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How the Virginia Cavaliers stopped skidding and became an ACC juggernaut

Malcolm Brogdon and the Cavaliers took down North Carolina Saturday night. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post.)

Virginia was seriously slumping. The Cavaliers had blitzed through non-conference play, save for a hiccup against a senior-laden George Washington, and seem destined for another efficiency-fueled ACC slate.

Three losses in four games changed that perception by mid-January, and the Cavaliers had dropped out of the top 10. Then everything changed. After a loss to Florida State, the squad started to roll, winning nine of their next 11 games, culminating in a victory against a humming North Carolina squad this past Saturday in which Virginia scored 1.20 points per possession.

Virginia again looks like a Final Four contender, and a team on the cusp of a number one seed, so what changed for the Cavaliers?

Devon Hall became a starter

Other than Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes and Anthony Gill, Virginia Head Coach Tony Bennett continually tinkered with his lineup for the initial third of 2016. Starters included Marial Shayok, Mike Tobey and Darius Thompson. After a while, though, Bennett slid Isaiah Wilkins into the frontcourt, and, seeking more offensive freedom for both Brogdon and Perrantes in the halfcourt, Bennett began to increase minutes for Hall, a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard.

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Hall is essential for the Cavaliers’ halfcourt efficiency, which ranks fourth in the ACC (1.11 PPP, per Ken Pomeroy). Hall has the quickness to break down an opposing defense, and can penetrate the lane before kicking to a teammate on the perimeter.  He allows both Perrantes and Brogdon to shift off the ball, and run the team’s halfcourt sets with each on opposite wings — crisscrossing, coming off down screens and generally causing havoc for an opposing defense.

Since he became a starter, Hall has handed out 26 assists and committed just nine turnovers. The majority of his assists — nearly 40 percent, according to Hoop-Math.com — have resulted in a made three-pointer. It is difficult to stay in front of Hall, and adding a third ballhandler who can exploit seams in opposing defenses has made Virginia’s offense that much more explosive.

Per Hoop Lens, with Hall in the starting lineup, a rotation that Virginia utilizes more than 45 percent of its possessions, the team scores 1.14 PPP, connecting on 46 percent of their threes and turning the ball over a lineup-low 12 percent of its touches.

Brogdon and Perrantes might be the nation’s top backcourt duo

The Cavaliers’ offense revolves around its guards, and none more so than Brogdon and Perrantes. Bennett likes to use both in a variety of ways, whether curling off a elbow screen, in pick-and-roll situations, or in down screens set by the Cavs’ bigs up the line, the two are skilled in getting open without the ball and then either connecting or finding a teammate with a better look.

After making just 32 percent of his threes a year ago, Perrantes has become a knock down shooter, and his 52 percent from beyond the arc leads the nation. It is one of the more remarkable improvements in 2016 (one, frankly, that hasn’t been mentioned enough). Perrantes is such an adroit ballhandler that when defenders come flying at him to take away the three, he can use his dribble to attack the rim or find other Cavaliers.

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As well as Perrantes has played, though, Brogdon has been better the senior guard is in the midst of the best offensive rating (1.21) in his career. Brodgon slightly tweaked his game entering his final season. He has become more selective with his attempts at the rim, slightly decreasing his shots there (30 percent in 2015 to 26 percent this season, per Hoop-math.com) and he is slightly more accurate with his looks now, converting nearly 60 percent of his shots. He has also become a better scorer within the arc — he connects on 42.5 percent of his two-point field goals in the halfcourt, which is second on the team — and when coupled with his already stellar three-point shooting (41.5 percent), Brogdon is nearly impossible to single-cover.

Brodgon is a basketball artisan, possessing a unique ability to run off screens and then, using deft footwork and body control, free himself for an open look.

The Cavs’ defense is good

Bennett’s squad has done more with less this season. On paper, the numbers don’t appear as solid as usual for Virginia, allowing teams to make a un-pack-line-like 46 percent of their field goals within the arc and convert the nearly 60 percent at the rim.

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And while opponents are making their contested threes (36 percent), the team has at times resembled previous stingy Virginia squads, posting a defensive effective field goal percentage under 50 percent, eschewing offensive rebounds to prevent transition looks. Opposing teams are converting just 45 percent of their looks in the open court, which leads the conference (per Hoop-Math), and are seldom able to beat the Cavs for an offensive rebound.

The one point allowed per possession is the most a Bennett-coached squad has ever allowed since he arrived in Charlottesville, but he simply doesn’t have the defensively-aware and lockdown players that he had in past seasons. That’s why the offensive improvement has been so imporant.

What will the tournament hold?

The Cavaliers can score with anyone in Division I, but while their defense is good enough most games, it struggles against shifty quick guards. The pack-line is predicated on plugging open gaps along the perimeter and keeping ball-handlers out of the lane, but in recent losses to Duke and Miami, Virginia simply wasn’t able to prevent opponents from breaking through the seams.

Those breakdowns might not happen if the Cavs possessed a shot blocking big, but Gill and Wilkins, as skilled as they are defensively, don’t possess that particular attribute. The team’s block percentage — 10.1 percent — is the lowest for UVA since 2012, and teams are able to take advantave of the Cavaliers’ breakdowns once they get past the perimeter. There were countless times when Miami’s Angel Rodriguez split a pick, picked up some steam, and either found a big along the baseline or a waiting Hurricanes player for a three-point look. Similarly, Duke’s Brandon Ingram was able to exploit his mismatch and get past his defender.

Virginia doesn’t have its typical defensive chops, but with a much improved offense, that might not matter as the team continues to March Madness.

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