Virginia Tech scored on each of its final four possessions in the first half of its 47-45 win Sunday at Virginia. On two of those possessions, Jarell Eddie, the Hokies’ 6-foot-7 forward, found himself with a little too much room on the perimeter and made consecutive three-point attempts.
When Virginia Tech made four straight shots and jumped out to a seven-point lead to open the second half, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett decided a strategic alteration was in order. He turned to the four-guard lineup the Cavaliers so frequently used last season, and the decision yielded nearly immediate benefits on both ends of the floor.
Virginia went on a 15-5 run over the next 11 minutes of play to take a three-point lead. The Cavaliers stopped settling for long jump shots and began making more concerted efforts to attempt shots in the paint. They also showed more energy on defense than perhaps at any other point all night.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. Virginia Tech eventually exploited Virginia’s small lineup by having 6-5, 220-pound fifth-year senior guard Dorenzo Hudson start posting up against Cavaliers guards Sammy Zeglinski and Malcolm Brogdon. Neither of them could handle Hudson’s strength.
But while the four-guard approach did not work out Sunday, it might be something Virginia fans start to see more often in the coming weeks. The Cavaliers have a shortage of experienced big men and, especially in light of their current composition, seem to operate more efficiently on offense with fewer people clogging the lane.
Sure, the four-guard look will cause some problems on the defensive end, particularly when bigger opposing guards start backing down Virginia’s smaller guards into the post. But the potential risk might be outweighed by the potential reward. Bennett’s defensive system appears to work fairly well – if executed correctly – no matter which players are on the floor.
So if a four-guard lineup consistently translates to more offense, this team needs to jump on that opportunity.
When asked after Sunday’s game whether that might be a strategy the Cavaliers employ more frequently in the near future, Bennett said, “We’ll see.”
“It just depends,” Bennett continued. “We’re still trying to adjust without Assane. We’ll have to take a look at those things and with our scoring drought so we can at least get to the line and create some offense with spacing. I thought it was pretty effective for the most part.”
Bennett was referring to 7-foot senior center Assane Sene, who is expected to be out until early March with an ankle injury. The Cavaliers are left with a three-man interior rotation of fifth-year senior Mike Scott, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell and freshman forward Darion Atkins. Mitchell started in Sene’s place Sunday and finished with two points and one rebound in 25 minutes. He had averaged 6.7 rebounds in the previous three games while coming off the bench. Atkins tallied four rebounds and no points in six minutes.
The lineup that Bennett stuck with for much of the second half featured Scott (6 feet 8) as Virginia’s lone traditional post player. He was accompanied by guards Joe Harris (6-6), Malcolm Brogdon (6-5), Sammy Zeglinski (6-1) and Jontel Evans (5-11).
There’s not a whole lot of size there, but it’s not the tiniest lineup in the world, either. Also, Harris and Brogdon have some bulk on them, so they might be able to handle defending opposing players a little bigger than them. Harris ended up tallying eight points and six rebounds after Virginia switched to the four-guard look Sunday. Prior to that point, he’d recorded two points and one rebound.
But even if, as happened a few times against Virginia Tech, Zeglinski gets posted up by his man, Scott said there are ways for the Cavaliers to make that less of a problem. He suggested Virginia might trap in the post on those occasions.
When asked whether, given its current roster constrictions, Virginia might be better served moving forward by utilizing a four-guard lineup more often, Scott said, “Yeah, because we’re a lot quicker defensively and offensively.”
One potential downside to this approach would be that it would leave Virginia with only one reserve guard (freshman Paul Jesperson), and over time, fatigue could become an issue. In the second half on Sunday, Harris and Zeglinski each played the full 20 minutes, Evans and Scott logged 19 minutes and Brogdon played 14.
Mitchell logged eight minutes in the second half, and neither Atkins nor Jesperson played at all after halftime. It was what the Cavaliers had to do to remain in contention.
“Sometimes your hand is forced,” Bennett said. “We’re a little limited with our numbers, so we have to kind of figure out what’s best. We needed some guys to score in that spot, and the match-ups were okay for the most part.”
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