Well, we’re back for another roundtable discussion and I’m pleased to welcome Seattle Hoo, StLou Hoo and Maize and Blue Wahoo. OK, in the last week we blew the doors off of Virginia Tech and lost to Duke at Cameron. The Tech game seems so long ago that I’m just going to jump in with Duke.
Valentine: So, what is the takeaway from Duke? Thankfully we get Duke in a home and home this season. How do we stop Zion at JPJ?
Maize: The takeaway is…..basically nothing. Two of the country's most elite teams played to a two-point result in favor of the home team in their first of at least two and likely three matchups. The only conclusive thing about that is that neither Zion Williamson nor the pack-line defense are made of magic, and both will have to work their butts off to beat the other.
St Lou: That sometimes two teams full of future NBA players with elite coaches go head to head and it's close and turns on a made shot here or a hot player there and no one goes undefeated. I know others will have more tactical points to make, and there's ample time for that. But I want to take the Big Picture approach and say, yes, there are lessons to be learned here, both ends of the floor, but trust in our coaches and players to learn and grow from them in the coming weeks. This was a great experience for the team to prepare them for March, what it's like to go against a Final Four quality team in a hostile gym with a national spotlight, which is something we hadn't been through yet this year. Duke, by contrast, already played one such game, their thriller vs Gonzaga... and there's an argument the win over Kentucky was another, given the NBA talent in Lexington. So my takeaway, better to take some lumps against a Top 10 team in January than in March, which is where most of this season's bones will be made.
Oh, and we're still head and shoulders better than the other 13 teams in the ACC.
Valentine: I guess my biggest takeaway is from the fans. I think we’ve gotten a little bit jaded with the success we’ve enjoyed under Coach Bennett’s watch. We all know we’re going to the Dance in March, and I’ll agree with St Lou here, but we are clearly the class of the ACC along with Duke. I noticed almost a preference for losing amongst the members of Cavalier Nation that I bump into on Facebook and message boards. Two separate posters were glad we lost and “got the monkey of being undefeated off our backs.” This notion that we’re getting valuable experience losing a close game stuns me. Cavalier Nation seems to think that trying to go undefeated (which was my hope) in the ACC wiould leave us poorly prepared for the NCAA tournament, and that we might lose focus somehow. If we had graduated most of our starting 5 after last year’s UMBC debacle, that might be the case. But Guy and Jerome are not going to forget the pain and humiliation of that loss, so I don’t think we have any risk of that. I’m also surprised at how blasé we are in regards to winning the ACC. Many just do not seem to care about this, but I, for one, could care less about Elite 8s or Final 4s. Until Bennett got here, I’d never seen, in 30 years of being a Hoo, an ACC tournament title, and now we’ve won two of them in the past 5 years. I want more, and I’m out of step with the fanbase.
Seattle: It’s all about you, Valentine….
Valentine: I know that in the absence of a three point shot, we were able to get to the rim well as a team, but no one did it quite like Huff. Did Bennett screw up not featuring Huff in the second half?
Seattle: Duke woke right up from Huff’s first half slap in the face and was way more prepared to deal with him in his second half stint. His turnover at the end was because they didn’t let him do what he wanted and induced him into doing something he wasn’t comfortable with under game pressure: dribble into a postup.
Jay is doing great things but he’s still only playing short stints and there is a limit to how long he can keep up with the game. I think Bennett is managing his time very well. He’s getting to come in and try out what he practiced, work on executing and reading the game, then go back to the bench when he starts to get a little tired (mentally) to get coached up on what happened out there. He comes back for a second appearance in the half sometimes. He’s getting play in both halves in all games now. Bennett is working him in, letting him play even in the most intense regular season environment we will face all year, without letting him get overwhelmed or his performance slip. As a result, Jay is making a measurable positive impact on every game. He’s starting to make positive plays on defense, too.
The next step is an extended appearance, one where he plays 8-10 minutes, and keeping his play at a high level throughout. We’ll probably see that happen in one of the next three games.
Maize: No. I mean, if this game takes place a month or two ago, Huff doesn't even see the floor. Seven minutes in Cameron is a huge step forward for him. And this is a game where you gotta go with your horses.
Anyway, UVA is clearly a different team with Huff on the floor. Better in many ways, worse in a few. It's OK that we didn't put 20 minutes of Huff film out there. There's nothing deliberate about that - Tony has never shown any proclivity for hiding players just to be cagey about opposing scouting efforts - but it is a small side benefit. As the Huff dimension evolves, this team will be harder and harder to guard. It's OK that we've got a little governor on that gear in January.
St Lou: I've been defending Bennett's approach to bring Huff along slowly during ACC play pretty vocally, but it's getting harder. What I do not know is if there's something going on behind the scenes that's playing into Tony's decision making, be it a motivational angle (similar to Tony's approach to motivating Tobey a few years ago), some undisclosed nagging injury, or something he's seeing on tape that we aren't.
