The Virginia Cavaliers are in the midst of a fourth straight season as one of college basketball’s top teams. It feels strange now, but for a long stretch, the Hoos were not this sort of program. From 2001-02 through 2012-13, Virginia never appeared in the final AP Poll and only made the NCAA tournament twice.
The change, of course, was the arrival of head coach Tony Bennett.
Following a two-year stint at Washington State, Bennett came to Charlottesville in 2009. His initial teams weren’t great, but they laid the groundwork for his system. It was the same one that guided Wazzu to its only two tourney bids in the last 23 years: Stingy pack-line defense, efficient scoring, and mistake-free basketball.
Bennett didn’t win pretty with the Cougars, and he hasn’t with Virginia, either. But he has won — quite a bit, actually. He’s 252-111 in just his 11th year as a head coach. Since the start of 2013-14, he’s 107-25.
The keys to the system have been interchangeable parts and a four-year plan.
From Joe Harris to Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon and now London Perrantes, the Hoos have utilized smart shooters and strong defenders to grind teams down and dictate their style of play. No matter the pieces in play, it’s been about consistency — and of course, efficiency.
This season, UVA is KenPom’s third-most efficient defense and 13th-most efficient offense. Last year they were No. 8 offensively and No. 7 defensively. In 2014-15, No. 22 on offense and No. 2 on defense. Bennett’s teams have proven that this is not only successful, but entirely replicable with the right players.
Based on longevity alone, Brogdon was probably the poster child for what this program does on both ends under Bennett. He averaged nearly a steal per game over four years, shot 47 percent from two, and improved his three-point percentage each year.
But Perrantes, who’s a bit more dangerous from three (42 percent on his career), is still writing the end of his story at Virginia. Unlike Brogdon, who’s now a rising NBA talent, Perrantes has a chance to end things in the Final Four, or even win a national title.
But like previous UVA teams, that’s entirely reliant on dictating the proceedings.
You can’t beat Virginia playing their game
Virginia is 3-6 in games where opponents score more than 60 points this year, including Sunday’s 80-78 overtime loss to Virginia Tech. They’re 77-3 under Bennett with a 10-point halftime lead, but all three losses have come in the past 11 months. Syracuse did it twice (including last year’s Elite Eight), and the Hokies just added their name to the list, as well.
What the teams that have beaten Virginia learned is there’s no winning if you play at their pace. The Hoos are 350th (out of 351 teams) in terms of possessions per 40 minutes, with just 60. Having so few scoring chances can be a problem if a team struggles to score or struggles to stop opponents. Virginia rarely has those problems. But when they do — especially the latter issue — they’re almost guaranteed to fail.
For Syracuse, they used the press to rattle Virginia and cause uncharacteristic turnovers, but it took fearless and accurate shooting to quickly close the gap. Virginia Tech didn’t use the press, but they did start dictating their own offensive pace in the second half, and the points eventually followed.
Still, that oversimplifies it.
This year’s UVA defense is even better than last year’s, in terms of holding opponent point totals down. The 2015-16 team allowed 60 or more points 19 different times, and they went 11-8 in those games. Virginia’s forcing far more turnovers this year — 21.3 opponent turnover percentage (39th) vs. 18.8 (129th) in 2015-16. Opponents are also shooting much worse from the field this year vs. last year.
Even the most efficient offenses have struggled mightily this year. In eight games against top 30, Virginia’s 4-4, but holding those teams to 59.6 points per game. Duke will be the ninth top-30 offense to face the Hoos when the two teams tip off on Wednesday. The Blue Devils average nearly 82 points per game.
The two teams certainly represent different sides of the college basketball style spectrum, but not different levels of title contention this year. Both are 8-4 in league play, and this week’s winner will have a big leg up toward earning a double bye in the upcoming ACC tournament. Duke and Virginia were also among the NCAA tournament committee’s top 16 teams in Saturday’s bracket preview.
Bennett’s team and its defense were just minutes away from the Final Four last season. If they can continue to impose themselves on opponents this year, perhaps they finally take that next step this March.