CHARLOTTESVILLE — The first half of Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams’s concise analysis of the Virginia men’s basketball team could be considered standard praise for any recent Cavaliers squad.
“I think they’re incredibly sound at what they do,” Williams said Tuesday night after the fourth-ranked Cavaliers thoroughly dismantled his ninth-ranked Hokies, 81-59, at John Paul Jones Arena.
The second half of Williams’s quote, however, hinted at the sobering prospect for Virginia’s opponents.
“They’re doing more than they’ve done in the past.”
The Cavaliers have maintained the suffocating defense that has been their signature in Coach Tony Bennett’s 10 seasons. But as they enter Saturday’s showdown at top-ranked but probably shorthanded Duke on Saturday, they appear more imposing than the team that was ranked No. 1 in the country for much of last season and received the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Virginia ranks first nationally in scoring defense (51.7 points allowed per game) and three-point-percentage defense (25.1), as well as fourth in opponent field goal percentage (37.0). Last season those numbers were 54 points allowed per game, 31 percent three-point shooting allowed and 38.0 percent shooting overall.
The bump in offensive production has been even more pronounced for the Cavaliers, who are featuring more three-point shooting as well as more ball screens for junior point guard Ty Jerome, who is coming off a career-high 12 assists against Virginia Tech, and more isolation for redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter, whose NBA draft stock continues to trend upward.
The Cavaliers (16-0, 4-0 ACC) have won their conference games by an average of more than 20 points, two of them against top-10 teams. Their overall scoring margin over 22.6 points per game ranks third in the nation, behind only Gonzaga (23.7) and Duke (23.3).
In offensive efficiency, a metric tracked by KenPom.com, Virginia averages 120.2 points per 100 possessions, the third-best rate in the country. The Cavaliers also average 7.2 more points per game overall and rank seventh in the country in three-point field goal percentage (40.8) after finishing 41st (38.3) last season.
All this despite the graduation of Isaiah Wilkins, last season’s ACC defensive player of the year, and Devon Hall, the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer and a respected locker room presence.
“The easy answer is that’s what good programs do, is that they have continuity,” said Jay Bilas, longtime lead college basketball analyst for ESPN. “Guys leave. Other guys step in, and guys get better.
“You’ve seen De’Andre Hunter get a lot better from one year to the next, and I even think that Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are significantly better than from last year to this year.”
Guy’s numbers are up in virtually every meaningful category, including scoring (15.3 this season, 14.1 in 2017-18), rebounding (4.3, 2.6), assists (2.1, 1.5) and free throw percentage (87.9, 82.4).
The junior guard ranks 16th in Division I in three-point field goal percentage at 46.7 and third among players in the Power Five conferences. Last season Guy shot 39.2 percent from three-point range. He recently set a program record by sinking 11 consecutive shots from beyond the arc.
“It’s a smart group,” Bennett said. “Up until this point we’ve played smart basketball in terms of sharing it. And Kyle, he can get it going, but he just has a good pace about himself. And with a guy with his shooting ability, how he chooses his moments is impressive.”
Jerome, meanwhile, is averaging more points (13.2, 10.6), rebounds (4.1, 3.1) and assists (4.9, 3.9) than last season while navigating the fine line between self-assurance and hubris.
Against the Hokies, for instance, Jerome buried a three-pointer from well beyond NBA range and appeared to address the Virginia Tech bench as he ran back on defense. Jerome playfully denied such antics during the postgame news conference.
In last year’s 65-63 win against Duke that was the Cavaliers’ first in 23 years at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a span of 18 games, Jerome stole an outlet pass and made a three-pointer for a 63-58 lead with 39 seconds remaining. Guy added both ends of a one-and-one with six seconds to play to seal the outcome.
This weekend, Virginia heads to the storied venue at nearly full health after freshman Kihei Clark had a cast removed from his wrist before the Virginia Tech showdown. The reserve guard scored nine points Tuesday, going 3 of 5 from beyond the arc, in addition to helping limit Hokies guard Justin Robinson to 2-for-7 shooting.
Duke (14-2, 3-1), on the other hand, is likely to play without starting point guard Tre Jones. The member of the Blue Devils’ class of freshman sensations has an AC sprain in his shoulder, according to the school, following a collision with Syracuse’s Frank Howard early in the Blue Devils’ 95-91 loss in overtime on Monday.
Jones leads the ACC in assists per game (5.7) and assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7-1).
Cam Reddish, another standout freshman projected as an NBA lottery pick, is expected to play, according to reports, after missing the game against the Orange with an illness.
It’s unclear who will handle primary ballhandling duties for the Blue Devils in place of Jones.
“It’ll be much more difficult, I think, for Duke at home against Virginia without Tre Jones,” Bilas said. “It just shifts everyone else. They’re nowhere near as good defensively, and they’re not as stable with the ball. But they still have three first-round draft picks in the starting lineup. They’re still formidable.”