The knock on Huff is his foul propensity. But against Duke, who wasn't foul prone? Barrett and Zion were drawing whistles on everyone, Huff couldn't have done worse, even if just for a spell. Given the big lineups that Duke often went with, with two of Bolden/DeLaurier/White on the floor together, Huff could've manned up any of those role player bigs with minimal negative impact while still providing the paint presence we needed to exploit Duke's stretched-out D. Have to hope going forward we start seeing double digit minutes (even a consistent 10-15 would be huge) for the 7-footer.
Valentine: I am a total Bennett fanboy and this may be the first instant where I have doubted his judgment. I was not aghast at last year’s Wilkins and Salt pairing, I never tired of London Perrantes’ Cali Cool attitude and I’ve never agitated for Bennett to speed up the offense. But Huff’s two jams, especially the second, were electrifying. We have never had a guy who can attack the rim like Huff. In fact, more than his 3 point shooting potential, this aggression at the rim is what has impressed me the most about Huff, and in a game where we couldn’t buy a three-point bucket, I think this versatility was sorely missed. I have to think that after he pumped Bolden and blew by him for his second flush, that Bolden would have laid off him and given him all the time he needed to shoot the three. And if we’d made even a couple more threes, this would have been a different game.
St Lou: So moving on… Obviously we've been largely dominant over recent weeks, and seem to be improving with Kihei getting healthier, Braxton continually assimilating, and Jay Huff breaking out. So with that said, what, if anything, still gives you pause? Do you think this team has a potential Achilles heel lurking beneath the surface?
Maize: No team is perfect, so yes, there's something there for teams to exploit. I'm not sure what it is, other than maybe just trying to overwhelm our guys with superior athleticism and firepower. It worked - barely - in Cameron. There's always the concern that the team will collectively have a bad shooting night when they can least afford it. Maybe someone's got a ligament that's unknowingly stretched to a breaking point. In other words, the things that give me pause the most are the kind you get from a spin of the wheel rather than any major structural flaw.
Seattle: If there weren’t for bad luck we’d have no luck at all. This team has everything it needs to go all the way, is as capable of it as any team in the country this year, but even the team with the most ability to go all the way rarely actually does so, because the margins are small enough to be well within the variability of innumerable factors.
Valentine: I worry about injuries. This is not something we can control, but it can derail a run to the Final 4 and beyond.
St Lou: As for me, I'd still like to see us draw fouls / free throws better. Don't get me wrong, we're improving from the last two years, when we were among the nations' worst teams. But this year we still rank 220th nationally in FT rate, below the national average in drawing bonus shots, and there will likely be a game in the NCAAT where the ability to augment the offense with some timely free throws will make the difference in advancing.
Seattle: Who do you think is having the best season so far?
St Lou: After the Duke game, I think it has to be Hunter, who at times looked to be sleepwalking against some of the lesser teams, but is starting to pick up steam as an All-American candidate. He broke into the KenPom top 10 after this weekend, and while he's not leading the team in scoring on the season (Kyle does at 15.2 ppg, Hunter is scoring 14.6), Hunter has proven the most effective in what KenPom calls "Tier A" games, those against the best teams on our schedule, where Hunter is getting into the lane nearly at will and converting on a 61% clip. Going into the season we said our offensive hopes were pinned on the ability to get into the lane to score to balance out spacing with our shooters, and Hunter is THE guy to give us that ability, leading the team in scoring so far in ACC play, and warming up when it matters most.
Maize: Kyle Guy, by about the tiniest imaginable margin between him and De'Andre Hunter and the second-tiniest between him and Ty Jerome. He's diversified his scoring abilities and is close to a coin flip from behind the arc. I was surprised to find his .455 shooting from three makes him just 76th in the country** but only two players ahead of him have taken more of those shots.
**To give you an idea of how basketball has evolved lately, that shooting percentage would've been good for 19th ten years ago.
Seattle: I agree, Maize. My subconscious tosses out the name Kyle Guy. Whenever I ponder this question, the first thought in my head is “Kyle Guy.” There have been so many periods during which he was clearly the best player on the floor. Even against Duke, when Hunter was the best scorer for Virginia, I don’t know that I’d say he was Virginia’s best player. Guy was leading rebounder. Guy’s three-point shot is still, I submit, Virginia’s most potent weapon, and he’s employed it lethally most nights.
If not Guy, then I would say “Ty Jerome.” Ty has improved his running of the team, while adding the off screen play to his virtuosity.
