Welcome to the first Hoos Place Roundtable of the season. I’m joined by Hoos Place stalwarts Seattle Hoo, StLou Hoo, HooAmp, MaizeandBlue Wahoo, and the unimaginatively-named Robert Elder, in the virtual ManCave. Some arrived here after the Purdue shellacking, so I have made some slight edits.
1. Even though this is a hoops roundtable, we're going to start off with football. No surprise there, but we could also use some distance from Purdue. By defeating Virginia Tech, the Hoos are going to be playing some seriously meaningful football in December. What is most significant about the win?
HooAmp: Snapping the losing skid. I was in 10th grade the last time we beat the Hokies, and I was at that 2003 game. There was a lot of suffering, close calls, broken dreams, empty stares, and despair in the rivalry from 2004-18. We seemed to lose in every way imaginable and always shy away from the spotlight. I'd get mad at the 'Hoos and how we played, mad at the Hokies for their primping and bragging, and usually mad at the refs in the game, too.
The Coastal title is a great by-product of the victory and makes it that much better, that we were both good teams playing each other. It's not like we were having a bad year and trying to ruin their year, and it's not like we were both bad, as was the case a few seasons ago. We were going toe-to-toe in a title bout. The Coastal title is great validation of what Bronco has been building. This season was trending about the same as last season, but this time, we finished it right the way, much better than in 2018. So it was great to take another step. Recruiting and all of the other things should be improved now that we are more visible on the national stage.
But looking back years from now, I'll remember this first as the game we stopped the pain of losing to our archnemesis (unless we somehow shock Clemson, then the Coastal title will take on more prominence). I get it. Maryland and North Carolina are our historical rivals, and the boomers tell me all the time those are the real rivals. I hate UNC in basketball, but the hatred I have for the Tar Heels in football is not really close to what I feel for the Hokies. A long losing streak to any other ACC football team would be bad, too, but would not reach the level of misery for the football program come late November from 2003-18.
Seattle: Someone compared the feeling after this win to the feeling after the 2013-14 ACC Tournament Championship in basketball, and I think that is apt. In both cases, the team did something of great importance to the fans, especially the older fans, that we had not been able to do in far too long. A feeling of inevitability, of impossibility, was shattered. That to me is the most significant thing, sweeping away that feeling of inevitability the fans (at least) had about losing to Tech. Maybe it will lead to a significant portion of the fan base surrendering that reserve and fully embracing the joy of Virginia Football the way that ACC Tournament Championship enabled us to embrace the joy of Virginia Basketball.
Robert: So much that it's hard to really single out any one thing. The publicity has been huge, with feature articles on Bronco Mendenhall and the program on Sports Illustrated, the Athletic, and I'm sure many other sites. I've long believed football is the tide that raises all boats, and while the other athletic programs had been doing pretty well on their own, I think both they and the entire University will benefit from football's growing prominence.
But specific to football, I think this goes back to getting the ole monkey off our backs. And it's not just the Virginia Tech streak. It's the mindset that Virginia can and will compete and win big, meaningful games. For so many years we saw this program fold anytime it was under pressure. Mendenhall and co. have firmly changed that, and looking ahead to a 2020 schedule that includes Georgia and Clemson, I love knowing Virginia believes they have a fighting chance.
MaizeandBlue: The answer lies in the question: the Hoos are going to be playing some seriously meaningful football in December. I already wrote a piece on this, but the basic deal is this: ever since college football started making some games Officially Big Time (think: conference championships, BCS bowls, etc.), UVA has never played in such a game. Now they will. That's not to be overlooked at all. It's a forward step in UVA's development that frankly, we thought we'd see under Al Groh and never did.
Val: I'm very much a win-is-a-win-is-a-win kind of guy and finishing 9 - 3 is better than finishing 8 - 4. Doesn't matter who you beat, really. I certainly don't hate Virginia Tech, or their fans.
But ending a streak like this? Trumps everything I just said. In baseball, I'm a Pirates fan. I came of age with the 79 We-are-Family Pirates and then witnessed the Bonds and Bonilla dynamo of the early 90s, but my favorite season ever was 2013, when the Buccos broke a 20-year streak of consecutive losing seasons (the longest ever in any major American sport.)
