We’ve reached the midpoint of the ACC season, are coming off our best win of the season and have had a bit of a bye week to prepare for Clemson. It’s time for another Roundtable and I’m joined by the usual cast of Hoos – SeattleHoo, StLouHoo, MaizeandBlue Wahoo, and Robert Elder – to take stock of the season thus far.
1. It has certainly been a trying season, and maybe you were more realistic in our prospects for the season than I, but how is this season playing out according to your preseason expectations?
Maize: The ACC is about as bad as I thought it would be. A huge part of my preseason optimism was in looking around the conference and realizing all the good players were gone....and they weren't readily replaced. It wasn't so much that the Hoos were just going to reload, it was that the rest of the conference was also firing blanks. UVA has lost some games I wouldn't have expected them to lose, and so in bracketology terms, they're less well-positioned than I'd hoped. But they're right about where they ought to be in the conference standings.
Robert: Virginia's performance is a little below where I was expecting, but that is essentially all due to the ongoing shooting woes. Naturally with the loss of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De'Andre Hunter, the three-point percentage was going to drop. But to go from 39.5% last season to 27.7% this season is certainly below where I was hoping. To put more numbers to it, I'm not sure anyone expected Braxton Key, Casey Morsell, and Kody Stattmann to all shoot below 20% from beyond the arc. If I knew that before the season, then I would say this is about where Virginia should be.
But from an ACC-standings perspective, this is about right. I thought Virginia would be competing for the double-bye in the ACC tournament, which it is. The difference is that the ACC is even worse than I expected, largely due to UNC's fall. Again, we knew the ACC would drop after no one from either the first or second team All-ACC squads from last season returned. But like UVA, the league's drop in performance has been farther than I thought. Top-four in the ACC would normally be a lock for the NCAA tournament, but probably not this season. Like the 2016-17 team, a 5-seed seemed about right in the preseason, but fighting for one of the last at-large bids is a different experience.
St Lou: I expected a down year, as did most, though it's somewhat worse than I thought. Part of that is the rash of minor injuries and illnesses that's hit Braxton, Tomas, Kody, McKoy, and Caffaro at various points. Part of it is ballyhooed guards like Morsell and Woldetensae coming on slower than hoped. I expected us to be a low NCAA Tournament seed, probably around 6 or 7 (so worse than our previous 2017 down year where we were a 5-seed) but didn't think we'd quite be as On the Bubble as we are. What stinks is we're very close to having a much better record, with narrow losses to BC, Cuse, NC State, and at FSU all having been winnable in the closing minutes, though of course wins over Wake and FSU were also lose-able down the stretch. It was probably always inevitable, and only our orange-and-blue tinted glasses deluded us into thinking we'd so easily reload with a true freshman and two inexperienced internationals replacing three NBA players on the wing.
Seattle: My preseason expectations are a matter of public record. I voted us third in the ACC Power Rankings, behind Duke and Louisville. I did not expect Florida State to be as strong as they are because of the under performance of MJ Walker his first couple of years, and Devin Vassell’s development was unexpected. So, UVA is pretty much where I predicted at this point. The predictions I made, and the keys I saw to the season are playing out. I thought Casey Morsell would be more ready than he is and I thought Jay Huff would have a more featured role in the offense. I probably would not have predicted losses to Boston College AND NC State, but I did acknowledge that there would be “rough patches."
Val: Yes, we all knew that this was going to be a down year for the ACC, and as we currently sit fourth in the standings, we're taking advantage of the general ineptitude of the conference. No one expected to see such horrible shooting from 3. St Lou predicted that Tomas Woldetensae's 3-point accuracy would carry over as he made the jump from juco ball to ACC play, but we have been dire, simply dire, as a team other than him. Kihei Clark had quietly gotten his 3-point shooting to the 40% mark with the Syracuse game, but he has gone 0-13 in the five games since. Jay Huff isn't shooting the 3 at all well, but maybe more importantly, he's not shooting the 3 period. He's taken but 12 threes in the past 12 games. If the modern game is about space and pace, well, we're failing on both counts. Tony Bennett's teams are never going to be pacy, but an inability to space the floor has magnified the remaining weaknesses for the team. I did not expect this.
2. Tomas Woldetensae seems to have turned a bit of a corner, having gone 17/40 from deep over his past 6 games, or course highlighted by his 7 - 14 game vs Wake. Is there another player who could show some similar mid-season progression?
