The Hoos are 14-6 right now, 6-4 in the ACC. By the standards of a lot of the league, that's not a bad record. By the multigenerational historical standards of UVA's program, that's not a bad record. But compared to the standards set by the past six seasons, that's a somewhat disappointing record.
There has been some wailing and gnashing of teeth from both the national arena and the UVA fan corners this season as we've watched this team struggle in ways we've grown unaccustomed to. And at the same time, as of writing, the Hoos are tied for fourth in the 15-team league, behind only powerhouses FSU, Duke, and Louisville. So how are we as Hoos to feel? We've lost six games by the end of January after losing six games total the past two seasons combined.
With no game this weekend, it felt like a good time to unpack where I'm at on the subject. By no means am I suggesting there's any particular "right" way to feel about this season, especially since many of us have been Hoo fans for different lengths of time, and those different historical experiences color our opinions. Some young Hoo fans really only know Virginia basketball for the recent Peak Tony era, a six-year run that's seen the Hoos win a national title, numerous ACC regular-season and tournament titles, make five appearances as a 1- or 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, and send a bunch of players to the NBA (by my quick mental count, nine Hoo Tony alumni have played and scored in NBA games over the past few years, and even more have started successful G-League and international careers). If you got accepted into UVA, say, in 2012, you know nothing but unqualified success from this program. But if you're an old-timer, or even a medium-timer, you remember dark days from the Holland, Jones, Gillen, and Leitao eras. Heck, even the first two years of Tony's time were often painful, and the two years after that had a lot of inconsistencies (I personally made the trip to the Richmond Coliseum in 2012 to watch us lose to a terrible ODU team that went 5-25 that year).
So to the young fans, coming from an older fan, forgive me for being preachy, but trust me, it could be and has been much, much worse. We have been absolutely, utterly spoiled. This run of success that occurred over the past six seasons is unprecedented and to a large degree unnatural.
What do I mean by unnatural? Virginia's ascension has defied rationality. We don't get McDonald's All-Americans. We don't recruit dirty or let shoe companies recruit dirty on our behalf. We don't make sky-high promises to blue-chip recruits to be Day 1 stars or get a fast track to the NBA. We don't give our players cushy athlete-only dorms. We not only make our players go to class, we make them get real degrees. We don't sweep player indiscretions under the rug.
And yet over the past six seasons, Virginia has not just hung with but consistently dominated schools that break rules with abandon. We take on a very un-level playing field, the deck seemingly stacked against right-way programs, and have been not just good but elite for basically six straight years regardless. Please, I beg you, do not take that for granted.
But I don't want this to turn into just some celebration of the Brogdon-Gill and Jerome-Guy era championship teams. Every season can and should be debated and discussed on its own merits, and it's not a crime to want to see UVA win this season as well. It's not being ungrateful to be disappointed when we lose to a bad BC team. You're not a bad fan if you don't like watching Syracuse get scorching hot in overtime against the Pack Line.
So really, the discussion needs to be about finding a healthy balance. How are you (a) grateful for the incredible success we've grown accustomed to, (b) level-headed about the state of this year's team, and (c) open-minded about the short- and long-term direction of the program, all at the same time?
Let's talk briefly about the team this season, and why exactly being 4th in the ACC equates to cause for alarm for some folks.
Virginia is a Bubble Team
I think at this point that's not a controversial statement. Even as the T-#4 team in the league, UVA is in real danger of missing the NCAA Tournament this season.
UVA lacks many signature wins; this week's victory over FSU is its lone win over a Top 25 team. It's got potentially damaging losses to South Carolina and Boston College. Complicating matters, it's a bad year in the ACC and everyone knows it (we're effectively tied with the SEC right now in terms of conference rankings, cleanly behind the B1G, the Big XII, and Big East, so UVA won't get much in the way of a bump from ACC affiliation). And we're getting, at best, mixed love from the computer metrics.
After the FSU win, the Hoos are 55th per the NET, 52nd in KenPom, and 51st per Torvik.
