It is a sign of respect for Tony Bennett’s coaching acumen that this year’s version of UVA basketball was ever ranked in the top 5 at any point this season. It’s generally known in basketball circles that Tony could coach a team of 9-year-olds to at least a bubble resume entering ACC Tournament week, so it’s not surprising they figured that losing a hoard of NBA talent wouldn’t faze him one bit. Indeed, I think there was some recognition early on that this season was going to lack anything resembling a dominant team, so the voters simply chose all the familiar names at the top of their ballots. The Week 2 top ten: Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina, Maryland, Gonzaga, Virginia, Villanova. It’s a who’s-who of historically elite and recently elite programs. Since nobody had any idea what was going to happen, considering the blue bloods the most likely teams to turn into winners seems like a not-unreasonable perspective.
Several of those teams are still there, so it wasn’t the worst idea. UVA is emphatically not a top-five or ten program this year, until and unless they start breaking people’s dreams in the NCAA tournament again.
Everywhere else that UVA has been this season, however, they emphatically are. Are they the team that got blown out by NIT-bound Purdue? Yup. Are they an unranked bunch of bubble warriors with no offense whatsoever? How about a top-25 team capable of choking your offense to death and stomping on the corpse for good measure? They are the team that suffocated Duke and the team that got suffocated by CBI-won’t-even-touch-em Boston College. They are all of this.
Granted, everyone this year has ugly splotches on their resume. Kentucky still has that loss to Evansville….and Evansville was 10th out of 10 in their conference. But I don’t think Kentucky is that team that showed up that night. UVA, however, still has more shades of the team that lost to (admittedly revenge-minded) Purdue. Neither the UVA team that went 3-5 in a particularly ugly stretch, nor the UVA team that is riding a month-long win streak, can be ignored.
That makes for a fun tournament time. Somewhere there’s a future three-seed, maybe in Omaha or New Jersey, that will look at what Selection Sunday handed them for a potential second-round game and go “oh COME ON.” And their fans will convince themselves this isn’t that bad, because none of these guys in that UVA uniform strikes fear into anyone. Ty Jerome is not walking through that door.
No, but a lot of those guys were cutting nets last year, and they bring a seriously improved version of themselves into elimination play this year. That’s the fun part about having a four-year team instead of chasing one-and-dones: you get to watch your guys develop. Like a video game, the pieces comprising this team have added new and exciting powers.
Jay Huff has developed an inside game and a penchant for being on the receiving end of pick-and-roll alley-oops.
Mamadi Diakite can shoot threes now, and has a much greater array of post moves than the fadeaway he liked so much last year.
Kody Stattmann is a great deal more aggressive; he’s still not really an ACC-level player, but he flashes enough moves that teams do defend him. This sounds like damnation with faint praise, but it’s still a big step up from last year.
But the real winner in the improvement derby is Kihei Clark. Tomas Woldetensae got all the ink because he started hitting shots, and it was well-deserved. But Clark is the one who’s made the offense watchable. (No, it’s still not good, but at least it’s effective now.)
At some point last year, and don’t make me dig it up again cause I have no idea where or when, I wrote that Clark had already developed an array of ways to shoot at the rim without getting completely swatted. He’s the opposite of big guys who suddenly find themselves staring over the top of everything as a junior in high school and don’t know what to do about that. He’s short and he’s always been short, and he had to learn weird layups to compensate. That’s been taken up to eleven this year. Clark has unleashed scoop shots, reverse layups, rainbows, and odd twisting flip-shots that end up near the rim somehow and convince the ref that a foul must have taken place besides. Against Louisville he even posted up a dude. KIHEI CLARK POSTED UP A DUDE. Ryan McMahon is now the pitcher who just gave up a 600-foot home run to another pitcher.
It’s not the finish that’s been the key to Kihei’s success in generating offense on the drive, though. It’s his timing. If LeBron James is Randy Johnson, blowing people away with triple-digit fastballs and impossible curveballs, Kihei Clark is Greg Maddux. (This is a comparison of style, not skill. Just go with it.) Kihei doesn’t intimidate, he just screws with your head. His timing and placement is different every time. It’s not just a hesitation (no, not the “hesi” as the Pitt-game announcer called it, whose name I purposely forgot because the unprecedented combination of terrible announcing and terrible reffing made that game complete torture.) It’s sometimes that, but sometimes it’s just that he doesn’t go full speed. And sometimes he teleports. Defenders cannot figure out what the hell he’s going to do, and so sometimes they just sit back and dare him to shoot, and he’s not a great three-point shooter but he does seem to take offense at being dared to shoot, and those ones he hits just to piss you off.
This, more than anything else, is what has kicked off the recent winning streak. Tony would want me to say it’s the defense, but that’s always been there. For whatever reason, it’s been awesome this year – all year. That’s not to take it for granted, but to point out that the offense is what has changed from November to March. You never know who’s going to learn what, but you can bet that under Tony, anyone who gets a year with his coaching will learn how to do something – or several things – that they didn’t do before. UVA may not be a top-five team this year, but the writers who voted them that way still had the right idea.