WASHINGTON, D.C. — Virginia is the two-time defending ACC regular season champions, and they’ve done it on the strength of a defensive system that is as difficult to score on as any in the country.
The Pack-Line. It’s a defense that Dick Bennett made famous and a defense that his son, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, currently runs as effectively as any program in the country. Last season, the Wahoos finished first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, better than Kentucky, who many believed had one of the best defensive teams of all time.
The only time that Virginia gave up more than 72 points in a game last season came in a double-overtime win at Miami. Only five times all season long did they give up more than 65 points. When they played George Washington last season, the Colonials managed all of 42 points. Part of that is due to the pace at which Virginia plays, but KenPom’s rankings are pace-adjusted.
Slow or not, Virginia had the most ruthlessly efficient per-possession defense in the sport last season.
That should tell you just how impressive it is, then, that GW was not only able to beat Virginia on Monday night — the Cavs went 30-4 last season and have 11 losses the last two years combined — but that they did so by scoring 73 points in a 68-possession game. Once the Colonials worked through their nerves on the first three or four possessions of the game, they seemed downright comfortable functioning against what’s supposed to be one of the best defenses in the sport.
“We got outplayed and out-executed,” Bennett said after the game. “Who are we and how do we have to play? Sometimes we forget, in these settings, just how tough it is.”
I have a few thoughts on what UVA did on Monday night and their outlook moving forward:
1. Fouls: Virginia is going to have to make some adjustments with the way that they play defense this season. The emphasis is on freedom of movement. You can’t put your hands on a driver. You can’t use your body to change the direction of their penetration. Ticky-tack fouls are going to get called all season long, just like they did on Monday night. GW shot 28 free throws. Darius Thompson, who is supposed to be Justin Anderson’s replacement as a defensive-stopper, fouled out in 23 minutes. Anthony Gill had four fouls. The ‘Hoos were clearly frustrated last night at the tight whistle — late in the second half, GW was able to get to the rim on repeated straight-line drives, something you never, ever see against UVA — and it doesn’t seem like that is going to change this season.
“I’ve got to get a feel for that,” Bennett said. “It is different. Everyone has to adjust to how they call it, and we gotta learn how they’ll call it.”
2. Slow rotations came back to bite them: The most impressive thing that GW was able to do on Monday night was force Virginia to change one of their defensive principles. UVA always uses big-to-big doubles on the catch on post touches to eliminate a low-post presence. Always. But Kevin Larsen eviscerated those traps, picking up four first-half assists. He made some beautiful passes, but Virginia’s defense was a step slow rotating on the weak-side. Credit GW for making the play, but those are plays that Virginia believes they should have been able to stop.
“When we went to trap [Larsen] was playing to pass,” Bennett said. GW head coach Mike Lonergan confirmed later that they “wanted Kevin to get double-teamed” because of how good he is passing the ball. “We just were out of our positions. We hung on too long. We know we’re supposed to scramble back and we were rusty. That cost us today.”
3. Losing Justin Anderson hurts: His ability as a perimeter defender was awesome. He’s 6-foot-6, 230 pounds and an elite-level athlete. Darius Thompson, his replacement, is listed at 6-foot-4, 196 pounds. Virginia certainly misses that defensively, but they also miss his perimeter shooting. He was burying threes at a near-50 percent clip when he was hurt last season. On Monday, the ‘Hoos were 5-for-20 from beyond the arc, many of their misses being good, clean looks at the rim.
4. But losing Darian Atkins hurt more: Anderson got all the press because he was hurt last season, his injury coincided with Virginia’s fall from title contender to a second round exit and he was a first round pick in the NBA Draft. But talk to any coach that had to put together a game-plan against UVA, and they’ll tell you that Atkins was, unequivocally, Virginia’s best defender last season.
“Atkins was their anchor,” said one coach who put together a scout on Virginia last season. “He was so good at the little things that people don’t notice. Curl protecting. Showing on the screen and giving the guard an extra second to get back. He’s so active, talkative. It was like they had six men on the court. And he protected the rim.”
“That dude … that dude was special.”
Mike Tobey is the guy that has replaced Atkins at the five this season, and while he is a load on the offensive end of the floor — he had 10 points and seven boards last night, scoring on a series of nice post moves and even burying a three — he’s not even close to being the same kind of defender that Atkins was. At one point in the second half, when Virginia stopped doubling Larsen in the post, GW made the decision to starting attacking Tobey. That was their advantage, and it worked.
5. GW is good: More than anything, that’s the takeaway that I have after watching this game courtside. They may be the best team in the Atlantic 10, and I would be shocked if they didn’t start picking up votes for the top 25 next week. Virginia clearly has some things to work through and are still trying to find a way to replace the pieces they lost last season, but this was a road game on the fourth day of the season against a well-coached, veteran, borderline top 25 playing in front of an absolutely raucous crowd. This was equivalent to losing a road game against a top-half-of-the-ACC program.
There’s no shame in that for Virginia. In fact, we should all be heaping praise on Tony Bennett for being willing to test his team on the road this early in the season.