Last year's "Last Four In" into the NCAAT were ostensibly the Dayton play-in game participants, 11-seeds Belmont, Temple, Arizona State, and St. Johns. Their computer rankings for last year:
Let's look also at the top 4 teams in the NIT, last year's 1-seeds UNCG, Indiana, Alabama, and TCU.
So UVA, with a NET/KP/BT slash of 55/52/51 right now is squarely in that grey area emcompassing both NCAAT Play-In Game and NIT 1-Seed participants. Virginia hasn't been on the bubble since 2013, seven years ago, so this is unfamiliar territory for a lot of Hoo fans, or at the least, long-forgotten.
Let's resist the slippery slope into complaining, specifically looking for self-gratifying but ultimately nonproductive finger-pointing at specific players or coaches.
The obvious starting point is "Ty, Kyle, and Dre all left." That's the most significant talent drain we've had since at least 2016 when Brogdon, Gill, Tobey, and Nolte all graduated, and right up there with 1995 when Junior Burroughs, Cory Alexander, Jason Williford, and Yuri Barnes all departed. Maybe it's the biggest single-offseason talent-drain we've ever seen at UVA (even when Ralph graduated, the Hoos still returned two double-digit scorers in Othell Wilson and Rick Carlisle).
This year's players just haven't been playing up to the standard we've become accustomed to. More specifically, they're not playing up to the offensive level we're accustomed to.
We're a defense-first club, obviously. But in every one of UVA's five Top 10 seasons ('14, '15, '16, '18, and '19), Virginia finished in the Top 30 nationally in KenPom's Offensive Efficiency numbers, peaking with the #2 offense last year. Even in our "relative down" 2016-17 campaign, the offense finished 50th. This year's offense is 249th. The defense is stellar as usual, sitting at 3rd at the moment.
Every year's team is different, and different players (and even the same players in different seasons) all have different skill sets and strengths and weaknesses. So rather than try and litigate every little change from last year to this year that's hurt us, I think really we can point to two main factors that are the root cause of maybe 80-90% of this year's problems: 3-point shooting and turnovers. If the team plays at anything close to its recent-historical norm in those two statistical areas, we're winning a lot more games. Sure, there'd still be stuff to nitpick, but we wouldn't be in anywhere near the bubble predicament we're in if, say, we don't commit 19 steals (14 live ball) against South Carolina, or if we hit more than just a measley three 3-pointers each in losses at BC and vs. N.C. State.
Tony's worst 3-point shooting team of his career was the 2011-12 Hoos that hit only 33% collectively (231st in D-1 that year), and 6 of his 10 UVA teams before this year topped 38% (including the last four). This year we're shooting 27.2% as a team, 342nd in the country.
Tony's worst team turnover rate (i.e. - the percentage of offensive possessions that end in a turnover, dead- or live-ball) in his career was his last team at Wazzu (2008-09) which finished at 19%, a rate that was still 85th in D-1. His teams have finished Top-20 nationally (usually around 15%) in this statistic 8 of his 13 seasons, including the past five. This year, our TO% is 20.8%, which is 279th in the country.
No need to get into finger-pointing because there are plenty of players contributing to both of those statistical shortcomings, maybe even some coaching decisions factoring into it, whether in lineups or in tactics. As tempting as it may be to beg Player A to shoot better or Player B to be more careful with the ball or Player C to be a more consistent presence game-to-game, ultimately they are what they are. But to me it's those the two statistical areas which are truly anomalous when you look at the full 14-season picture of Tony Bennett's head coaching career. There may be other weak areas that aren't any worse than they've always been (for instance, we just don't as a program draw a ton of free throws, not this year or any year, so no reason to start calling it out now when we've won plenty regardless even with that fact). But turnovers and 3-point shooting are the atypical problem areas, and really the 80% answer to "why has our offense been so inconsistent?".
(FWIW, injuries and illnesses to hit Tomas, Braxton, Kody, Morsell, and McKoy all at different points certainly haven't helped either.)
