Virginia lost to UMBC. The Cavaliers were the first-ever No. 1 seed to fall to a 16, and they did it as the NCAA tournament’s overall top seed. Tony Bennett has never coached a team to a Final Four.
All those things are true, and they are inescapable for Virginia. They inhabit a world where not only are those the facts, but they’re the cloud that follows them around and infects every conversation about them.
Those things can’t be dismissed, but also they don’t really matter.
Bennett and Co. are doing what they can to make it that way.
That last year’s debacle and all the previous tournament shortcomings have no bearing on this Virginia team was perhaps never better on display than Tuesday night, when the fourth-ranked Cavaliers dismantled, dominated and destroyed ninth-ranked and in-state rival Virginia Tech, 81-59, in Charlottesville to remain one of two unbeatens remaining in college basketball. Keep in mind: Last season, in this very same building, a Virginia Tech team that finished the year as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament beat then-No. 1 Virginia.
The defense, we know about. It’s been what’s propelled Bennett’s program to among the best in the country through the last 10 seasons. It’s the essence of the program. Defense is Virginia and Virginia is defense.
It’s the offense that looks like it may be what separates these Wahoos and their predecessors both in terms of form and function.
The pace remains painfully slow, but the conversion rate is reaching unprecedented levels. It’s a KenPom top-10 offense right now, which has only been matched by a Bennett team once, in 2016 when the Cavs were a No. 1 seed and one bad eight minute stretch against Syracuse away from the Final Four.
Here are the numbers coming into the night:
Virginia is 33rd nationally in effective field goal percentage. Outside of an outlier year of 2016, Virginia has an average rank of 121st in Bennett’s tenure. Their 3-point shooting of 39.8 percent is 12th, and that doesn’t include the 13-for-24 performance on Tuesday night. The average during Bennett’s tenure is 74th, which includes being 10th in 2017 and 17th in 2013.
A difference between this Virginia team and the ones that came before it is how many 3s they’re shooting. This year’s group is shooting 38.6 percent of its shots from beyond the arc, which is not a massive number, but it significantly beats out 2017 (33.0) and 2013 (30.9). Making 3s is nice, but making a lot of them is better. And ya gotta shoot ‘em to make ‘em.
Virginia is finally starting to really shoot ‘em.
The Cavaliers knocked down 13 3s against Tech, with nine of them coming in a first half that drowned the Hokies in triples and ended the game before the break. They took 24 shots from 3-point range, good for 45 percent of their attempts. If Virginia starts embracing a more modern approach to 3-point shooting volume, this offense is going to soar.
It also shouldn’t be overlooked how smartly and unselfishly these Cavs play offensively. It’s penetration or a post touch followed by a kick-out and the ball whipping around by pass against a defense in rotation. You can rag on Virginia for its pace all you want, but they play a beautiful brand of (slow) basketball in the halfcourt when things are humming.
They’re assisting on 57.3 percent of their baskets, which would rank the second-best under Bennett. Against Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers assisted on 18 of their 31 baskets (58 percent).
Those are the numbers, and it wouldn’t be a difficult argument to make that Virginia always has numbers and it hasn’t amounted to squat come March. Well, these numbers look to be different – at least offensively – and that’s because of the players who are putting them up.
De’Andre Hunter might play his way into being a top five NBA draft pick. Ty Jerome is nearly a 40-percent 3-point shooter over his three season career and he has a very real chance of being a first round pick. Kyle Guy is a killer making his third trip through an ACC schedule and is actually this team’s leading scorer. Braxton Key seemingly doesn’t miss around the rim.
Those guys are thriving in Virginia’s system, but it’s not hard to imagine them doing it anywhere in the country. They’re talented and experienced.
The eye test and the numbers are in agreement.
They’re also part of the team that made history last year. They’ll have to live with that being part of the conversation until they can flip the conversation on its head. They won’t be able to do that until March because that’s the last thing for Virginia to conquer and the site of its most humiliating defeat. They’re going to steamroll through the regular season and no one will really care. Maybe if they keep this unbeaten record into February, but even then, the focus will be on their past failings, not their successes.
That is the reality of their situation.
So, too, is the fact that Virginia looks uniquely equipped to change it.