I don't think the bubble was where any of us expected to be on February 1, but there's no pretending it's any different. There's a certain enjoyable tension in bubble-watching, and I'll admit this: Before Tony Bennett turned Hoo basketball into a vise-gripping defensive juggernaut, I expected the best-case scenario for UVA basketball to include bubble-watching on a semi-regular basis. Every few years, maybe. It could be worse. Ask a Carolina fan.
Still, it's a little less than we'd hoped for. How did we get here from the top lines of the bracketologies? Don't blame the ACC. Yes, it's floundering. Predictably, too; you'll find plenty of references to its massive attrition and lack of star power in the season previews. Even so, a little bit better shooting at key times on UVA's part, and this is 16-4, 8-2, and still grabbing hold of a 7 seed. That's not just bad luck, though. The poor shooting has gone on long enough that it's basically part of the team's formula now. Scoring is just going to be hard to come by.
The question is: what, besides shooting like Imperial stormtroopers, has caused this team to fall a few notches short of preseason predictions? Which, admittedly, may have been optimistic, still covered in the glow of a national championship and the assumption that Tony can turn any random collection of misfits (never mind one with championship holdovers) into a single-digit tournament seed. The thing is, though, almost every player has missed expectations in one way or another.
Let's start with Mamadi Diakite. He's doing yeoman's work trying to carry this team, but....he's not a focal point player. Last year's team, and there's no excuse for me taking this long to realize it, was the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, reincarnate on a college court. The nasty defense, the superstar-free system, it's all there. Ty Jerome is Chauncey Billups. Kyle Guy is Rip Hamilton. DeAndre Hunter is Rasheed Wallace. Jack Salt is Ben Wallace. And Mamadi is Tayshaun Prince: forget about him, which the rest of the team absolutely forces you to do, and he'll scorch you. Everything from three-pointers to blocked shots is part of his game. But carry the team? No. Prince hung around the Pistons long after most of the rest of that championship team had moved on, and his stats did not take a freefall, but the Pistons eventually did. Diakite is good enough to occasionally dominate even when the opposition is laser-focused on stopping him. But not a player who will drag a team to heights it doesn't belong in.
You also wish Kihei Clark didn't have to take the second-most shots on the team, because asking him to shoulder a huge scoring load is ludicrous. His O-rating, flirting with the 80s, is being dragged downward by overuse. There was never any reason to believe Casey Morsell would find the bucket roughly nickel-sized, or that Braxton Key would have a wrist injury affect his shot. Jay Huff is still an enigma, which we'd reasonably hoped would be much less the case. Statistically, Huff is as good a player as we have on offense, but he walks a fine line between too aggressive and too tentative, and does so rather clumsily. Tomas Woldetensae.... well, I wrote in the season preview to temper your expectations, so hopefully you're less surprised than you would've been about his inconsistencies. And Justin McKoy simply hasn't cracked the rotation, which is disappointing, as Kody Stattmann is probably better suited to mid-major competition.
You have to hand it to Tony. Most coaches, upon finding that their team plays elite defense and MAC-level offense, would decide their offense needs work, and focus on that. Tony decides that if the offense is going to be that bad, the defense will just have to be even more eliter. This is still the right move. Eventually, you have to figure that guys like Morsell and Key and Stattman have to at some point regress to the mean and at least start shooting around .300 from deep. You can design plays and tweak schemes all you like, but you're wasting your time until the shots fall, and in the meantime, you'd better get stops. This team would be on the NIT bubble instead of the NCAA one if it didn't again have the country's best defense by a huge margin.
In the second half of the ACC season, another 6-4 run probably won't cut it for the tournament committee. And it'll be tough to do much better, with two Louisville games and a Duke one on the horizon. If UVA wins one of those and sweeps the rest (doable, and also imperative, due to the crap nature of the competition), then I think you can pencil the Hoos in on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday. Being at the top of the basketball world on defense won't be ignored by the committee, but the Hoos have to knock a few shots down and convince them they won't be setting up March Madness viewers for any 43-39 rock fights. It'll be an interesting February.