Champions Led By Champions
Immediately after the Cavaliers went pirate on the poor Vanderbilt Commodores, Rhode Island rammed the Seton Hall Pirates' ship to set up a fascinating contrast of styles in the NIT Preseason Tipoff Championship game. The four-guard lineup of the Rams faced off against the traditional two-post mover-blocker of Virginia. Two teams that keep coming at you every possession on both ends went to battle for forty minutes, with a mid-second half charge by the Cavaliers smashing the Rams' formation into disarray.
While the Thanksgiving Day bombardment of Vanderbilt was powered by the sophomore class, it was the seniors who were the focus of force when Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley formulated a strategy to limit Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, daring Virginia's bigs to beat him. And beat him they did.
After watching Isaiah Wilkins pass out of double-teams for easy dunks and open threes, Hurley decided he didn't want any of that and ordered his players to stay with their men and force Wilkins to put the ball in the basket himself. Looking at Isaiah's scoring averages and game log for this year, it was a not unreasonable strategy. Wilkins has never shown an inclination to be a volume scorer and generally looks to pass first. But not this time.
While Hurley was watching Guy and Jerome blast Vanderbilt to pieces, Tony Bennett was watching Rhode Island cope with the absence of 6-8, 225-pound sophomore Cyril Langevine and consequent lack of quality big men by playing four true guards. Wilkins was going to have a huge challenge on the defensive end matching up with a guard but that also meant he was going to have a "mouse in the house" on his offensive end, to use a Laphonso Ellis phrase. The key for Bennett being able to stay big and keep his most experienced players on the floor was going to be exploiting that matchup, so the Virginia game plan was to feed Wilkins in the post.
The Hoos went out and executed the game plan. They fed the post early and often. Even after a first half in which Virginia's bigs scored 15 of UVA's 30 points, Hurley did not change tactics. His defenders stuck with their assigned men and left their posts to fend for themselves. Wilkins said, "Ok," and had an 11-point half, showing future opponents that he can and will, if dared, be a volume scorer.
Virginia led most of the way in this one. Jerome drove the lane and fed Wilkins who followed his own missed reverse layup, then Guy came off a baseline screen and nailed the mid-range jumper and you had no reason to suspect this game would be any different than the ones before. But then came the Guy travel and missed shots and it became apparent that the Hoos were going to have to find another way.
They found a way. Everybody pitched in. Wilkins hit two buckets and a pair of free throws. Jerome picked off a Rhode Island pass and went intracontinental for a fast break layup. Devon Hall hit a couple of jumpers and a free throw. Mamadi Diakite fed Nigel Johnson for a corner three and slashed into the lane for a Hakeem Olajuwon back-foot jumper, then Wilkins hit a jumper from the elbow against the zone and the Cavaliers were marauding at 21-16.
But then Guy turned the ball over and Wilkins was called for his second foul, and "uh oh" breathed its way through the ranks.
No matter. Guy drove into the lane off a Diakite screen and fed the rolling big man for a dunk. Jerome drove the lane as the shot clock counted down and kicked it out to Johnson in the corner for another three, and Jack Salt powered through Berry for a layup, and it was a nine-point Virginia lead at 28-19.
Rhode Island took advantage of sloppy refereeing at the end of the first half and sloppy Virginia play at the start of the second to mount a counter-charge and grab the lead 31-30 early in the second half. That was when Devon Hall rose up in his stirrups and hollered, "CHARGE!" He led the charge personally with a pair of three-pointers and a baseline drive for a layup "AND1!"
Virginia now had a 4-point lead at 41-37 despite some turnovers and Zay's third foul thanks to some missed free throws by Rhode Island.
That's when Kyle Guy stepped up and made his moment. He slashed off a Diakite down screen, caught the pass and turned to face the basket. Diakite's man stayed with Guy while Mamadi rolled to the basket, and Guy found him. Mamadi's layup and free throw made it 44-37 Virginia, then Guy forced Rhode Island's 5-10 jitterbug Fatts Russell into a terrible shot and drifted into the corner where Johnson found him for the easy three, a ten-point lead and a Rhode Island time out with 11:28 of daylight remaining.
Rhode Island cut it back to 8 coming out of the time out, and ratcheted up the defensive intensity at the other end when Wilkins received the initiating pass at the top of the key, denying him any outlets and forcing him to put the ball on the deck.
He dribbled into the lane against Robinson and nailed the jumper from the high post, drawing Robinson's fourth foul. The three-point play made it 50-39, and Rhode Island never got closer than 9 again. Not that they quit. Far from it. They kept coming, but the Hoos had an answer for everything.
The seniors were the story with 49 of the 70 points Virginia scored and some great defense. Hall, in particular, was sensational at the defensive end. You could see from his body language during time outs that he was charged up by the challenge of matching up hombre-a-hombre with Jared Terrell for some mano-a-mano combat. The 6-3 senior had just rained naphtha down on the Seton Hall sails with 32 points, completing a span of games with 24, 25 and the 32 as he picked up the slack for his fallen comrade EC Matthews.
With plays like these:
But Hall went all Brogdon on him and shut his ass down. Other than those early contested threes, Terrell was 2-9 for 5 points. The lead Ram did also have 6 assists and 2 steals, but Hall easily got the better of the individual battle.
This time it was the underclassmen doing the glue things and supporting the scoring output of the seniors. Jack Salt was the Glue Hoo of the Game with a 17 Glue Index. His Glue plays were all over the place. Bereft of his usual complement of Screens by Guy's struggles, Salt dominated the Glue play on the defensive end:
|(n) Rhode Island||1||3||2||3||1||1||3||3||17|
Guy and Jerome might have combined for a mere 11 points and uncharacteristic 6 turnovers (Guy's 4 turnovers almost matched his season-to-date 5), but Jerome was the game's second-leading defensive rebounder with 6, hit all four of his free throws down the stretch, and had two steals. His tip and save of his end-of-clock miss at the four-minute mark gave Virginia a 1-minute possession that effectively spiked any comeback hopes the Rams might have had. Guy made his lone three-pointer count as it gave Virginia that double-digit cushion for the first time. Both players also were very strong on the defensive end. Aside from a pair of late drives by Jarvis Garrett when Virginia's prime directive was "do not foul", the Rhode Island guards other than Terrell and Robinson were 5-19 from the floor, thanks mostly to Guy, Jerome and Nigel Johnson. Their poise and willingness to contribute in all ways when they aren't getting their buckets keep them on the floor and keep Virginia strong and resilient.
Finally, Mamadi Diakite continues to look like a proto-Olajuwon to me. He's not blocking shots like last year - which he said in the pre-season would happen - but he was sensational. He defended guards, protected the rim, slid and hedged and helped and rotated and recovered with confidence, and took advantage of his 1-on-1 offensive opportunities with patience but decisiveness. While his 3-5 from the floor, 1-1 from the line (Diakite and Johnson were a combined 3-3 from the stripe - kudos to both of them), 7-point performance was tremendously encouraging, it was the drive and pass to Johnson that perhaps best showed his developing feel for the game.
Next up for the Hoos is Wisconsin in the ACC-B1G Challenge on Monday night. Ethan Happ and company will present a completely different kind of challenge for our heroes.
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