Next year, when we play the Hokies, we're going to talk about the relative merits of the the two teams. Not some fraught 15 year history.
MaizeandBlue: Wait! “I don’t hate Virginia Tech?” WTF?
Val: Listen to our podcast sometime, I’ve already covered that.
The other notable aspect to come out of the Streak Buster is the power of The Shirt. I’ve written before about my buddy Mike’s UVa bowling shirt. He wore it for all six games of March Madness and now The Shirt is 7 – 0.
StLou: I think both the streak-breaking and the division title are equally significant, though for vastly different reasons. The division title signifies to the national recruiting base and the fan base that UVA has finally arrived and deserves to be considered a major player; we didn't fall backwards into it like 7-win Pitt did last year, as 9 wins is a legit total. Breaking the streak was critical to the alumni base's happiness, especially the younger part of the alumni base for whom VT is considered our clear #1 rival (vice UNC or Maryland), and this should resonate with in-state recruits that UVA is done being a punching bag. Taken together, it removes most every barrier for both the fan base and the recruiting world to buy in. Expect an uptick in recruiting and in season ticket sales / donations as well.
2. Moving from December football to November basketball, what is the biggest takeaway from our first eight games?
Val: How much I miss Grant Kersey.
In our season preview, Seattle wrote about the walk-on moment. In Bennett's tenure, this was provided most memorably by first Thomas Rogers and then Caid Kirven as we laid Senior Night whippings on Syracuse and Louisville. These games were at the tail end of the season, and they were nice moments, to be sure, but they weren't program defining like Kersey's run was last year.
Kersey didn't just make one shot. He made all of them. He was a perfect 8 - 8: he made all five three throws, both of his threes, and in 17 minutes he scored 13 points. But more than that, he provided a joyous spark (watch Kyle Guy sprint to him after his steal and three gave Bennett his first-ever 100-point game) for a team that was probably still shell-shocked from the UMBC debacle. We never seized up last year and I think the spark that Kersey ignited was a big part of that. To date this season, he's only made one appearance.
HooAmp: That maybe this won't be as easy as we thought. Perhaps a top-three ACC finish and top-four NCAA seed is a stretch. Especially without Braxton Key, this team might be middle-of-the-pack in the ACC. It was in the back of my head in the preseason, how spoiled we were from 2017-19, except for one notable exception, and how maybe we'd REALLY miss Ty, Kyle, and De'Andre, and not just miss them. That we almost couldn't remember what life was like without them.
But I'm still excited to see this team get better as the season goes along. The shooting can't really get much worse. The struggles will make the breakthroughs that much more fun.
Robert: Just how good Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De'Andre Hunter were. Obviously we knew entering the season that this would be a rebuilding year of sorts. Nothing we have seen has changed that. But go back to the highlights from last season, and especially the Elite Eight onwards, and just appreciate how good that trio was. Here's hoping all three of their jerseys get retired soon enough in a joint ceremony. Who wouldn't want to be at JPJ for that?
Seattle: the biggest takeaway is that our players’ offensive confidence is broken. Shattered. Hopefully not irretrievably, because if we can only hit 16% of our threes, and our wings even worse than that, we’re not going to beat a good team. I don’t care how good the defense is - and Purdue exposed some real weaknesses there - if you can’t hit shots you are toast.
St Lou: That our guard play will set our ceiling for better or worse, but at least our defense will set the floor. Lots of season left for our guards to work through whatever they're working through offensively, but our fortunes will rise or fall against better teams, including in the postseason, based on whether they're hot or cold.
MaizeandBlue: Look, guys, I say this every year, and it always bears repeating: college basketball is a chemistry experiment, and you have to try and mix all the new ingredients - players, schemes, plays, etc. - in just the right way. The team never looks in November like it does in February. Rotations change, minutes change, and eventually (hopefully) you find the combination that explodes on your opponents every time you mix it up. Even if you don't have a lot of turnover, it's a brand-new experiment every year, because players evolve. This year it's like Tony turned lead into gold, and then they took away all the gold and handed him some yttrium and said "now try it, smart guy."
So the biggest takeaway is still "don't panic." All we saw in November is confirmation of the above. Anyone who expected the smooth choreography of a perfectly timed machine was kidding themselves.
