Virginia senior Joe Harris noticed it all game long Tuesday night, through missed shots, passed-up shots and turnovers. Every time he would reverse the ball to the top of the key against Virginia Tech’s 2-3 zone defense, Hokies senior Jarell Eddie would instinctively drop back several steps from the wing.
So with the Cavaliers on the ropes in Blacksburg, Va., down one with less than three minutes remaining, Harris — just 1 of 9 from the field to that point — positioned his body in a way that would allow him to shoot as soon as he caught a pass, before Eddie could recover.
That he ultimately hit nothing but net on the NBA-range three-pointer that gave Virginia the lead for good en route to a 57-53 victory proved crucial. But the culmination of trial and error could prove more important over the next week.
“There were times we definitely struggled with it a little bit, but it’s good for us to face that,” Harris said. “We’ve played against zone in spurts this season. We haven’t really had the problems that we had [Tuesday] with it, but that happens. . . . A lot of stuff to go back to the drawing board and learn from.”
Beginning Saturday against Notre Dame at John Paul Jones Arena, No. 14 Virginia likely will match wits against a zone defense of some kind in its next three games.
The Fighting Irish, limited by the absence of leading scorer Jerian Grant (DeMatha) because of academic reasons, have been using a 2-3 zone about 50 percent of the time in recent weeks, according to an ACC assistant who has scouted Notre Dame. Miami Coach Jim Larranaga, whose team will visit Charlottesville on Wednesday, has turned almost exclusively to a 3-2 matchup zone this year to slow the tempo.
It all leads up to Virginia’s March 1 showdown with No. 1 Syracuse and Coach Jim Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone, a contest that likely will decide the ACC’s regular season champion. The Cavaliers (22-5, 13-1), winners of 10 games in a row, currently sit in first place in the league standings after the Orange’s 25-game winning streak to start the season ended with an upset loss to Boston College on Wednesday.
Navigating a zone defense, though, remains a work in progress for Coach Tony Bennett and company. Virginia dissected Notre Dame’s zone and forced Coach Mike Brey to abandon it when the Cavaliers won, 68-53, in South Bend, Ind., last month.
But when asked to grade Virginia’s performance against Virginia Tech’s zone Tuesday night — the Hokies also mixed in a triangle-and-two defense to slow down Harris and leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon — Bennett gave his team a “C.”
“If you haven’t gone against it, you learn in a game setting,” he said, noting the Cavaliers had just two days to prepare for the Hokies because of last Saturday’s game at Clemson.
Virginia did just that at Virginia Tech while facing a zone for an entire game for the first time this season. Early on, the Cavaliers got quality looks only to struggle from outside, starting the game 4 of 17 from three-point range.
Bennett said his team, which sits outside the top 200 in the country in three-point field goals made this season, must connect from beyond the arc against a zone. But it was the manner in which those shots were created Tuesday night that needed to change.
In the second half, Bennett began using a four-guard lineup and positioned Brogdon and forward Anthony Gill in the high post at the same time, encouraging both to attack the lane rather than wait for Virginia Tech to react.
It created what the coach called “rhythm shots” after the Hokies collapsed inside, and the Cavaliers closed the night by hitting five of their last seven three-pointers, including three straight in the final four minutes.
“I thought we got better as the game wore on and you’ve got to knock down some shots as we did late,” Bennett said. “But you’ve got to be able to attack it in different spots.”