No team in the nation is allowing opponents fewer assists per game than Virginia (6.7), and that, according to former Cavaliers star guard Cory Alexander, is indicative of broader defensive growth that has played a significant role in the team’s strong start.
Alexander, who played at Virginia from 1992-95, served as analyst on the Cavaliers’ men’s basketball radio broadcasts from 2008-11 and continues to work as a color commentator for regional college basketball games. He also is a volunteer assistant on the Hampton-Sydney men’s basketball team.
“What [the Cavaliers] are doing is they’re not allowing guys to drive the lane and kick it out to the open shooters, and I think that’s really where they’ve improved this year compared to last year,” Alexander said Monday in a telephone interview. “You go back to the game against Washington and a number of games where Virginia was getting lit up from three. That’s not happening this year because what they’re doing is they’re filling that back line and still helping, but they’re also being able to cover those shooters on the perimeter and make them have to put it on the floor to make plays.”
Through 15 games last season, Virginia had allowed five opponents to tally 13 or more assists and eight opponents to shoot 40 percent or higher from three-point range. The Cavaliers were 10-5.
This season, the Cavaliers are off to a 14-1 start in large part due to their stingy defense. They have allowed three opponents to record 10 or more assists – none have tallied more than 11 – and just one opponent (Michigan) to shoot higher than 39 percent from three-point range.
“What they’re doing is they’re making you shoot long, contested shots,” Alexander said.
He pointed to Virginia’s 52-51 win Saturday over Miami. The Hurricanes made 5 of 17 shots (29.4 percent) from three-point range. One of Miami’s top long-range shooting threats, guard Malcolm Grant, shot 2 for 8 (25 percent) from beyond the three-point arc. Grant entered the game making 36.7 percent of his three-point atttempts. No other Hurricanes player attempted more than two three-pointers against the Cavaliers.
On the season, Virginia has held opponents to 27-percent shooting from beyond the three-point arc. That mark ranks second in the ACC and No. 9 in the nation.
Alexander noted that, at times, the Cavaliers have struggled to keep individual opposing players from penetrating to the basket.
“But that’s one guy having to beat another guy to make a play,” Alexander said. “They’re not making their teammates better. They’re not getting their teammates involved.”
Essentially, Virginia is doing a better job this season of isolating opposing players from one another and hoping that its help defense is sound enough to force contested shots. It seems to be working thus far.
But that strategy will be tested Thursday, when Virginia plays at Duke (13-2). The Blue Devils do not rely heavily on any single player for point production. Rather, four Duke players are averaging double digits in scoring. The Blue Devils are averaging 13.7 assists per game (No. 3 in the ACC) and are the conference’s top three-point shooting squad (41.7 percent).
“It’s a battle of control,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said Monday during the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “I don’t think, man-for-man, we can match up with a [North] Carolina or a Duke or even some other teams in our league, so our strength has to be in how we play together.”