CHARLOTTESVILLE – A quarter of the way through ACC play, roster limitations have forced the Virginia men’s basketball team into much the same position as it found itself at this point last season, when the team struggled to find ways to score.
Senior center Assane Sene’s fractured ankle, illnesses suffered recently by the Cavaliers’ top two scoring guards and the team’s overall shooting struggles have complicated matters. So when Virginia (15-3, 2-2 ACC) hosts Boston College (7-12, 2-3) on Thursday night, expect to see an emphasis placed on garnering quality looks. That, the 19th-ranked Cavaliers have realized, is one of the few things they can control.
“We have to be all-hands-on-deck and ready to do anything because our numbers now are down and there are three interior guys,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “We just have to be fluid with the situation. . . . Nothing’s out of the realm” of possibility.
With the return of fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott, offensive production was supposed to be easier to come by this season. And when Scott’s teammates are hitting shots, it is. Scott often draws considerable attention from opposing defenses, which enables open looks for the four other Virginia players on the floor.
But in the Cavaliers’ past four games, they have shot 40 percent from the field and 22 percent from three-point range. Consequently, defenses have been free to harass Scott even further.
During a 47-45 loss Sunday to Virginia Tech, Virginia shot a season-low 32.6 percent from the field and made 1 of 14 three-point attempts. It wasn’t just that the shots weren’t falling, the Cavaliers realized upon reviewing film of the game; it was that the shooters weren’t being put – or putting themselves – in the best position to take the shots.
Sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said the Cavaliers were taking wide angles en route to setting screens, which allowed Virginia Tech’s defenders ample opportunity to drop below the screens and quickly resume covering the Virginia ballhandler.
In practice Tuesday, assistants Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford implored Mitchell, Scott and freshman forward Darion Atkins to take sharper angles while setting screens. At 7 feet, Sene could set an imposing screen. But after fracturing his ankle Jan. 19, he will be out until at least early March.
“If your man has to help [defend the ballhandler], then you’re open,” Mitchell said. “So if you set a good screen and you roll hard, you separate and you’ve got a wider-open shot.”
For large stretches of the second half Sunday, the Cavaliers implemented the four-guard lineup they used frequently last season when Scott was out with an ankle injury. And for the most part, it was effective. Virginia’s guards found more space to penetrate into the lane and took advantage of such opportunities.
Their problem was in finishing around the basket and at the free throw line. The Cavaliers made less than half their free throws (6 of 13) in the second half against Virginia Tech.
It didn’t help Virginia’s cause that fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski was not at full strength because of a flu bug he’d caught days earlier. And while Zeglinski is over the illness, he passed it along to his roommate, sophomore guard Joe Harris, who sat out practice Tuesday. Bennett said he is hopeful Harris will play Thursday.
The coach also noted that Boston College starts two post players who stand at least 6-8, so he’s not sure how often Virginia will be able to utilize a four-guard lineup. But given their experience in the look, the Cavaliers will not hesitate to do so, if need be.
Bennett “has been doing the four-guard lineup since he got here,” junior guard Jontel Evans said. “His first game here against Longwood he started four guards. It’s nothing new. It’s just something new to the new guys. But it’s nothing new to us. We don’t find it difficult to run. It’s kind of helpful, actually.”