn’t need to become the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns in terms of pace, but it should speed things up at least a little bit.
Greener lights for Guy and Jerome
Tony Bennett trusts Guy and Jerome. This isn't about that.
But Virginia’s offensive philosophy is to seek out the best shot possible on every possession. That usually takes a while. Virginia cuts, screens, curls and grinds until it finds an ideal look.
That’s often successful. But Guy and Jerome are multi-dimensional offensive talents who would likely thrive with some more freedom to launch the first good look they see (note: this applies to Guy more than Jerome. Jerome is a bit more daring with his shot selection).
Guy and Jerome both averaged double figures in scoring and made almost 40 percent of their 3s. Again, this would mostly help the Cavaliers when they’re trailing. Down by nine points in the NCAA tournament? It would be nice if Guy was accustomed to popping off a screen five seconds into the possession, having the confidence to fire, and cutting the lead to six without wasting 25 valuable seconds.
It would be a small adjustment. But Guy and Jerome are a year more experienced, and are likely better shooters now than they were in 2017-18. A little bit of confidence can go a long way.
More Diakite minutes
We love Jack Salt, but Diakite is far more dynamic — even if he’s not as fundamentally sound. But he can become better at the basics with more time to play through his mistakes.
This highlight reel shows just how explosive he is:
Diakite would help Virginia execute the first two steps of this piece. It’s a lot easier to run a pressure defense with a mobile big man. It’s a lot easier to get out in transition with a center who’s comfortable rim running.
Diakite averaged 5.4 points and three rebounds in 15.6 minutes per game last year. He’s never going to be a star, but Diakite can raise Virginia’s ceiling if he’s able to master the fundamentals of Bennett’s system.
Use smaller, funkier lineups
Hunter is 6-7, 225 pounds of muscle. He couldn’t hold up playing 40 center minutes. But it’s not crazy to try him there in five-10 minute spurts.
Like the Diakite move, this could help Virginia run on offense and pressure foes on defense. Of course, you need enough viable wings and guards to justify playing this small. Marco Anthony’s development would be crucial in order to use this lineup.
Virginia almost always plays with one traditional big man, if not two. And it should mostly keep doing so. But why not try a Hunter-at-center look? Use it in the regular season on occasion, and perhaps it could become a viable option when dire times arrive.