Expectations for the Rest of the Season
So what now? Well, I said above we're on the NCAAT Bubble. Glass half empty, we might miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years. Glass half full, UVA's not eliminated yet and has time to get back on the right side of things.
For those who haven't paid a lot of attention to NCAAT selection criteria the last few years (why would you when all we've cared about is what region we'd be a 1-seed in?), but the two things to know now are NET Ranking and Quadrants.
NET Rankings (link) are the NCAA's replacement for RPI, a computer tool to rack-and-stack all 353 teams.
Quadrants are a way to group the quality of wins and losses based on the opponent's NET Ranking and whether the game was home, away, or neutral (link).
- Quadrant 1: Home 1-30; Neutral 1-50; Away 1-75.
- Quadrant 2: Home 31-75; Neutral 51-100; Away 76-135.
- Quadrant 3: Home 76-160; Neutral 101-200; Away 136-240.
- Quadrant 4: Home 161-plus; Neutral 201-plus; Away 241-plus.
The way they interpret things basically boils down to Q1 wins being "good wins" while Q3 and Q4 losses are "bad losses." Everything in between is kind of fluff and they just default to overall ranking and record. But when the committee starts trying to compare bubble teams with similar rankings and records, they're going to look at who's got the better wins and who suffered the worse losses.
For UVA, we break down as follows:
- Quadrant 1: 2-2 with four remaining (@UL, @VT, DU, UL)
- Quadrant 2: 4-3 with four remaining (ND, @UNC, @PITT, @UM)
- Quadrant 3: 4-1 with two remaining (CU, BC)
- Quadrant 4: 4-0, none remaining
On the good win side, FSU, Duke, and UL are the three sure-fire Q1 teams on our resume. Cuse and VT, who are ranked in the 50s/60s, only count as Q1 for the road dates. One thing to watch down the stretch will be Arizona State, currently NET 56th, possibly making a run into the Top 50 and becoming a bonus Q1 win.
On the bad loss side, BC (even away) is going to count against us. Right now South Carolina doesn't count against us as a Q3 loss, but that could easily change as they're literally right on the Q2/Q3 line with a NET of 75.
To bolster our tournament chances, down the stretch we obviously want to get our win total past 20. That includes ACCT games. Preferably 22, but probably at least 21 (last year's NIT-relegated N.C. State team had 22 wins in a tougher ACC than this year's). We need to start by avoiding any bad losses (beat both Clemson and BC at home, win our first ACCT game, pray USC stays Top 75). And we need to steal any more Q1 good wins that we can, probably wanting to get to four or five total (winning some of the four remaining Q1 games, praying ASU heats up, and/or scoring an upset in the ACC Tourney).
It's doable, but it's not a sure thing. Exceeding that 20-win threshold means winning some road games, and while UNC, Pitt, and Miami are all beatable, so are we. We're still a team that lost at BC despite them being down two starters, and we're still a team that needed OT to survive Wake despite them being down two starters.
So ultimately, Virginia has room to make a run to the NCAAT over the course of February and early March, but it's going to take us playing much more consistent ball than we recently have been. The 3-point performances have shown occasional signs of life thanks to Woldetensae's breakout and increased use of Mamadi and Huff behind the arc (still, the fewer 3PA's we waste from Morsell, Stattmann, and Key, the better). The turnovers still need to improve, though, as even in our big FSU win this week we still committed 16 of them.
Our postseason hopes will likely still be up in the air, for better or worse, come March, so try not to live or die too much with individual game results. We'll deal with Selection Sunday when it gets here.
Finding My Peace
So let's circle back to the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Would it be nice to be a front runner for another ACC title this year? Absolutely! Would it be great if we had seamlessly replaced three departed NBA stars with three more Day-1-Ready future NBA stars? Of course! Would I like to see the turnovers decrease while the 3-point percentage increases? Heck yeah!
