After a head-scratching 87-52 loss at Tennessee on Monday night, it would be fair to wonder if the Virginia Cavaliers are the same team many experts thought they were entering the 2013-14 college basketball season. After all, Virginia gives up 87 points in a game about once every blue moon, and when the Cavaliers and Volunteers met last season, Virginia won a 46-38 slugfest.
On Monday, Tennessee more than doubled its point total from the matchup a season ago — an unexpected sight against a Virginia team generally regarded as one of the better defensive teams in the ACC. Defense has been the hallmark of head coach Tony Bennett‘s program since he came to Charlottesville sometimes at the expense of upping the pace on offense when players were on the team who could succeed in such a style.
But always measured and conservative, Bennett has to re-examine things as the Cavaliers prepare for their ACC opener at Florida State on Sunday. Fortunately for Virginia, while the FSU game will be a tough one, games against Wake Forest and at North Carolina State give the Cavaliers a chance at least to be 2-1 in the conference before going to Duke on January 13.
For that to happen, however, Virginia has to find consistency on both ends of the court. There have been flashes of the great defense this season. Virginia held No. 8 Wisconsin to 48 points and No. 14 VCU to 56 points earlier this season. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, though, they lost both games. The VCU loss was a nail-biter (56-53) while the loss to the Badgers saw Virginia manage a mere 38 points in a terrible performance.
UVA is 313th in the nation in scoring, averaging just 64.8 points per game. The defense has no margin for error, and even if the defense plays well but not exceptional, Virginia is in for a struggle on a nightly basis in the ACC. Picked as high as fourth in preseason conference polls, the home losses to VCU and Wisconsin as well as a road loss at Green Bay (75-72) raise legitimate questions as to whether the Cavaliers are even a team that will finish in the top half of the 15-team ACC.
For the most part this season, whenever Virginia has had a chance to impress it has faltered. Senior Joe Harris, regarded as one of the conference’s best players last season, had just seven points on 2-for-9 shooting in 31 minutes in the loss at Tennessee. Harris has had four or less field goals made in eight games this season. Harris’ scoring average of 11.1 PPG is a full five points fewer per game than last season.
The real bad news for Virginia is that with the defense possibly going south, Harris’ modest 11.1 PPG also leads the team. He’s the only Cavalier to average in double figures. In general, Virginia’s offense hasn’t been very effective with more turnovers (167) than assists (163). Even when completely unguarded the Cavaliers are struggling. Virginia is shooting a porous 65.5 percent from the free-throw line.
While Virginia can certainly play better defense, Joe Harris and the rest of the offense — specifically Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Tobey, and Justin Anderson — need to start producing more so that every Cavaliers game isn’t a two-point game with one minute left simply because of the Bennett style.
Because as Tennessee showed on Monday, when one or more parts of the Virginia “system” don’t work the Cavaliers struggle just to be competitive.