1) X-factor points. Ideally, the trio of Mike Scott, Joe Harris and Sammy Zeglinski will combine to generate around 45 points per game for Virginia. There’s little doubt that those three players need to produce consistently on the offensive end in order for Virginia to have a chance on most nights.
Obviously, the Cavaliers will need more than 45 points to win in the ACC, even during what is considered to be a down year for the conference. So let’s set Virginia’s “magic number,” if you will, at 67. If the Cavaliers can reach 67 points on a regular basis – and continue to be play defense as well as they have thus far this season – they’ll likely fare pretty well over the next few months.
How well? Had Virginia tallied 67 points in regulation of every ACC game it played last season, the Cavaliers would have gone 13-3 overall and 8-0 at home. And most people who follow the team would agree Coach Tony Bennett’s squad is much more capable of posting 67 on a nightly basis this year than last year.
To put 67 points in perspective, eight of 12 ACC teams averaged more than 67 points per game in conference play last season. Virginia (59.3 points per game), as you might have guessed, was not one of those teams. Point is, 67 points is not an unreasonable goal.
But that ability hinges on the offensive production Jontel Evans, Assane Sene, Akil Mitchell and Malcolm Brogdon. If those four players can combine to generate 22 points per game in ACC play – the quartet currently is averaging 21.6 – the Cavaliers should be set.
“Those guys have to give us – you don’t know when it’s going to come or who’s going to have a big game, but those other guys have to give us some X-factor points, whether it’s off of offensive rebounds or a drive-and-finish,” Bennett said this week. “But certainly Joe and Sammy and Mike are our primary guys.”
2) Limit possessions. Virginia averaged 61.7 possessions* in its first 14 games this season, and it would behoove the Cavaliers to maintain that rate. As a general rule of thumb, 50 possessions per game is considered a really slow tempo, and 75 to 80 possessions per game represents the other end of the spectrum (a really fast tempo).
* More perspective: No ACC team is averaging fewer possessions per game at this point than Virginia. In fact, only seven Division I teams in the nation are averaging fewer possessions per contest. South Florida (61), Southern California (60.5) and Wisconsin (60.3) are some of those squads.
Between the way Bennett’s system is designed and the team’s current makeup, Virginia’s chances for victory on most nights will improve if the possession total is kept low. For starters, Bennett emphasizes defense as the first, second and third priority. The players are told to use offensive possessions, in part, to rest up for their next defensive stand. So the lower the possession total, the more “rest” the players receive.
That’s especially important this season, seeing as Bennett plans to operate with essentially a seven-man rotation. One up-tempo game might not necessarily doom Virginia. But if up-tempo games become the norm for the Cavaliers, fatigue is going to set in rather quickly.
“Hopefully if our defense is good, you’re not going to be able to break us down on one quick action,” Bennett said. “It’s going to take a little bit, which is why sometimes possessions are lower. So against good defenses, you’re going to have to have a level, at times, of patience.
“And then, yeah, there’s times if you’re playing your tail off on the defensive end, there are times where you rest a little bit offensively, and also you want to wear that defense down and it takes its toll over time.”
3) Stay healthy (and out of foul trouble). As we just mentioned, Virginia’s rotation figures to be rather small the rest of the way this season. The Cavaliers relied heavily on seven players in their final two nonconference games, and if that trend continues, health and discipline will be paramount to the team’s continued success.
As things currently stand, Scott, Harris, Zeglinski, Evans, Sene, Mitchell and Brogdon make up Virginia’s regular rotation. That’s not to say Bennett doesn’t have confidence in freshmen reserves Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson. Rather, it just seems as though Bennett is most comfortable with those other seven players right now. Certainly, that could change.
If you’re Bennett, what you don’t want is to have to alter your rotation because of an injury or foul trouble. This seems rudimentary to write. It’s certainly true for all teams. But it would seem to be even truer for this Virginia team. The Cavaliers’ depth was weakened by the departures of guard KT Harrell and forward James Johnson. Further depletion of Virginia’s depth could prove detrimental to the team’s postseason goals.
Should the Cavaliers remain relatively healthy and refrain from consistent foul trouble, Bennett’s seven-man rotation likely will prove sufficient.