St Lou: No. I think everyone is who they are at this point. Woldetensae had this in him by virtue of his highly efficient, high-volume 3-point production at Indian Hills CC last year. But Kody and Casey have no such production proof to fall back on, and I'd be surprised if either breaks out this year (next year is its own thing). Ditto Braxton who's always been a spotty shooter, even going back to Alabama, though hopefully he'll at least be a little less bad without the cast on his guide hand. If anyone was my answer, it would be Jay Huff, who could get back to around 40% with enough volume to find rhythm and confidence.
Robert: I really want to say Casey Morsell. After all, he's made just 9 of his 66 three-point attempts this season (13.6%), meaning even just a nice two-game stretch would do wonders for his season statistics. But, fair or not, I think his best hope is keeping his confidence high as he looks for a big sophomore jump offensively.
So right now? I'm tempted to say Jay Huff. I know he has been the flashy pick as a breakout player choice each of the past two years, but this pick comes more from what he has not done more than what he has this season. In 318 total minutes last season, he went 14-31 from three (45.2%); in 451 minutes so far this season, he is shooting 9-26 from three (34.6%). So while his minutes have increased, his opportunities from deep have decreased. He can clearly shoot the ball when given space, and his defense has come a long ways since his redshirt freshman days (if you haven't already, you should check out Jordan Sperber's tweet breaking down Huff's hedges late against FSU). After those plays down the stretch and having started three of the past four games, there could be an opportunity for Jay to assume a bigger role and, hopefully, take advantage.
Maize: I continue to insist that Casey Morsell and Braxton Key have to regress to the mean at some point, and cannot possibly shoot under 20% from three all season long.
Seattle: Woldetensae has been shooting well since the UNC game, so it’s not a recent thing. At this point in the season, I have stopped expecting an increase in shooting percentage from the other wings. I do expect to see Kihei snap out of his slump in the immediate future. At this point in the season, I am not going to expect to see Jay and Mamadi dramatically increase their 3FG attempts.
Val: Sure. We're only half way through the ACC slate, we've had a bye week, and in Tony Bennett, we've got the best coach in the ACC. There's a lot of basketball left to be played. I am not expecting anything this season from Casey Morsell. At this point, I'm hoping that he simply regain his confidence and he be ready for next year. According to the metrics, Jay Huff is our most efficient player, and of the most efficient players in the entire country, but he's only scored 6 points over the past two games. Braxton Key has gotten his splint off, and he's clearly still bothered by his left hand, so he can certainly get better, but his body english has been so poor in games we've lost that I don't think he's going to give us an offensive spark.
This team, this season, has clearly been Kihei Clark's from the opening bell. He's struggled on offense and opposing teams have learned to ignore his defensive presence when shooting. He's playing too many minutes for my liking and about half the times that Chase Coleman has seen the floor it's been alongside Clark instead of giving him a breather. But, he's clearly thoughtful and you can see the effect he has on the team when he's dialed in. He's making more game to game adjustments than anyone on the team. And his free throw shooting is probably the team's most significant weapon. This year he's gone to the free throw line five times or more in a game six times. By comparison, over last year’s 38-game schedule, Ty Jerome did that 5 times and Kyle Guy 4 times. Clark is getting into the paint more than any other guard we've had in the Peak Tony Era and he's getting better at drawing contact. Clark is also a better free throw shooter than Guy or Jerome. We're 5 - 1 in those six games and while this observation maybe more of a marker than a predictor of a win, this team will win more games if Clark is disruptive in the lane as opposed to being a turnover machine.
3. Tony Bennett has been tinkering with this team all season long, as he searches for something that works. What change has most gotten your attention?
Seattle: The change that has gotten my attention has to be the tactical move to get into the offense faster after the Stony Brook game. We have slowed down again in the last couple of games, but I think that is more that the opponents are not turning the ball over as much and are getting back on defense. We’re still looking to push and not walking it up nearly as much. This shift shows Tony is willing to adjust tactics out of what we are used to seeing.
A second point, one that Val and I talked about in our last HooCast, is that in the last two games we have seen a dramatic uptick in corner threes, in particular by Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff. Jay’s big hit against Wake was from the corner, as were two of Mamadi’s three against Florida State. Combined with Tomas hitting several of his recent threes from the corner, we have seen more use of the corner three than previously in the season. Having the big in the corner was an adjustment from the first FSU game, and it pulled a help defender out of the lane on Kihei’s drives.
