No. 2 Virginia improved to 27-2 overall and 15-2 in conference play after it rallied to pummel Syracuse, 79-53, Monday night. In the win, the Cavaliers tied a school record with 18 made three-point shots, the trio of De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome accounting for them all. What made the night special, however, was that it pushed Virginia’s overall efficiency to plus-37.2 points per 100 possessions according to the ratings of statistical guru Ken Pomeroy. That marks the second-highest regular season adjusted efficiency since the beginning of the KenPom.com database in 2002, and is just a couple of decimal points away from the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats for the top rate (plus-37.4 before the tournament started) ever recorded.
While that does make this Cavaliers team truly remarkable, worthy of a No. 1 seed and a gives them a very good chance at breaking through to the Final Four, it doesn’t quite make UVA one of the best team ever since 2002. Nor does it make the Cavaliers immune from another March Madness stumble.
Offensively, Virginia is scoring 123.3 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for competition, the second-highest rate in 2018 after Gonzaga (127.7). UVA ranked 30th last season when it became the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in UMBC. Improvements both in and outside the arc are evident for Virginia, with the Cavaliers hitting 38 percent of their three-point attempts and 50 percent of their two-point attempts last season, giving them an effective field goal rate of 53 percent. In 2018-19 those have improved to 41, 52 and 56 percent respectively.
Jump shots in particular have been a strong suit: Virginia is hitting 40 percent of them overall and scoring 1.1 points per attempt, the sixth-most efficient rate in the nation. They are even better on shots around the rim (1.2) and contested catch-and-shoot opportunities (1.2).
The defense is doing what it usually does. The Cavaliers slow down opponents, pressure the ball in the half-court and close out on three-point shooters. That has helped give the Cavs the second-best adjusted defensive rating in 2019 per Pomeroy, with a three-point field goal rate of 27 percent against, the lowest in the nation. Spot-up shooters (37.8 effective field goal against), ballhandlers on the pick and roll (0.45 points per possession) and post-up players (0.61 points per possession) also struggle against head coach Tony Bennett’s squad.
All of that is great and illustrates Virginia’s strength as a bona fide national championship contender. The trouble Virginia may run into is one of pace: the Cavaliers slow the tempo down to a national low 59.2 possessions per 40 minutes (after adjusting for opponent). That plodding pace gives Virginia a higher chance to underwhelm in any one game, and get bounced from the bracket in the process.
The concept here is simple and boxing makes a good comparison: If you’re an underdog, you’re probably not as big or as strong as your opponent in the ring. You can bob and weave and protect your head, deflecting those hooks and uppercuts, but the longer you have to do that the more punches you’re going to take and the more likely you are to get knocked out. As the undersized challenger, you need to get a little lucky and land a few knockout blows of your own because the longer the fight lasts, the more likely the champ is going to be able to collect himself and put you on the canvas.
As the favorite, Virginia is the champ in this metaphor. But while most favorites want to play fast and give themselves as many possessions as possible to outclass your opponent, UVA is essentially shrinking its margin for error by limiting the number of possessions. And if the underdog gets a bit lucky by outperforming its averages and the favorite gets a little cold ... cue the UMBC upset footage.
The upset risk is not specific to Virginia, but to all slow-tempo teams. Since 2011, there have been eight teams seeded No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 that have also ranked in the bottom 20 nationally for adjusted tempo. One was last year’s Virginia squad. Two others, No. 3 Syracuse in 2014 and No. 2 Virginia in 2015, lost in the Round of 32. Two of the eight, No. 1 Wisconsin (2015) and No. 3 Michigan (2018), made it to the national title game, though neither won.
Research by Eli Boettger also showed that up-tempo teams (top 50 in tempo) accumulated slightly more wins than their seed would suggest in the NCAA tournament, while slow-tempo teams (300th or lower in tempo) won fewer than expected.
For as talented and efficient as the Cavaliers are this season, and while they are deservedly among the favorites once March Madness begins, playing slow is the biggest reason they could trip in pursuit of a title.