We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during the season. This week we are especially grateful, as our friends from Streaking the Lawn (STL) run one of the most comprehensive college sites around and feature fantastic basketball knowledge and insight. STL’s editor, Caroline Darney, sat down with me to discuss a litany of UVA hoops topics ahead of Saturday’s game.
**Update: You can my answers to Caroline’s questions here.
TN: The Seminoles have been vocal about how just missing out on the Final Four last year has provided focus and an “edge” to this year’s squad. Have UVA players spoken similarly about their first round NCAA Tournament loss? Or has it been more like a no hitter in baseball where folks know it’s there but don’t talk about it?
STL: This Virginia team has been way more mature and adult than a lot of our fans have been (or critics continue to be), and it’s remarkable. They’ve been open about it with media, and talked a lot about how it’s now just a thing that’s part of their past and part of the program and ignoring it won’t change that. SB Nation published a great read on Kyle Guy yesterday that detailed his experience with anxiety and doubt before and after that game, and hearing that the team was getting death threats really puts things in perspective.
With that said, it 100% is also a motivating factor for the Hoos this year. That team last season was the best in the country. It’s no accident they went 31-2 in the regular season/ACC tournament and went 17-1 in the hardest conference in the country. It’s tainted now, and that is what it is, so I think they want to show how talented they are. It’s not a desperation, but they’re locked in. Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy have said they’ve never worked harder than in the offseason, and I think that shows so far this season.
TN: At 12-0 and ranked 2nd in the country in KenPom, it’s obvious the ‘Hoos have been playing some fantastic basketball. What has allowed this squad to seemingly not miss a beat despite losing senior leaders like Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins?
STL: The first thing I’m going to point out is that the non-conference isn’t as tough as it has been in seasons past. They seemingly caught VCU, Towson, GW, Middle Tennessee, and Dayton in “down” years (by their respective standards), and South Carolina certainly isn’t the same team they were when this home-and-home was scheduled after the Gamecocks went to the Final Four. Despite all of those disclaimers, it’s been good to see that the Hoos haven’t skipped a beat without those two important pieces that graduated. The defense isn’t as stifling without the mistake eraser that Wilkins was, but that just means they’re No. 4 in efficiency instead of No. 1. The nicest surprise is how efficient they’ve been offensively. It’s still the mover-blocker (much to the chagrin of some of our fans), but there’s some small changes and the Hoos just have more weapons on that end. Against Maryland in College Park when the Terps couldn’t seem to miss down the stretch, the Hoos won with offense, which was weird and awesome.
Having experience with guys like Salt, Jerome, and Guy has allowed consistency, while newcomer Kihei Clark has added a spark on both I didn’t know was possible this soon.
TN: If you were game planning against UVA, what (relative) weaknesses would you try to exploit?
STL: The first key to beating the Pack Line is to make your threes. Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite and De’Andre Hunter will try and make things tough for big men. Conversely, make Virginia play through the post. No one is writing sonnets about Salt’s offense, and with FSU’s length I feel like points in the paint are going to be limited. Virginia doesn’t often beat themselves, so you have to make the most of turnovers and second chance opportunities.
TN: UVA has played four games this year that featured more than 65 possessions, compared to just one such game in the OOC portion last season. Is that just coincidence, or is Tony Bennett showing a willingness to loosen the tempo just a little bit?
STL: WOOO WE’RE PLAYIN’ FAST. Haha...no, I just think a lot of that is a byproduct of the offense being a little better. There wasn’t as much lineup tinkering that needed to be done in the non-conference so there weren’t many times where the Hoos just kinda lulled trying to figure things out. The biggest thing was maybe playing some fast paced teams that took fast, ill-advised shots...our favorite!
TN: FSU enjoyed a lot of success in the 2009-2012 era by grinding teams down in low-scoring, defensive slugfests. Yet the fans, while appreciative of the wins, never truly embraced the style. What’s the collective feeling from the Cavalier fanbase around Tony’s, umm, deliberate style and the results (regular and post season) it has produced?
STL: One thing our fans have come to realize in the 10 years under Tony Bennett is that winning is fun. This style wins at Virginia, and he consistently has recruited and developed players that fit that system so perfectly. There are absolutely some fans that want major changes on offense (I’m not opposed to some tweaks...some of which we’re seeing this year) and I’m sure a silent minority think it’s boring, but for the most part...it’s all enthusiasm. You can tell when the crowd starts buzzing with six seconds left on the shot clock for the opponent, or when the place roars when the Hoos force a shot clock violation. I know for me, watching Tony Bennett Virginia teams have made me appreciate defense so much more, both in stopping fast breaks and staying in position. When Kihei Clark single-handedly forced a 10-second call against VCU, the whole arena blew up like someone had just finished a difficult dunk. It’s fun.
TN: UVA is the 5th best team in the country at protecting the basketball, turning it over just 13.8% of possessions. On the flip side, FSU is 15th best at taking the ball away, as opponents are turning it over on 24% of possessions against the ‘Noles. What’s the key for UVA to avoid turnovers against FSU and which team do you believe will win that strength on strength battle?
STL: This is going to sound so “duh” but the Cavaliers cannot pick up the dribble on the wings and toss lazy passes across the middle of the court. FSU is far too long and far too talented to be doing that against, and the ‘Noles will make them pay. Same goes for driving the lane with no plan. I’m more concerned for the latter than the former if we’re being honest. I’m all for taking the ball strong to the hoop, and Jerome and Hunter are good at it. You can’t, however, get in there with the trees and try and force the shot or try a fancy back pass...it’ll be a sure turnover. One of the keys to watch will be if Virginia can force FSU into turnovers, and take advantage.
TN: With conference play just tipping off, let me ask you to make a couple predictions:
a) What teams finish 1-5 in the regular season standings? STL: Virginia, Duke, FSU, UNC, Va Tech. I could also throw NC State in that top five anywhere and be fine with it.
2) Over/Under 2.5 for the number of regular season conference losses suffered by the first place finisher? STL: Ooooh good question. Over? I can see the ACC regular season champ being 15-3, but probably not much worse. Virginia faces Duke and VT twice, Duke faces Virginia and UNC (and Cuse...which I feel could be a problem weirdly?), and UNC faces Duke and NC State twice. But, I also didn’t think UVA would go 17-1 and 9-0 so what do I know lol.
D) How ACC many teams will make the NCAAT? Let’s say 8. STL: Virginia, Florida State, Duke, UNC, VT, NCSU, Clemson, Louisville...and Syracuse (HA!).
TN: Finally, who wins this top 10 showdown?
STL: I think it’s going to be a physical, close game...but Virginia pulls away down the stretch and wins by 7? Kyle Guy has been on a hot streak and the defense is clicking.
Big thanks to Caroline for her time and perspective! Be sure to head over to STL for all things UVA. Also, for those unaware, former UVA football coach George Welsh passed away. The college football hall of famer was an ACC legend and had quite a few memorable showdowns with Bobby Bowden. Read more and express your sympathies over on STL at this link.