It’s not uncommon for the Virginia men’s basketball team to annually have one of the nation’s toughest defenses. Coach Tony Bennett’s father, Dick Bennett, developed a version of the man-to-man defense known as the pack-line, a gap-prevention D that encourages perimeter shooting. His son continues to use it in Charlottesville to the detriment of high-octane offenses.
The past four seasons, U-Va.’s defensive efficiency has ranked within Ken Pomeroy’s top 25, and this season only Kentucky and Louisville allow fewer points per possession than the Cavaliers. However, the ACC is arguably the top conference in Division I, boasting a loaded Duke, a pugnacious and precocious Louisville, and two ascendant teams in Notre Dame and North Carolina. So if the Cavaliers are going to repeat as ACC tournament champs, it won’t be the defense that potentially carries them to a top NCAA tourney seed – it’ll be their transcendent offense.
Bennett has never coached an offense this potent. The Cavaliers are converting 53 percent of their two-point shots, nearly 40 percent of their three-pointers, and scoring 1.16 points per possession, which ranks fourth nationally. According to Hoop-Math.com, the team ranks just outside the top 20 for field goal attempts at the rim, and it is making 62 percent of those shots. Virginia’s nonconference strength of schedule isn’t the stoutest, but even against fellow stingy defenses such as VCU, George Washington, Maryland and Harvard, U-Va.’s efficiency rises to 1.20 PPP.
During Tuesday night’s nonconference finale, Davidson put Virginia’s defense to the test — Bob McKillop’s squad scorched U-Va. in the first half, scoring 1.24 PPP. In previous years, the Cavaliers might not have had the offensive fortitude to combat such efficient offense. Davidson knew every soft spot in the pack-line, but Virginia’s offense provided the turning point. Using just 62 possessions, the Cavs scored 1.34 PPP and won the game, 83-72.
Justin Anderson, who scored 14 points against the Wildcats, has been a key component of the offensive shift. Entering his junior year, the wing was primarily known for his unreal athleticism and his hounding defense, but opposing teams knew they could give Anderson space on the perimeter – he had made just 30 percent of his threes during his first two seasons.
(h/t Terrence Payne)
This year, though, Anderson can’t miss from behind the arc, connecting on 60 percent of his three-pointers and establishing himself as a three-and-D prospect, someone who can defend NBA-level wings and operate within the confines of a pro-level offense. Anderson, who reportedly spent much of his offseason refining his jump shot, said he always could connect from deep, but a propensity to take too many shots out of rhythm led to inconsistency. As Bennett told reporters after the win over VCU, “As long as he keeps taking the good shots and being aggressive where he’s supposed to and being sound and being patient the way he is, I think he’s very important for us and has given us a good lift.”
Since defenders can no longer give Anderson a few feet to better guard against his driving ability, the junior has also upped his efficiency inside the arc, specifically at the rim.
Rather than settle for questionable shots, he is driving the ball more frequently – nearly 40 percent of his attempts are at the bucket – which, since he is creating more often for himself, helps explain Virginia’s lackluster assist rate.
Last year, Anderson was contributing just 0.71 points to Virginia’s bottom line, according to John Pudner’s Value Add system , which, like baseball’s WAR, analyzes how many points a player contributes, or detracts, from a team. The figure has spiked to seven points in 2015, making Anderson the ACC’s third-most critical player.
Anderson isn’t the only Cavalier to change his portfolio: The team, as a whole, has focused on creating offense around to the basket. U-Va. took nearly 600 two-point jumpers last season, too many considering it made only 39 percent of them. In general, Virginia has cut back on perimeter shooting and has focused on “zero footers,” or high percentage shots. Nearly 41 percent of the squad’s attempts against Davidson were at the rim.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, 13 percent of the Cavs’ attempts are the result of cuts to the basket (making 1.15 points per cut), and in particular, the team has committed to attacking the offensive glass – 11 percent of their points come from put-backs, which is a significant change from last season.
Virginia is grabbing roughly 40 percent of its misses, and the front-court trio of Mike Tobey, Anthony Gill and Darion Atkins secure the majority of those caroms. Bennett has stressed having at least two of these bigs on the court together, which also enables the team to use more of the shot clock to ensure a high-percentage attempt. Tobey isn’t drawing the praise of Anderson or even Malcolm Brogdon, but he is having the type of season that was expected of him as a sophomore.
There aren’t many bigs more efficient in the low post than Tobey. He is making 57 percent of his two-point shots, and what is impressive about his contributions is they are the result of either crashing the offensive glass or creating for himself on the block – skills Tobey didn’t have full confidence in during previous years. Tobey is no longer as dependent on his teammates to deliver the ball, and is using either a refined hook shot or using his handle to get to the rim.
We always knew Virginia had the defense capable of propelling the team to a late March run. But thanks to several small, but crucial, tweaks to its offense, Bennett’s squad appears to be the toast of the 2015 ACC.
Matthew Giles works at New York Magazine as a reporter and has written about college basketball for ESPN Insider, ESPN the Magazine, the New York Times, NBC Sports, Deadspin, New York Magazine and Big Apple Buckets. He also contributed to the College Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 edition.