When fully healthy, Virginia sophomore guard Joe Harris represents many things for the Cavaliers. He is the team’s second-leading scorer. He is the team’s top-rebounding guard. And both of those attributes are important for the team’s success.
But the greatest value Harris provided to Virginia before he broke his left hand during Saturday’s 70-52 loss at North Carolina was lineup protection for fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott. Harris is the team’s top three-point shooter, and his ability to stretch an opposing defense with his perimeter marksmanship did wonders for Scott in the post.
When Harris was on – which, considering he entered the North Carolina game shooting 51.4 percent from three-point range, was quite often – opposing defenses could not afford to devote as much attention to locking down Scott inside. With more frequent one-on-one matchups, Scott could create room for his patented fadeaway jumper or draw fouls with strong moves to the basket.
But, understandably, Harris was not as effective Tuesday in his first full game playing with the injured hand. Sporting a thick protective pad he will have to wear during games for the next four to six weeks, Harris came off the bench to log 21 minutes. He shot 0 for 4 from three-point range and finished with two points. Scott still managed to tally 13 points, but he was nowhere near as dominant has he’d been with these two teams met two weeks earlier.
So as Harris grows accustomed to playing with that protective pad, add this to the growing list of obstacles Virginia must figure out a way to overcome in the coming weeks: A largely one-dimensional lineup.
The Cavaliers’ starting lineup Tuesday consisted of Scott, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell, junior guard Jontel Evans, fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski and freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon. Combined, that quintet is shooting 25.8 percent (25 of 97) from three-point range in ACC play.
“When it’s Malcolm and Jontel and Sammy right now, and Akil, we can’t stretch the defense,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “It’s an offensive team that [opponents] can really corral around Mike and make things a little challenging for us.”
Virginia is shooting 29.6 percent from three-point range in conference play, which ranks No. 10 in the ACC. On the bright side for the Cavaliers, only one of their remaining regular season opponents (Maryland) ranks in the top half of the conference in three-point field goal percentage defense. But they do have to face the Terrapins twice more, including Saturday.
That game against the Terrapins in Charlottesville suddenly has turned into a high-stakes affair for the Cavaliers, as the strength of their NCAA tournament resume has come into question. A win Saturday would not give Virginia a quality win, but a loss would mark the Cavaliers’ fourth of the season to an opponent ranked outside the top 90 in the RPI.
To beat Maryland, Virginia needs to rediscover the defensive tenacity, ball security and, frankly, toughness that carried the Cavaliers to the best start to a season in three decades. Without question, the injuries suffered by Harris and senior center Assane Sene have been significant setbacks.
But those injuries don’t entirely explain Virginia’s recent tendency to turn over the ball at a high rate. They also don’t explain Zeglinski’s shooting struggles, which predates both injuries. Zeglinski, one of the most prolific three-point shooters in program history, is shooting 24.1 percent (14 of 58) from beyond the arc in ACC play. He shot 1 for 5 from three-point range and did not attempt a three-point shot in the second half Tuesday.
Zeglinski is in an unenviable position, to be sure. Of late, he has not received much positive reinforcement – in the way of watching the ball fall through the net – when he makes three-point attempts. But the only way he’s going to work his way out of his shooting rut is to keep shooting three-pointers. And in the second half Tuesday, it appeared on at least a few occasions that he passed up shots he might have taken back in, say, late December/early January.
“Maybe one he might have, but I thought [Clemson] played pretty good defense on him,” Bennett said. “I’ll have to watch the tape. Maybe one, but again, he had a hard time getting by [his defender], and he was trying to be a team guy. Sometimes when your shot is struggling a little bit, if you don’t feel it, make the next pass.”
With Harris’s offensive effectiveness in question for the time being, Virginia doesn’t currently have a consistent three-point shooter to turn to. Brogdon has shot 29.6 percent (8 for 27) from three-point range in conference play. Evans has made 1 of 4 three-point attempts. Freshman guard Paul Jesperson is 2 for 16 (12.5 percent).
Until and unless at least one of those players finds his long-range shooting stroke – or Harris returns to form despite the injury to his non-shooting hand – opposing teams will be able to further hone in on stopping Scott.
The first time Virginia played Clemson this season, back on Jan. 31 in Charlottesville, Scott scored 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting. He made 7 of 8 free throws and did not attempt any three-point shots (though several of his jumpers were from just inside the arc). Harris made 5 of 6 three-pointers, and the Cavaliers claimed a 65-61 victory that night.
On Tuesday, Scott shot 6 of 11 from the field and finished with 13 points. He did not attempt any free throws, and two of his shot attempts in the second half were from three-point range. Virginia made 3 of 16 three-point attempts, and the Cavaliers fell at Clemson, 60-48.
“Without Joe, we don’t have as much of a threat out there right now with Sammy struggling shooting and Jontel is not a three-ball shooter. Malcolm, that’s not his strength right now,” Bennett said. “It’s a hard lineup, and it really condenses things, but we’ve got to keep figuring out ways to do it. . . . Every possession, you feel it a little more.”