There have been plenty of nights already this season when Virginia’s stingy defense was the most noteworthy aspect of the game. There likely will be many more in the coming months.
But while the Cavaliers once again held their opponent to fewer than 60 points Tuesday during a 68-48 win over George Mason, the most significant development was on the offensive end for Virginia.
Remember that trip the Cavaliers took to play in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands? They shot a combined 41.9 percent from the field and averaged 54.7 points per contest during that three-game stretch.
In Virginia’s four games since returning to Charlottesville, the Cavaliers have shot 50.8 percent from the field and averaged 73 points per game. That scoring average is skewed a little by the 86 points Virginia posted Saturday against Longwood, but you get the point.
What’s been the difference? Coach Tony Bennett said he’s trying to get the players to be a little more patient on offense and not necessarily take the first open look that becomes available. Steadily, the Cavaliers seem to be progressing in that regard. They shot a season-high 60.5 percent from the field and made 7 of 14 three-point attempts Tuesday.
1) Sammy Zeglinski. There was a two-minute stretch early in the first half against George Mason in which Zeglinski made two three-pointers, tallied eight points and recorded a steal, a block and a rebound. He shot 6 for 11 from the field on the night – 4 for 6 from three-point range – and finished with a game-high 18 points and four steals. Zeglinski has shot 52.4 percent (11 for 21) from the field and 53.3 percent (8 for 15) from three-point range in the past two games. And while he might like for the opportunity to continue that hot shooting streak in the near future, his injured right ankle will be well served by the 12-day exam break before Virginia’s next game.
2) Jontel Evans. The junior guard shot 5 for 7 from the field and finished with 11 points, four assists and three steals. And that’s great. But what has stood out to Bennett, as well as far less basketball-savvy observers such as myself, is that Evans has demonstrated a dramatic improvement in his decision-making while penetrating into the lane thus far this season. He’s also showing an ability to make in-game adjustments, something else he’s improved on since last year. With George Mason full-court pressing for most of the first half, Evans tallied four turnovers. The Patriots continued that strategy in the second half, during which Evans posted no turnovers.
“That’s a sign of maturity for Jontel to be able to shrug off maybe a bad stretch or just where it got a little shaky, and he responded,” Bennett said. “That was big for us.”
3) Three-point shooting. As Bennett noted, the Cavaliers have “got to be able to stretch it from the outside, and then that will help inside.” Especially on nights when fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott is held to three shot attempts, Virginia needs to be able to count on Zeglinski, sophomore Joe Harris and the Cavaliers’ other guards to connect at a competent rate from long-range. Virginia entered the night having shot 33.1 percent from three-point range on the season. On Tuesday, the Cavaliers made 7 of 14 three-point attempts (50 percent). Zeglinski made 4 of 6 shots from beyond the arc. Harris made 1 of 2 three-pointers. Scott even chipped in with the 13th three-pointer of his collegiate career.
“You can’t not take them if you’re not shooting well,” Bennett said. “If the right guys are taking them, they’ve got to have the confidence and the freedom to shoot the rhythm shots. … They’re going to take them when they’re open, and they know they have the green light to do that.”
1) First-half turnovers. The Cavaliers initially did not respond well to George Mason’s full-court pressure. Virginia tallied eight turnovers before the break. Evans had four; Scott had three. But Harris said the Cavaliers eventually realized that with the Patriots aiming to double-team whichever Virginia player received the inbounds pass, that left the middle of the floor relatively open. Once the Cavaliers started making that second pass instead of trying to dribble out of trouble, their fortunes against the press improved.
2) Free-throw shooting. Virginia shot a season-low 52.9 percent (9 of 17) from the charity stripe Tuesday night. The Cavaliers have made 74.2 percent of their free throws on the season. In past games, it mostly had been Virginia’s bench players who were struggling to make their free throws, but against George Mason, nearly all the Cavaliers were a little off from the charity stripe. It’s likely something they’ll spend some time on during the upcoming extended break in between games.
3) Sweaty court. Not sure what the deal was Tuesday night, but players on both teams seemed to be slipping on the floor more often than usual. There was no event held at John Paul Jones Arena on Monday night, so one is led to believe there was just an extra amount of sweating going on out there. Perhaps it was because George Mason ran a full-court press most of the game and Virginia was expending a lot of energy trying to break it.