Valentine: Grant Kersey. <<Laughter>> I think Ty Jerome is the most important player on the team and it’s hard to argue with the play of both Guy and Hunter, but just to be contrarian I’m going to say Huff, especially since the start of conference play. He’s attacking the rim and shooting well, and I thought his defense had turned the corner. After the Tech game I tweeted out a poll to determine the highlight of the game, and the overwhelming first choice was Huff standing his ground against Blackshear and the poor guy just collapsed to the deck. Against Florida State, Huff blocked 7’4” Christ Koumadje standing flat footed. After Huff played all of four minutes in the William and Mary blowout, I thought his season was effectively over.
I think Huff deserved more than 7 minutes vs Duke. So to return to your Achilles Heel question, St Lou, I’m thinking this is it. If Huff cannot get more than 7 minutes in a game we have to win, against a team better than a Virginia Tech or a Florida State, we may not get past the Sweet 16.
Maize: Turning to the NCAAs, which team in the country do you least want to face in the dance?
Valentine: Well, Tennessee’s got the best frontcourt in the country. While Diakite is playing better this year, he’s still capable of disappearing on the court and if Huff hasn’t earned Bennett’s trust by the time the tournament rolls around, we won’t match up well against the Volunteers. But I think overall, Duke is the team that I least want to face. We’re going to play them again in the regular season and odds-on we’ll play them in the ACC final. I don’t want to face them a fourth time. Coach K is a better in-game tactician than Bennett and I don’t want our championship hopes to ride on Bennett’s lack of in-game flexibility.
Maize: For me, the answer is Michigan State, because I believe they have vampire's blood and won't die til you stab them with a garlic-wrapped wooden stake. I say this despite their early departures from the tourney these past few years. I need another ten years of that plus probably Tom Izzo's retirement to believe otherwise.
Valentine: See, for me, the Spartans are the team I want the most. Until we beat them, I am always, always, always going to want Michigan State.
Seattle: UMBC. It would put me in a real foul frame of mind. Wisconsin, because I hate watching us play them. A Final Four team in the Sweet Sixteen. There is no team I am afraid of Virginia playing.
St Lou: I’m going to second Val’s choice and say Duke. Part of it is mental, with the Devils being the lone team to seemingly have UVA's numbers in recent years (spare me, Hokies). The biggest part of it, though, is the Pack Line's kryptonite being big athletic wings who can score through the help defense. We can shut down post players. We can shut down shooters. But over the years we've seen forwards with NBA athleticism occasionally impose their will on the dribble drive, either finishing through traffic or drawing fouls, and that's exactly what we saw from Zion and Barrett on Saturday. There isn't a team in the country like Duke in that regard, and I have zero desire to see it in the Final Foul. Not that we can't beat it, but it's a tall task for our defense.
Valentine: We’ll close on a snarky note. Cam Reddish and Nassir Little as top 5 NBA draft picks? Really?
Maize: In a normal year, no, but the international pool appears practically nonexistent this year, so it's possible. That said, Little has to shoot better than 20% from three to make it happen, and both will be drafted far more on projectability rather than results, especially if they go that high.
St Lou: Yeah, I agree. Frankly, I'm shocked how many poor-shooting players are being projected as Lottery picks given the importance of shooting 3's in today's NBA. Nassir Little, who's ostensibly a guard (a 2/3), is shooting under 21% on the season from 3. Do NBA teams really think they can teach him? He's going to need a couple years in the G-League, and while I think he can probably put the pieces together eventually to make an NBA roster, is he really Top 10 material? To his credit, he does some little things well, hits the glass well from the wing, plays well in the paint, but still not at a Lottery level to me.
Reddish missed a real opportunity on Saturday with Tre Jones out. He could've stepped up to fill the void as a shooter, as a ball handler, to complement Zion and Barrett, but instead went 3-12 for 9 points, 4 TOs with only 1 assist, and collected 4 fouls. I get that he's got the NBA ideal measurables for a small forward (comparable to Hunter), but at some point, doesn't he need to actually demonstrate it in a game? His best game was against FSU when Zion was out hurt, but (a) we're seeing now that FSU kinda sucks and (b) does the NBA really want a player who's only dangerous when he's not being overshadowed by a better player? The NBA is FULL of better players, he's going to need to show he can be a dangerous Plan B or C at Duke which is what he's going to need to be as a rookie in the NBA as well.
Valentine: There was a play in the UNC v NC State game where the ball went backcourt on UNC. Little was the only guy in the backcourt and he backed away from the ball, like a member of a punt return unit backing away from a bouncing football. The NC State player grabbed the ball and immediately went to the rim forcing Little to foul him. The elementary school player knows that you’ve got to just pick up the ball and take the backcourt violation or else risk giving the other team just such a free pass to the basket. The lack of awareness shown by Little speaks volumes about his unpreparedness to play at even this next level. Lottery pick? No way!
OK, that’s a wrap. Thanks so much to St Lou Hoo, Seattle Hoo and Maize and Blue Wahoo. We’ll do this again in a couple of weeks.