St Lou: Most recently, the willingness to pick-and-pop Mamadi and Jay. As 3-point shooting has become such a critical element of our offense and its struggles... not just the 3-point misses but their effect on allowing defenses to clog the lane... Tony has had to find something, anything to fix that. I get that in a perfect world, he'd have competent 3-point-shooting guards that could space the floor and allow Jay and Mamadi to be in position for offensive rebounds. But alas, other than Woldetensae, Tony's best 3-point shooters are arguably his pair of 4-star big men. Popping them to the 3-point line, getting them into a rhythm, and forcing defenses to adjust does so much to allow the guards to get into the paint and score at the rim where they're better able to finish. Remember Kihei finishing in the lane against FSU? That doesn't happen if FSU's bigs aren't out on the perimeter honoring Mamadi and Jay.
Maize: It's not so much a change, but a lack of one: Morsell's minutes haven't disappeared despite hitting everything but the bottom of the net. Just when it seemed like he might be falling a little out of favor, he stays in for 32 minutes against NC State and has been above 20 since. Some of this is matchup-related, but it goes to show that Tony still isn't kidding about defense. If you can play it, you play.
Val: The surprise, as Seattle Hoo has mentioned, is that we have actually been running. It's not much -- this is Tony Bennett we're talking about -- but it has fueled runs (pun intended) vs Boston College and Syracuse that brought us back into the game. A team on the margin needs every break (no pun intended this time) it can get.
Robert: It's not necessarily a change, but how about Bennett's willingness to play Chase Coleman in meaningful minutes? A 5-foot-9, 154-pound true freshman walk-on out of Norfolk, Coleman just recently played four minutes against Florida State and eight minutes against Wake Forest. So far, he has played in 14 games, and it seems likely that number could continue to grow. Of course, part of that is about the team's lack of guard depth. But the fact that Bennett has had to go so deep into his bench that he is playing a true-freshmen walk-on is pretty unique in the current landscape of college basketball. I would love to have a few more scholarship ball-handlers on the roster right now, but you have to respect Bennett for trusting his bench, no matter how they got there.
Val: I disagree, Robert. As you say, playing Coleman is more an act of desperation than extending the bench. It is not surprising that Bennett still runs a short bench. He always has. I don't understand it, I think there is plenty of PT for a 9 or 10-person bench, but it's just not Bennett. Justin McKoy is rotting on the bench: he's been extremely high energy, hasn't made too many mistakes that I can see, and our wing play has been less than stellar. This kid ought to be getting time. Bennett has been tweaking Francisco Cafarro's playing time, why not McKoy?
4. Even though we've played Florida State twice, we've still got the meat of the season coming up. Did the win at Florida State buoy your expectations sufficiently, and how do you think we'll finish down the stretch?
Robert: Not yet. I think the Florida State win was critical on a number of levels. Without question, it buoyed the tournament hopes; realistically, I'm not sure how possible the tournament would have been without that win. But perhaps just as importantly, it hopefully gave a team that has struggled before in the closing minutes the confidence that it has the ability to come out on top in these tight games. It was certainly a huge stepping stone.
The question is really whether this just one single stepping stone or the first in a path that leads to a tourney bid. Stringing together back-to-back wins is important -- believe it or not, Virginia had not done that since the beating Navy on Dec. 29th and then Virginia Tech on Jan. 4th. But Virginia will need to replicate that, at minimum, a few more times down the stretch. Given the current and unlikely-to-change shooting woes, the margin for error is just so slim. Right now, a 6-4 finish seems realistic, with losses against Duke, Louisville (twice), and a trip-up somewhere else along the way. But beat Clemson, and even just show well against Louisville in the KFC Yum! Center, and maybe we can start to re-adjust expectations down the stretch.
St Lou: "Buoy my expectations sufficiently" is maybe a bit much. It was encouraging and game me increased hope, though not necessarily confidence. Keep in mind just a few days before beating FSU, UVA almost lost to an awful Wake Forest that was even missing their best player. So just as much as we're capable of beating good teams, we're still also capable of losing to bad ones, and I need to see us not just squeak by teams like Wake, but handle them like we're supposed to, before I start really getting my hopes up. We're still lacking in consistent top-level guard play, which is the most important factor to being a winner in college hoops.
Maize: It sure did. Up til then, UVA lacked a win of any tournament importance at all. It's bubble time now, and that means you have to collect as many big wins as you can. Every feather in the cap helps. I'm still all-in on hoping they'll get that dance ticket (and I will have no mercy on the first person to play the "maybe it's better to make the NIT" card) so you gotta get those resume points. Yes, they probably still need another one or two....but you can't get more if you don't get the first.
