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‘Cali-swag’ shaped Virginia’s season, but will it let them overcome doubters?

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NEW YORK — They won the ACC regular season title. They won the ACC tournament title. They got the No. 1 seed in the East Region.

And it doesn’t matter.

Everyone is still overlooking Virginia, even President Barack Obama, who, like the overwhelming majority of people living outside the Commonwealth of Virginia, picked the Spartans. And if you ask Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia’s leading scorer, that’s not only something that the team has embraced, it’s something that he actually enjoys. Bring on the critics and the doubters. The more the merrier.

“When people doubt us, it’s fuel to the fire,” he said. “We use it as motivation to keep pushing forward and doing good things.”

There are a couple of reasons why the team that beat out Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse for a dual-ACC title gets overlooked. Their performance during the non-conference portion of their schedule wasn’t exactly dominant, and while they ran through ACC play with just a pair of blemishes — their road trips to Durham and College Park — the Cavs also got lucky. They only played Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, N.C. State and Pitt once each, and the fact that all five of those teams bowed out during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament certainly hasn’t helped the league’s reputation as a powerhouse.

That’s not the way Brogdon sees it, however.

He believes that people are impressed with plays that make Sportscenter, the highlights. Virginia’s talented and they have much more athleticism than they’ll get credit for, but this isn’t a team that will ever be confused with the Showtime Lakers. They aren’t going to be throwing lobs in transition or finding themselves making the NBA-caliber moves in isolation. They’re a team built on offensive execution and staunch defense.

It’s not glitzy, but it sure is effective.

“We’re not a flashy team,” Brogdon said. “We’re not going for homerun plays. We’re very steady, very consistent in every play. We pride ourselves on defense, which is one big thing that people don’t admire about us. It’s not about putting points on the board it’s about stopping people.”

No one on the Virginia roster exemplifies that temperament more than freshman point guard London Perrantes, whose calm demeanor and laid-back style of play initially had teammates concerned about whether or not he would be able to find success at this level.

“I didn’t see it at all,” sophomore forward Justin Anderson said of Perrantes, a native Californian who didn’t get much high-major attention on the recruiting trail, when he first saw the freshman play over the summer. “The way he plays is so relaxed. He never gets sped up. In practice, he’s just chilling and running the play.”

Perrantes has started 32 games this season, and while his numbers are rather pedestrian — 5.4 points, 3.8 assists, 44.0% 3PT, 1.1 turnovers — it’s his demeanor at the point position that sets the tone for everything the ‘Hoos do. He’s the “Tony Bennett point guard”, as Anderson calls it. He doesn’t turn the ball over, he gets the team into their sets offensively and he’ll get into opposing ball-handlers as soon as they cross half court.

“I remember Akil telling him in the summer, ‘C’mon, you’ve gotta pick it up, give me something,'” Anderson said. “We used to tell him, ‘Get rid of the Cali-swag, talk, move faster,’ and he never did. He still has his same swag and I think it’s allowed him to be very successful.”

“No one tries to touch that Cali-swag anymore.”

Perrantes says that he didn’t expect to start as a freshman, but that his confidence has steadily grown as the season as progressed. “I’ve got almost a year underneath my belt right now,” he said, which is part of the reason that he hasn’t been blinded by the moment.

That shouldn’t change playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, but what could change is a nation’s perception of the Cavaliers. They’ll have a chance to knock off the nation’s trendy title pick, a team with a trip of potential first round picks and a head coach that is reportedly being courted by NBA teams.

Is that what it will take for Virginia to be considered a legitimate title threat?

“I think we will prove some people wrong, if and when we win tomorrow, but I think we have to keep winning,” Brogdon said with a smile.

“I think a national championship will get people to be quiet for sure.”

No. 14 West Virginia takes care of No. 15 Baylor

West Virginia forward Devin Williams (41) dunks the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor, Saturday, Feb, 6, 2016, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)
AP Photo/Raymond Thompson
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Not exactly noted for their ability to knock down shots from the perimeter, No. 14 West Virginia grabbed sole possession of first place in the Big 12 thanks in part to their perimeter shooting. The Mountaineers shot 7-for-14 from three and 49.1 percent from the field in a 80-69 win over No. 15 Baylor that wasn’t as close as the final margin would lead one to believe.

Bob Huggins’ team led by as much as 19 in the second half, and the way in which they did it is what makes the win so impressive. “Press Virginia” yielded just ten Baylor turnovers, but that low number didn’t matter much thanks to West Virginia’s execution offensively.

They found quality looks against Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone in the first half and made them at a good clip, forcing Scott Drew to switch to man-to-man. That change didn’t do much to slow down West Virginia either, as Daxter Miles Jr. scored 20 points and sixth man Jaysean Paige added 17 off the bench. And with Devin Williams chipping in with 16 points and seven boards in the post, outplaying Baylor’s Rico Gathers Sr. (five points, seven rebounds), West Virginia grabbed control of the game in the first half and did not relinquish it.

The usual formula for West Virginia offensively is to attack the offensive glass, as their offensive rebounding percentage (43 percent) is tops in the country. “Their best offense is a missed shot” is a familiar refrain heard when people discuss the Mountaineers, who entered the game shooting just over 30 percent from three.

They didn’t need to lean on those second chances as heavily as they normally do Saturday night, not only because of the improved accuracy but also the improved work in finding shots. The ball moved against the Baylor defense and so did the players, resulting in an offensive attack that proved tougher for the visiting Bears to stop that one would expect given the statistics entering the game.

West Virginia was already established as a contender in the Big 12, but thanks to their win Saturday night the Mountaineers are the current pace setters. With a showdown at No. 7 Kansas set for Tuesday night, this was a big win for Bob Huggins’ team to get. And with it coming in spite of a low turnover (forced) count, this should only help West Virginia in the confidence department moving forward.

No. 22 Indiana falls at Penn State

Penn State's Shep Garner (33) moves towards the basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana in State College, Pa., Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
(AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
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Brendan Taylor scored 24 points to lead Penn State to a 68-63 upset of No. 22 Indiana on Saturday night.

The Nittany Lions were 2-8 in Big Ten play entering the weekend. Indiana? They were 9-1 and tied for first in the conference. It’s the second loss in four games for the Hoosiers following a 7-0 start to Big Ten play, a fact made all the more concerning by the fact that their league schedule is finally about to get difficult.

The Hoosiers play No. 5 Iowa at home and No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing next week. The following week they get No. 18 Purdue at home. In the final week of the regular season, Indiana squares off with No. 5 Iowa on the road and close the regular season with a visit from No. 4 Maryland.

That’s a lot of good teams that the Hoosiers to close out the year.

The question has been asked since Indiana’s hot start to league play: Are they for real? Did the Hoosiers really somehow turn things around defensively, or was that winning streak simply a by-product of their schedule?

The truth is that it was probably a combination of both. Calling them a fraud would be unjust — if you watched those games, there wasn’t much fluky about them; Indiana earned the Ws — but it does seem fair to say this is something of a regression to the mean.

They were going to slip up eventually.

And it will totally be forgotten if the Hoosiers can find a way to close the regular season with a winning record in their final seven games.