3. 3 point shooting. Are we still in small sample size territory, or are we really no better than the SIU Edwardsville (?) and Kennesaw States of the world?
St Lou: You are what your statistics say you are, Val. They're likely thinking way too much, all those newcomers, and now it's mental. Kody missed games with an illness, Tomas had a broken hand over the summer, Casey is a true freshman. It may be January before we see them settle down and at least post respectable statistics from that point forward. Simplifying the offense for them will help immensely
Seattle: There is no reason we should be this bad, but we are. You’ve played more than 25% of your schedule and you are hitting 16% of your threes, you’re a terrible three-point shooting team. It’s not sample size at this point. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get better. Because we are a terrible three-point shooting team now does not mean we are doomed to be a terrible three-point shooting team in January and February and March. If we can become a merely bad three-point shooting team before the middle of January, we can still have a strong season, because everything else is there.
HooAmp: There won't be many games if any where we rain 3s like last season, but I refuse to believe we are THIS bad and won't improve some. Like I said, it can't get much worse. A lot of these guys have been good shooters in their careers. At some point, SOMEONE has to get hot, right?
MaizeandBlue: We're better than this. And Tony's the perfect guy to coach them in these times. Shooters shoot, as he says. It's almost the seventh pillar (six is "don't give up the baseline.") Let them keep doing it. They'll find the range.
Robert: I think we can safely say this isn't a good three point shooting team. But again, who was expecting us to be? This season, our offense was going to always go through the bigs, which is a huge transition for a program that has leaned on guard play throughout Tony Bennett's tenure.
To me, it boils down to two things. First is personnel, where replacing the Guy-Jerome-Hunter trio with a Morsell-Stattmann-Woldetensae combination bears repeating. Replacing three of Virginia's greatest players in program history with a true freshman, a once sparingly-used sophomore, and JUCO transfer is a big deal. Second, the offense has changed. While the sides offense had its limitations, it set up sharpshooters like Joe Harris and Kyle Guy nicely over the past decade to create space for their outside shots. As the team transitions away from that set, Virginia is becoming more dependent on spacing and crisp ball movement to create open looks. Virginia needs to improve on both of those as the season progresses.
Val: Oh, we suck all right. The numbers just don't lie: Morsell, Woldetensae and Stattmann are a combined 8 for 71 from deep, and Huff and Key are only marginally better (they're a combined 9 out of 33.)
For the most part, these are decent looks. We're not getting nearly enough drive-and-kick threes of the kind that Seattle so loves, but they are, in Bennett's words: good shots. They're just not going in. These guys are very close to Jack White Territory here. And that is NOT a compliment.
4. With the ACC going to the 20-game season, we have a bit of a blip to the out-of-conference portion of the season, with a rematch against Purdue on Wednesday (ACC v B1G Challenge) followed by a visit from #6 UNC. Given that we have three more games and three more weeks before the traditional start of the ACC slate, how important is this UNC game? And are we up to it?
Robert: Beating Syracuse to open the season lessens some of the pressure, and from a fan's perspective, so does the fact that it is nicely tucked in behind a I'm-just-happy-to-be-here football game against Clemson Saturday night. Certainly ACC games matter, but this one feels closer to an exhibition than a true conference game. After a rough past couple of games, this team could use a good confidence boost by going toe-to-toe against Cole Anthony and a top-10 UNC team. Win or lose, here's hoping they get it.
MaizeandBlue: I'm on record as saying UNC is overrated. KenPom is overrating them like crazy because last year's results are still in the system. Even with a debacle of their own vs Ohio State, they're still 28th in KenPom O-rating despite being outside the top 200 in all three shooting percentages. Cole Anthony has been a volume scorer so far and they rely heavily on their game inside the arc. Like Tony Bennett is real scared of teams who try to score inside. Bring 'em on.
HooAmp: It's fairly important, especially since we lost to Purdue. So it would suck to lose two in a row for the first time since 2016-17, and because it is UNC and is at home, and we have to play the Heels again on the road, so the chances for getting swept would go up. But it isn't important in the sense that there will be more warm-up games after UNC before the meat of the ACC schedule, and we are going to need them. So it's not like we would lose to UNC then have to turn around and go to Florida State. So we need to continue to keep things in perspective. This is a developing team and we are playing a great team in early December. That said, I do think we are up for it. UNC lost a lot of players, too. It would be a lot easier with Key, but UNC has been struggling, and Tony Bennett has Roy Williams' number usually.
