It became apparent early on this season that the Virginia men’s basketball team might not be the defensive juggernaut that has become customary under Coach Tony Bennett. Last season, Virginia held three teams, including an ACC foe, to fewer than 30 points; through their first 20 games this season, the Cavaliers managed to hold only one team, Morgan State in their season opener, below 50.
The wavering defense had spun the Cavaliers into something of an identity crisis, at its worst through three consecutive ACC road losses in January. They spent the majority of this season ranked in the 20s nationally in defensive efficiency by the statistical website KenPom.com, a point of pride for most teams but not for one that finished last season ranked No. 1 and in the top seven for three of the past four seasons.
“I think we’re a defensive team,” senior guard Malcolm Brogdon said after the Cavaliers lost at Georgia Tech on Jan. 9. “But we haven’t played like it in most games.”
Heading into Saturday’s matchup at Pittsburgh, the Cavaliers have regained some of their mojo. A week ago, Virginia held Louisville to its worst shooting performance of the season, 32.7 percent (16 for 49), in a 63-47 win. On Wednesday, Virginia kept Boston College to 26.5 percent, the lowest percentage shot by any ACC team this season, in a 61-47 victory.
Thanks to those performances, the ninth-ranked Cavaliers (18-4, 7-3 ACC) lowered their points-allowed average to 60.5 per game, sixth in the nation, and raised their defensive efficiency rating to No. 19 on KenPom.com. They also have the sixth-best field goal percentage defense in the ACC.
“I know we have the formula,” Bennett said Wednesday after weeks of talking about searching for the right equation for defensive consistency. “I feel that we’re playing better basketball and our kind of ball as we’re heading into the second half of ACC play.”
The return to form on defense took some soul searching. Virginia held a players-only meeting after its third straight road loss, 69-62 at Florida State on Jan. 17. A pep talk preceded the Jan. 19 victory against Clemson that started the Cavaliers’ current five-game winning streak, and Bennett gave a straightforward pump-up speech before Louisville as well. Since the Clemson win, only Wake Forest has shot above 40 percent from the floor against Virginia.
Senior Evan Nolte, who made his first three-pointer of ACC play Wednesday after Bennett rested his starters, credits Louisville as the defensive turning point despite the three wins before then.
“This has been different than the past three [teams] I’ve been a part of. But you know, every team has to go through whatever form of adversity they have,” Nolte said. “We stumbled a little bit, but the Louisville game we really played a complete game.
“It’s just adversity. . . . You’ve got to work on what you can get better at and go from there.”
Keeping Boston College and Louisville to such low shooting percentages and holding both teams’ leading scorers to fewer than 10 points brought Virginia some of its old confidence back as the Cavaliers travel to Pittsburgh (17-4, 6-3).
On the glass, Virginia has the best rebounding defense in the ACC even as it has been favoring a smaller lineup with 6-foot-8 Anthony Gill and 6-7 Isaiah Wilkins starting with three guards. That’s thanks in part to the back court, which has been picking up more rebounds of late — guards Brogdon and Devon Hall combined for 11 against Boston College and Brogdon and London Perrantes had a combined seven against Louisville.
Brogdon said Wednesday that Virginia is still just tasting what it’s like to be a defensive-minded team, and Bennett is equally as cautious. Still, Bennett’s starting to sound more like he did at the beginning of the season, when the Cavaliers were rolling through nonconference play and mentions of the NCAA tournament were much more frequent.
“It’s been hard to get to this point,” Bennett said. “We’ve got a tremendous opportunity and challenge coming up here at Pitt, but again, we know when we’re not right we can fall flat. We haven’t done it by tricking it off; we’ve been better defensively in the last few games. We’ve taken good shots, we’ve had a level of patience, we’ve rebounded better, and that’s the path we need to be on. It’s been hard to get here, trust me. Hopefully we can stay on it.”