How good Virginia will be depends on whether they can replace the presence of Joe Harris

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Malcolm Brogdon (AP Photo)

BROOKLYN — You would be forgiven if you figured that No. 7 Virginia’s 45-26 win over Rutgers on Saturday was the score of a college football game, not the championship of the Barclays Center Classic, an event that, believe it or not, featured real, live basketball teams.

And if the score doesn’t convey just how boring the game was, think about it like this: as dreadful as Rutgers was, they were actually winning at halftime. It was 18-17, and with just under 16 minutes left in the game, the Scarlet Knights were only down 26-24. They wouldn’t score again for nearly nine minutes, a timeframe where the Cavaliers were only able to go on a 8-0 … push? Crawl? Trickle? Because it certainly wasn’t a run.

It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing in the least, but good luck convincing Tony Bennett that he should care. I’m not sure that he could have been happier about the way that his team played on Saturday night.

“It wasn’t pretty,” the Virginia head coach said, “but we said, ‘alright, we’re going to have to play defense. We’re going to have to win it with our defense.'”

Bennett is no stranger to winning games with his defense. His team finished fifth nationally in defensive efficiency last season and are ranked third this year. If you don’t like advanced stats, try this on for size: The Cavs have allowed an averaged of 43.6 points this season, with no opponent scoring more than 56 on them.

Yeah.

They can lock you down as well as anyone in the country.

That hasn’t changed this season.

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Joe Harris (AP Photo)

But what has changed is my opinion of this group, one that I had ranked as No. 6 in the preseason and as the second-best team in the ACC. Simply put: I don’t know how this team is going to be able to consistently score this season, and the biggest reason for that is the graduation of Joe Harris.

On the surface, it looks like Harris had a miserable senior season. His scoring fell from 16.8 points as a junior to 12.0 points as a senior. He played fewer minutes. He got fewer shots and shot a lower percentage on them. It was also by far the best year that Virginia had while Harris, who originally committed to Bennett when he was at Washington State, was in the program.

That’s not a coincidence.

“His numbers were unimpressive but his importance was immeasurable,” one ACC staff member told NBCSports.com in regards to Harris. “Lethal shooter who defenses had to key in on. [His] importance [wasn’t] reflected in the box score.”

Forgetting the fact that the 6-foot-6 Harris was a lockdown defender, he was also Virginia’s go-to guy offensively. They didn’t have any playmakers who could break down a defense off the dribble. Their point guard is London Perrantes, a facilitator and spot-up shooter, not a guy that thrives in the pick-and-roll. Their bigs were big, but none of them commanded a double-team when they got the ball on the block.

So when they needed a bucket in a big situation, they would run Harris off of a screen, trying to get him an open jumper or in a situation where he could curl to the rim. Harris was really, really good at this, and defenses knew it. The man that was guarding him would be trailing on the screen and the man guarding the screener would have to be just as aware of how Harris moving without the ball. Because of his ability to curl off of down-screens, help-side defenders would need to be aware as well.

Every time Harris ran off of a screen, three or four defenders would need to be aware of where he was and how he was going to read the screen, and that, in turn, would open things up for his teammates. Harris? He was fine being a decoy at times if it meant his team would win games; there’s a reason he was the No. 33 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft after “regressing” as a senior.

“With Joe, the things that he would do to sacrifice for the team when he could have scored so much more, that’s what our program does,” said junior wing Justin Anderson.

Virginia just doesn’t have that presence offensively this season.

Entering the year, Malcolm Brogdon, a redshirt junior, was the guy that everyone was talking about. He’s a big, 6-foot-4 guard that can do so many different things with the ball. He can pass, he can shoot threes, he can get to the rim, he can score in the mid-range. “You have to know where he is at all times,” Anderson said, but the jury is still out on whether or not Brogdon can be a team’s No. 1 option or if he was better-suited to a complimentary role.

Brogdon was as terrific in the win over La Salle on Friday as he was awful in the loss to Rutgers Saturday. In Virginia’s best win, over George Washington in Charlottesville, Brogdon had his moments but was not at his best.

Virginia’s leading scorer through seven games is Anderson, a 6-foot-6 wing with the reputation for being an athletic freak and a physical defensive presence. He appears to have added a perimeter jumper this season, as he’s now averaging 15.0 points and shooting 59.3 percent (16-for-27) from three. He’s been really good, but he also entered the season shooting 29.8 percent from three in his career and is just 1-for-6 against Virginia’s three high-major opponents this year.

Mike Tobey has never quite lived up to the promise that he’s had as a low-post scorer. Anthony Gill has had some nice moments since the start of Virginia’s run last March, but he’s not exactly Jahlil Okafor. Perrantes will set up offense and hit an open three, but he’s not going to create that much on his own.

Because of the methodical way that they play, Virginia will never be blown out. They won’t be beating teams by 30 and 40 points a night, either, but they’re going to win plenty of games. It would be shocking if they missed out on the NCAA tournament.

But it will be tough for Virginia to live up to their preseason expectations if neither Brogdon nor Anderson develop into a guy that can replace the presence that Harris had on the floor offensively.