Seattle: No. In the end it is just one data point. We need to see a couple more good games before we can say it’s a trend and not an outlier. I think the last four games have shown some good signs, but only in this last one have we really put it together. Can we keep that going? If we can beat Clemson and at least force Louisville to affirmatively beat us with good plays, and then get the win over Notre Dame with a consistently solid level of play like we saw against Florida State, then I will raise my expectations. I still cannot expect to see wins against the top two teams, and I still expect to see some more losses. Still not enough to change my evaluation, but I am very hopeful.
Val: No. It was a great win, to be sure, and I want Florida State in the ACC tourney for the rubber match on the season, but as of right now, we have seemingly more poor ball under our belt than great ball. Beating Florida State doesn't make up yet for eking out a win versus a Wake team without Brandon Childress (woof) or losing to a Boston College without Nik Popovich.
As St Lou has already written, we are a bubble team and the very definition of Power 5 bubble teams is that they are inconsistent. I will be happy with going 6 - 4 through the 2nd half of the ACC, given that we play Louisville twice, Duke and return engagements at both Chapel Hill and Blacksburg. Unlike Maize, I would be content with a trip to the NIT if we were able to make it to the final week vice splashing out of the NCAA's in the first weekend.
5. If you could be Tony Bennett for tonight's game (Clemson) what changes would you make?
Val: This is a bridge year and the inconsistency is what bridge years look like. I'm happy to get Clemson at home, but this is shaping up to be a pretty fine year for Clemson, given consecutive victories over NC State, UNC and Duke, and more recently, beating a red-hot Syracuse team. Virginia starts out slow, but Jay Huff starts out fast, so I would figure out a way to make sure that Huff gets a look for 3 from the corner. I want Huff to shoot 4 corner-threes.
St Lou: Make sure the right guys are taking 3-point shots. I want Braxton, Kody, and Casey taking as few as humanly possible, in deference to Tomas shot hunting and Mamadi/Jay/Kihei confidently taking the room-and-rhythm opportunities that good ball movement affords them. They won't all go in, but it'll do a lot for our team's potential in opening up the offense, while wasting fewer possessions on bad-shooting guards thinking they're Steph Curry.
Robert: Continue to find ways to get the lineup of Clark-Woldetensae-Key-Diakite-Huff on the floor. There have been a number of starting lineup changes throughout the season, and unlike years past, it's not even always a given the same five that started the first half of a game will start the second. Just like Bennett, I kept going back and forth on the lineup I like best this season. But two-thirds of the way into the season, I think I have settled on the Clark-Woldetensae-Key-Diakite-Huff lineup.
Clark is a no-brainer as the primary (and honestly only real) ball-handler, and the same can be said of Woldetensae as the team's only consistent three-point threat. Key is a strong rebounder, great defender, and senior leader, while Diakite is arguably the team's most talented player. Throw in a defensively more-consistent Huff with the offensive ceiling he will always possess, and I think you have the most dangerous lineup this team can put on the floor. If you want to give yourself a chance to take down Louisville or Duke, continue to build the chemistry with this lineup tonight against Clemson.
Maize: No real changes. Clemson has this screwy points distribution where they stink at shooting threes and they're good at twos, but the distribution skews toward threes. Almost half their shots are threes. This is not typical of Brad Brownell's teams; their players are surprisingly jack-happy and Brownell clearly hasn't figured out the chemistry formula yet this year. The pack-line will convince their guys to keep on bombing away, and UVA just has to hope they don't suddenly start falling.
Seattle: Nothing. I would not change a darn thing. Unless you self-destruct, Clemson can only win by hitting two-thirds of their shots inside. Play good interior defense and go inside, and you will win. They beat UNC when the Heels committed three turnovers in the last two minutes to give up a 10-point lead. They beat Duke when the Devils could not defend the pick & roll. They beat NC State in another anomalous game, when they as a team that does not get to the line very often and is 11th in the ACC when they do get there hit 26 of 31 free throws. Their other two wins were against the 11th and 14th defenses in the ACC in two-point field goal percentage. So I would play good packline defense and attack the paint. In other words, just do the things we do well.
Also, other than that UNC game, Clemson has been terrible on the road. This game is tailor-made for the Hoos to build some momentum for a big road test at #1 Louisville by scoring their third straight win and fourth in five games.