CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Virginia men’s basketball team is in the early stages of transition, but through seven games, its identity remains intact.
The defense was unforgiving and the pace was deliberate as the Cavaliers improved to 7-0 by stifling Wisconsin, 49-37, on Monday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers limited the Badgers to 31.3 percent shooting, including 3 for 20 (15.0 percent) on three-pointers, and without a point for 7½ minutes of the second half. So locked in was Virginia that it held the Badgers to less than half of their season scoring average. Wisconsin also committed 14 turnovers and labored to get the ball inside to forward Ethan Happ. With Cavaliers center Jack Salt defending him for the majority of the game, the third-team all-American finished with 14 points.
There also was a predictable lack of scoring, heightened by the matchup against the similarly grinding Badgers. And the Cavaliers, oddly, attempted no free throws, making them just the third college team in the past five seasons to win while doing that, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
But consistency and diversified scoring have vaulted the Cavaliers into the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time this season at No. 18, and they helped quiet concerns about the loss of several important contributors from last season.
“We’ve seen a lot of guys shine on different nights, so I think that says a lot,” said guard Kyle Guy, Virginia’s leading scorer at 16.0 points per game. “If I’m having an off shooting night, someone else can go get a bucket. I think we have a lot of people who can score, and when we find our identity, it’ll start being a little smoother.”
Virginia was carried against Wisconsin by Guy (17 points) and fellow guard Devon Hall (16), the players on whom Coach Tony Bennett figures to lean most offensively following the graduation of top scorer London Perrantes and the exit of three transfers, including guard Marial Shayok. No other Cavaliers player scored more than four points Monday.
“Offensively, it’s been different guys at different times,” Bennett said. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel, but [we’re] trying to get great shots for the right guys. Sprinkle in some interior touches for different people and just play the best way we can. We just talk about getting a quality shot.”
The Cavaliers came into Monday night shooting nearly 51 percent, which ranked fourth in the ACC. Even though Virginia shot a season-low 38.3 percent against Wisconsin, Guy’s emergence as one of the team’s most polished scorers has provided the Cavaliers with a leading candidate for a go-to player in tight situations, the role Perrantes embraced last season.
Guy was particularly effective in the first half, repeatedly beating Wisconsin defenders off the dribble, including twice getting deep into the lane and finishing gracefully. He made 7 of 11 two-point field goal attempts to offset errant shooting from beyond the arc (1 of 6).
“I’ve always tried to be that way, especially in high school in my younger years, but definitely last year I was a little more one-dimensional,” Guy said, referring to attempting 103 three-pointers in 2016-17 compared to 102 two-point shots. “That was just something — all you guys know; I’ve said it a thousand times — I just tried to work on this summer, and I think it’s starting to show.”
Guy’s performance followed a season-low five points on 2-for-8 shooting in Friday’s 70-55 win against Rhode Island in the final of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, site of this season’s ACC tournament. In the three games before that, Guy had made 23 of 46 field goal attempts, including scoring a career-high 29 points to spark a 76-67 victory at Virginia Commonwealth on Nov. 17.
The Cavaliers, in keeping with another Bennett hallmark, have played at the slowest pace in Division I so far, according to estimates of possessions per 40 minutes by advanced statistical website KenPom.com. But they have shown that not every winning score needs to be in the 50s or higher, with Bennett indicating Virginia is at its best offensively when attacking instead of settling for jumpers. Getting to the rim also presumably will begin sending the Cavaliers to the free throw line more often.
Virginia entered Monday’s game making 81.4 percent of its foul shots, seventh nationally, but had attempted just 102, ranked 277th. After Monday, none of its players was averaging more than three free throw attempts per game.
But Hall has been on an offensive upswing lately, posting his second straight game in double figures after combining for 17 points in his three previous games. The redshirt senior shot just 5 for 17 over that stretch but since has made 12 of 19 field goal attempts.
Against Wisconsin, he made 7 of 10 shots, frequently going to the rim aggressively. He’s averaging 11.9 points this season, the best of his college career.
“I think we’re still in the midst of trying to forge our identity as a team,” Hall said. “It’s early in the season, and so we are still trying to make sure everybody’s on the same page in terms of knowing what type of team we are.”