The Virginia men’s basketball team wrapped up non-conference play with a 57-52 victory Monday night at Louisiana State. With the win – the Cavaliers’ first ever on the road against an opponent from the Southeastern Conference – Virginia pushed its record to 13-1 for the first time since the 1981-82 season.
Indeed, the Cavaliers have caught more than a few eyes on the national college basketball scene as they prepare to begin their ACC slate Saturday at home against Miami. At No. 21, Virginia is one of three ACC teams currently ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll.
If you’re a Virginia fan, there’s a lot to like about third-year Coach Tony Bennett’s squad. Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott has first team all-ACC talent. Sophomore Joe Harris and fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski can provide ample fire power from the perimeter. The Cavaliers are holding opponents to an average of 50.4 points per game.
But there remain several questions regarding Virginia’s viability that the Cavaliers will need to address in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps the most crucial one: Can Virginia sustain its current success rate with essentially a seven-man rotation?
In the past two games – both of which were closely contested throughout – Virginia’s top seven players (Scott, Harris, Zeglinski, Assane Sene, Jontel Evans, Akil Mitchell and Malcolm Brogdon) logged 383 of a possible 400 minutes; that’s 95.8 percent.
While there may be a few sizable victories in store for the Cavaliers in ACC play, chances are many of them will be closely contested, as well. It will be interesting how Bennett decides to utilize true freshmen reserves Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson (players No. 8 and No. 9 in the rotation) as the conference season progresses.
1) Sammy Zeglinski. The fifth-year senior guard finished with a team-high 17 points on 6 of 12 shooting (4 of 7 from three-point range) Monday night. In the past two games, Zeglinski has averaged 18.5 points, shot 50 percent (12 of 24) from the field and made 8 of 15 (53.3 percent) three-point attempts. He would seem to be the Cavalier with the hottest shooting touch entering ACC play, though the next guy on this list hasn’t fared too poorly, either.
3) Jontel Evans. The junior guard recorded just four points, but he made his presence felt in other ways. Evans finished with five assists, three steals and two turnovers. He also made 4 of 5 free throws. Evans’s decision-making with the ball in his hands, by and large, has been considerably better this season than it was last year. As long as Zeglinski keeps making shots at his current rate, the Cavaliers will need one of their other guards to fill the ball-distributor role, and Evans appears up for the challenge.
2) Turnovers. Virginia tallied 15 turnovers Monday, and while that was fewer than the number of turnovers LSU registered (16) and did not qualify as a season high (19 in a Nov. 18 loss to Texas Christian), it wasn’t necessarily encouraging, either. If you’re a team that isn’t going to consistently score a lot of points and is going to rely instead on your ability to play really stingy defense, the bar on how many turnovers per game are acceptable is lower than it might be for other teams. Right now, Virginia is averaging 12 turnovers per game, and that stands as one of the best marks in the ACC. But 15? With the way the Cavaliers like to play, on some nights in ACC play 15 might prove to be a few too many. LSU scored 20 points off of Virginia turnovers on Monday.
3) Defending Justin Hamilton. This was another reason why it hurt to have Sene on the bench for such extended stretches Monday night. At least from a size standpoint, Sene (7-foot-0, 239 pounds) matched up well against Hamilton (7-foot-0, 260 pounds). After deciding to transfer from Iowa State in 2010, Hamilton at one point considered heading to Virginia. He ended up transferring to LSU instead. Against the Cavaliers, Hamilton tallied a game-high 21 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and two steals in 36 minutes. Just imagine for a moment if Bennett was able to insert Hamilton into Virginia’s starting lineup and bring in Sene off the bench.
Okay, moment’s up. Virginia, need you be reminded, is faring pretty well even without Hamilton’s services.