St Lou: I'm not worried about it. It's a great opportunity, and one we'll have every chance to win and pad the resume. But it's a bonus game, no one cares if you drop a tough one before New Year's. We got the Syracuse win, and my baseline goal for these two early ACC games was always a split.
Val: UNC.... well, that's going to be interesting. As always, the Tar Heels are big inside and they are lead by early Player-of-the-Year candidate Cole Anthony who scored one less point in his first game (34 vs Notre Dame) than Casey Morsell has scored to date in his entire collegiate career (35). He is strong and has gotten into the lane at will. We brought Morsell here to be the next Malcolm Brogdon. I expect he's going to draw the assignment of defending Anthony and I'm hoping a mano y mano matchup will get Morsell's competitive dander up. I was hoping that the Arizona State game would be Morsell's baptism. If the UNC game serves to be that game for Casey, it will have been the most important game of the season.
Seattle: I think it’s pretty important for the team’s confidence, and I think it’s entirely winnable. Did you see UNC against Ohio State? They remain what they looked like against Notre Dame and what I said in the podcast: Cole Anthony and a bunch of role players. They looked as bad as we did. Have Kihei, Casey and Chase take turns doing a good job on Anthony, D up everybody else hard, and even our offense might be capable of outscoring them - especially in the JPJ surrounded by 15,000 Hoos just dying for a reason to be positive and supportive.
5. We suck offensively. The defense is humming along in midseason form. Are you more or less optimistic about the season than you were when we published our preview?
Seattle: When we recorded the last podcast, I could not decide how I felt. Now I have to admit I am less optimistic, because the kind of confidence issue we have shown is very difficult to break and can build upon itself. If we can’t become a team that hits over 30% of threes and is reliable on at least OPEN threes, we’re going to set new lows in offense, because teams will simply pack the lane and take away both the roll game and the post game. I’ve seen no positive indicators yet, and that concerns me.
Robert: I would have said I'm about the same, if not for the Braxton Key injury. But with Key out, there is a reasonable cause for concern, especially looking ahead at an indefinite timeline that could potentially sideline Key into conference play. This team just isn't deep, or right now all that talented, at guard. Look no further than watching walk-ons Chase Coleman and Jayden Nixon play meaningful minutes against real competition. No disrespect to either of them, but that was not supposed to be the plan. Tony Bennett is digging deep into his bench to just put players on the court. All the while, Virginia is still figuring out how to funnel the offense through its bigs. So far, it's a work in progress.
With a struggling offense and a defense that likely will revert back to the mean (by Virginia standards) sooner rather than later, this team is likely to face more roadblocks than anticipated.
HooAmp: Less. This especially depends on how long we are without Key. But overall, I didn't think the offense would look this inept. Hopefully when he comes back, we look more like normal. But if you asked me right now, are we finishing third in the ACC like we predicted, I'd have to say no. But the ACC isn't lighting the world on fire, so there's time to improve and have a great season, one we'd be proud of.
MaizeandBlue: The same. As I said, this is a chemisty experiment. This rocky start on offense is fully within expectations. Already baked in. Tony probably spent about three minutes of offseason time on offense, because 1) he's Tony Bennett and 2) all those new guys had to get a crash course in defense, which obviously worked. Bring on the rest of the season.
<<Long pause>> Having said that, everything is magnified by Key’s absence. We need the guy.
Val: About the same. I just feel less good about the lumps we all knew we were going to take following a spiritless loss to Purdue. Look, that loss was awful, and sometimes you have games like that – UMBC springs to mind – but what has surprised me is how listless we’ve looked when everything hits the fan. I would not expect a Tony Bennett team to go down without a fight, but really, we did.
St Lou: Right down the middle. Defense is ahead of where I thought, offense behind, obviously. I knew we'd have ups and downs working in these guards, and we predicted we'd take two losses before the calendar turned, so I think we're on schedule.