But you know what? All of those things are out of my control. The roster is what it is. Guys are giving it their best, having to play (a) with a giant target on their backs as the defending national champion but (b) without the leadership quartet of Jerome/Guy/Hunter/Salt to lean on when times get tough.
This is still the program that's brought us immense joy over the prior six seasons, taking us to heights as UVA college basketball fans that we never dreamed were possible.
This is still the program that represents the University with the utmost class, character, and academic excellence, that truly lives the Five Pillars each and every day.
These are still the young men who said "yes" to Tony Bennett and UVA once upon a time and have year-after-year put in immeasurable hard work to bring as much success to JPJ as they possibly can.
So maybe we get hot down the stretch and make the Big Dance, maybe even going on a run there too. And maybe we don't, and this season ends in the NIT, and it's ultimately just a down year in the hopefully-decades-long collage of Tony Bennett's tenure.
Last April, a week or so after the confetti finished falling in Minneapolis, I penned a piece entitled I'm Fine. Finally. (link) By all means, take a few minutes to read it if you can, but the gist is that the title lifted such an enormous weight off my fan's shoulders that I could now enjoy UVA basketball it a much healther way. In a section of that essay, I wrote about being "Liberated" as a fan:
So now I'm going to watch games next year and just be able to enjoy them the way I did before we were a contender, before there was the weight of expectations attached to every contest. I'll simply soak in 40 minutes of good basketball, smile when the Hoos win, and simply say "oh well, on to the next" when we don't.
I don't know what the rest of this season will bring, and honestly while on one level as a UVA sports blogger I obviously care, on another level as a fan of Tony Bennett and the grand scheme course of this program I kind of don't actually care too much. I want us to win, I'll be happy when we do, but if struggles occur I'm not going to let them bring me down, or worse turn me into a critical, nit-picking, miserable fan.
That banner hanging in JPJ speaks to a long-term establishment of this program, to not just one fluke successful season but a sustained run of high-level success (with high-quality people). So what if this year is a blip? Tony Bennett is the coach and you know UVA as a nationally-relevant program isn't going anywhere.
Expectations Beyond This Season
About those long term expectations. Obviously Tony Bennett is the coach for as long as he wants to be here, and you know no coach in America is going to run a team with better cultures of hard work, team unity, and of course elite defense. Recruiting is also promising. After not adding any Top 150 / 4-star players to the rotation in 2017 and only one in 2018 (transfer Braxton Key), UVA added two this season (freshmen Casey Morsell and Francisco Caffaro) and will add potentially five next year (transfer Sam Hauser plus freshmen Kadin Shedrick, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman, and Carson McCorkle). We'll have six highly-rated players who are only freshmen or sophomores, meaning we've got the backbone of a team that could stay together and do very real damage to college basketball for maybe three years, especially knowing we've got a number of other "Tony Bennett specials" in lower-profile recruits who round out the roster in key ways like Kihei Clark does. The 2021 recruiting class will likely be another strong one, and I'm optimistic that strong recruiting is just the new reality under Bennett given our title and the explosion of NBA success from his former players (I did an essay on this as well as part of our preseason coverage: link).
So don't be worried that this season's struggles are at all relevant to the grand scheme of things. I mentioned above that the problems with 3-point shooting and turnovers are incredibly anomalous. The takeaway there is that it's far more likely that next season we'll revert back to the mean of Tony's 14 years of excellence, continuing to play elite defense while fixing the 3-point shooting and turnovers (and with that, rediscovering our usual excellent offensive efficiency) with an offseason of work and an injection of fresh talent.
The past is bright, and so is the future. There's no other program I'd want to root for right now than UVA's, and even in this bubblicious season we're still smack dab in the middle of a golden era of UVA hoops. Just as the 2016-17 season served as an important transition from the Brogdon/Gill era to the Guy/Jerome era, this season is just part of the journey, every bit as much a coda to our history-making title as it is a preface to our next run of enviable success.
No reason to do anything other than sit back, relax, and continue to enjoy the ride.