The college basketball world has never seen a team like Virginia, at least assuming the Cavaliers find their way into the NCAA tournament. The chances of that happening certainly went up Tuesday when the Cavaliers posted a 61-56 defeat of Florida State.
This version of Coach Tony Bennett’s team is a unicorn — even more than last year’s team, and in a completely different way.
Those Hoos claimed the school’s first national title in men’s basketball. And they were exceptional, finishing in the top five in Division I in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. That’s something only nine other teams, four of them national champs, have done in the KenPom era (since 2001-02): Duke in 2002, 2004 and 2010; North Carolina in 2005 and 2007; 2003 Kentucky; 2005 Illinois; 2008 Kansas; and 2016 Villanova.
This season’s Cavaliers have a chance to earn a distinction that, while not a superlative, is even more uncommon. Virginia could become the first team in the same time span to land an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament when its adjusted offensive efficiency ranks more than 170 spots worse than its adjusted defensive efficiency. And that’s what makes it interesting, in a bizarre sort of way.
The Cavaliers (14-6, 6-4 ACC) entered Friday with the second-most efficient defense in the country. That’s really good, and in line with a lineage of miserly teams Bennett has churned out at Washington State and Virginia. As for the offense, that’s bad, checking in at 261st, right between 7-15 San Jose State and 8-13 Weber State.
It’s an incredible gap from one end of the floor to the other, one that hasn’t been seen in a remotely good team in the KenPom era.
Over that time, the widest margin between offensive and defensive ratings by an at-large team belongs to 2015 Indiana, which was eighth in offensive efficiency and 200th in defensive efficiency. The Hoosiers landed a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament and were dismissed in the first round.
The largest disparity for a defense-oriented at-large team came last year, when VCU was 177th in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency. Central Florida upended the Rams, a No. 8 seed, in the first round.
The fate of this Virginia team isn’t hard to guess. It will defend well enough to scratch out at least as many victories as losses the rest of the way. It will find itself in nearly every game. But it hasn’t scored more than 65 points all season.
Assuming Virginia doesn’t suddenly become an offensive juggernaut (which seems unlikely about two-thirds through the regular season), it will probably encounter someone capable of scraping together enough scoring to dispatch it during the first weekend of the tournament. The postseason, even in a one-and-done format, tends to reward more complete teams.
The numbers back up this assertion: Over the last 18 postseasons, there have been 53 at-large teams who had a difference of at least 100 spots in their offensive and defensive efficiency rankings. Only seven made it out of the first weekend, with 2003 Marquette reaching the Final Four. Those Golden Eagles were second in offensive efficiency and 109th in defensive efficiency — and they had Dwyane Wade. None of the 12 teams with a difference of at least 150 spots made it past the round of 32.
|Team||Off. eff.||Def. eff.||Difference||Seed/Rd. reached|
|2017 Wake Forest||7||176||169||11/play-in|
|2014 Saint Louis||168||8||160||5/second|
|2015 San Diego St.||162||5||157||8/second|
|2012 Colorado St.||35||189||154||11/first|
|2017 Oklahoma St.||1||155||154||10/first|
|2005 Iowa St.||159||9||150||9/second|
Even if Virginia gets bounced by the end of the first weekend, it shouldn’t be dismissed. That’s no small feat with such a one-sided team. Yes, Bennett was the one who constructed the roster, but he probably did much of his planning under the assumption at least two of Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome would be around this season. All of them, of course, went pro. It was a small price for a national championship.
And more broadly, one of the joys of college basketball is there are many avenues to success. The sport would be far less fun if its 353 Division I teams played in the same fashion. Virginia, with the most plodding pace in the country in each of the last three seasons and again this year, was already an avatar for that diversity. And last year, it demonstrated that a slow tempo doesn’t necessarily equal bad offense.
This year, it has gone, unintentionally, to a greater extreme, testing how far an elite defense can drag a sputtering offense. It might not be the most fun to watch, but it’s fascinating to see how far such as team might go. At the very least, it’s not something we’ve seen in college basketball in recent memory.