Virginia's slow crawl to the top of the ACC

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Bennett's uncompromising style has the Cavaliers as the surprise leader in the ACC.

It's not necessarily right to say the Virginia Cavaliers are alone atop the ACC standings with three games to play because of the nightmare that was the past week for Syracuse, but it is correct. Virginia hasn't changed anything it's done all season, and without playing Syracuse, the Cavaliers jumped the Orange in the standings on Saturday. Virginia didn't change. Syracuse did (or, if nothing else, the coin started hitting tails).

Few teams in the country have been as steady and quietly excellent this season as the Cavaliers, sticking to their guns and crawling to a 23-5 record. They're 14-1 in ACC play with three games to go, including a home game Saturday against Syracuse that could decide the ACC champion right there in Charlottesville.

This year's Virginia team is exactly what the school knew it was getting into when it hired Tony Bennett to replace Dave Leitao in 2009. Bennett was only a head coach for three total seasons before coming to Virginia; he was the head coach at Washington State for three years, earning national coach of the year honors in 2007, but all of his experience prior to that was as an assistant at Wisconsin and Washington State. This is his eighth season as a head coach, and each team has had the same basic footprint:

  • Play really slow
  • Stay true to Bennett's pack-line defense: Pressure the ball with one man, and the other four defenders stay in position to help with an imaginary 16-foot arc around the basket, keeping opposing two-point shooting percentages and offensive rebounding rates consistently low
  • Limit turnovers, since there aren't many possessions
  • Play soooooo slow

To get a glimpse at how steadily stubborn Bennett is in playing slow, the following screenshot from KenPom.com is presented. It's how Bennett's teams have ranked in tempo in his tenures at Washington State and Virginia. "AdjT" stands for adjusted tempo; the adjustment is that the average possessions per game are adjusted for schedule, considering the preferred pace of opponents.

Screen_shot_2014-02-24_at_9

Bennett's 2010 Virginia team was really burning rubber; his fastest team ever was 317th out of 341 Division I teams that year. This year's team is 344th out of 351 teams in college basketball.

With offense soaring around college basketball this season because of renewed rules emphasis on player-control fouls, Bennett's system has been unfazed. The one factor that has been considerably better from his past teams has been offensive rebounding. The Cavaliers are 65th in Division I with a 34.9 offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom. Prior to this season, Bennett had never had a team rank in Division I's top 250 in that statistic.

That's where the importance of Virginia's frontcourt comes in to play. Anthony Gill, Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey have given Bennett a dimension his teams have never had before. Tobey, a 6'11 sophomore, is almost inordinately good on the offensive glass. He only plays 18.6 minutes per game, so the counting stats don't necessarily show it, but his 14.6 percent offensive rebounding percentage has him as the 26th-best player on the offensive glass in all of Division I.

Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia's leading scorer, redshirted last year after suffering a broken foot near the end of his freshman season. This year he's scored 12.3 points per game — yes, that leads Virginia, because remember: sooooo slow — and came up clutch in one of Virginia's best wins, a 48-45 victory at Pittsburgh on Feb. 2. Brogdon scored 16 points in that game, including a 25-footer with 0.1 seconds left to give the Cavaliers the win.

At some point in this space, Virginia's 87-52 loss at Tennessee on Dec. 30 should be mentioned. It's difficult to explain how that game happened, considering where both programs have trended since then. Virginia's only loss since that game was a four-point loss at Duke, while Tennessee has gone 7-7 in a meddling SEC. Virginia shot 32.7 percent that day, and went 2-for-12 from beyond the arc. The Volunteers forced Virginia into 12 turnovers — a lot for the Cavaliers — and shot 50 percent from the floor. Forward Jarnell Stokes scored 20 points, and 12 of those were on free throws.

That's the way to beat Virginia: Score when the clock isn't ticking, because otherwise, the clock is always ticking. With such a small amount of possessions, turnovers pile up quickly. If a team creates turnovers and does well in the paint — either scoring or getting to the free-throw line — the Cavaliers can get in over their heads and have trouble scoring enough points to catch up.

But they've have been so consistent; they rarely play outside of their game. It's not a ton of fun to watch, but it isn't trying to be. What it is trying to be, one can safely assume, is a winning team, and while everybody was watching Jim Boeheim was being ejected Saturday, Virginia was sitting in the periphery, where it has been all season, all of a sudden leading the ACC without doing anything differently at all.

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