The first game of the commonwealth rivalry takes place on Wednesday night, as Virginia Tech visits #9 Virginia. The Wahoos are hitting their stride as we hit the halfway point of the conference schedule. Last week, they beat Notre Dame handily in South Bend and literally took #1 Villanova to the final buzzer in Philadelphia. As Buzz Williams put it after the Boston College game, going to Charlottesville is like “going to the dentist” – this may end of being one of the Hokies’ toughest games of the year.
Despite the rivalry, there should be a tremendous amount of respect for how Virginia plays the game, and a lot of that credit goes to Tony Bennett. On offense, the Cavaliers have an argument for being the most patient bunch in the country. Every player touches the ball on every possession. This results in incredibly efficient shots, which is why despite only averaging 69 PPG, the Hoos score 1.13 points per possession (31st) and shoot 49.3% from the field, tops in the league during conference play. There are multiple ball reversals, cuts, and paint touches every possession. With all the movement, it becomes incredibly difficult to play good defense for the entire shot clock.
One of the main reasons for UVA’s efficiency is because they simply do not turn the basketball over. They rank 24th in the NCAA turning the ball over on 14% of their possessions. And when they garner extra possessions off of offensive rebounds and by winning the turnover battle, you can certainly understand why Coach Williams made his dentist analogy. They just wear you out every possession.
Virginia is so dangerous because they have a ton of offensive talent that plays within the system. London Perrantes is the obvious threat. He leads the team in scoring, averaging 15.4 PPG during conference play. Perrantes’ number are as efficient as Seth Allen’s over the last six or seven games. He is shooting 53.8% from three and has done a nice job facilitating for other teammates with 3.0 assists per game during conference play.
Marial Shayok is a player with an all-around impressive skillset. He is ultra-athletic at 6-6, 200 pounds. He gets to the rim with regularity due to his athleticism and shoots 56.4% inside the arc. That is not to say he cannot step back and hit long jumpers, as Shayock is hitting on 47.1% of his three-point attempts during conference play. He really impressed against Villanova on the road.
The Hokies have played mediocre on ball defense on the road, allowing the ball to reach lengthy bigs deep in the paint. This has created easy buckets and opportunities for offensive rebounds due to Virginia Tech’s relative lack of size. Virginia’s Isaiah Wilkins will look to be the beneficiary in these situations. The 6-8 forward has plus athleticism and averages 7.1/5.9 on the season. He only takes about 5 shots per game, but like the rest of the team, is very efficient with his shot selection. In addition, bigs Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite rotate in and out of the lineup but help finish defensive possessions. Salt in particular could have a big game. At 6-10, he will have a huge size advantage against the Hokies.
The junior guard tandem of Darius Thompson and Devon Hall are dangerous perimeter threats in addition to Perrantes. Hall, who played with Chris Clarke at Cape Henry High School in the 757, has shot 40.4% from deep this season, while Thompson shoots the deep ball at a 38.8% clip. Freshman Kyle Guy is yet another long range threat, hitting on over 40% of his three-point attempts. These high percentages are a product of Virginia’s excellent ball movement.
If you watched their game against Villanova, the Cavaliers had a young playmaker step up in a big way in Ty Jerome. The freshman scored 15 points against one of the nation’s top defensive units, including a game tying basket with under 20 seconds left. He looked unfazed and confident with his shot. He will certainly carry over some of that confidence from that game against the Hokies.
Despite all the three-point weapons, the Cavaliers have one of the lowest three-point attempt rates in the country. They will always look to drive the ball or feed the post, and then play inside out. The defensive effort was not impressive against a mostly inept Boston College offense, and the Hokies will have to play much better to even have a chance in this one because of the defense they have to face.
The Hokies will have an even tougher time scoring the ball than defending it. Virginia’s defense has been no slouch under Tony Bennett, and that is especially true this season. The Cavaliers rank 4th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency, 1st in PPG against, and 3rd in Defensive Rating. Villanova, who has the third ranked offense in the NCAA per Pomeroy, only mustered 61 points against them.
Virginia does all the little things right on defense. They communicate extremely well, hedge hard off ball screens, rotate on time, and all five players show uncommon effort defensively to take away passing lanes through help defense. Every player has active hands and recovers quickly from mistakes.
It was encouraging to see the Hokies shoot lights out against Boston College, because they will need some of that hot shooting to carry over in Charlottesville. Going 12-18 from the three-point line will not happen against a stingy Virginia defense, but if they want to pull off a road upset, shooting over 50% from deep and making nearly all their open attempts needs to happen. Bibbs and Hill, who had combined to go 7-32 from three in their previous four games, went 5-6 on Sunday. Even Ty Outlaw shot the ball well, knocking down his first two triple attempts.
However, the way to attack this defense is to take the ball to the rim. UVA has only allowed opponents to shoot the ball 32.5% from three this season. The Hokies can’t shoot that low a percentage and expect to win this game. Virginia Tech had success against UNC, another tough defense, when they attacked the basket which Buzz Williams talked about in his press conference. They really need to get back to that identity and play inside out. The Hokies have to take smart shots because UVA limits the number of possessions in the game, increasing the value of each one.
Chris Clarke, after finishing in double figures ten games in a row, has scored under 10 points in the last three. He and Seth Allen are probably Virginia Tech’s best players at getting downhill. Getting Clarke going inside can open up some passing lanes to open shooters on the wing. From there, the Hokies need to move the ball crisply and make decisions quickly in order to generate good looks.
UVA is favored by about 12 to win this game. The Hokies once again face a team on the road that can dominate the glass and shoot the ball lights out. However, with this being a rivalry game, I think the Hokies assume an underdog mentality and play the Hoos much tougher than Virginia expects them to. Since Virginia is a hot team right now, I’m going to pick them, but I get the feel that this one will be close.