Sunday, March 22, 2015

UVA Hoops: "Here we are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead".

This quotation is etched into the traditional entrance gate to the University of Virginia
For those uninterested in a post about college basketball, move along. Don't even waste the time bitching about the post with a comment, because I won't post it.  And if I am writing for myself and the Hammer, so be it.  He knows my pain.

Virginia just lost for the second year in a row in the NCAA tournament to Michigan State University.  We were a number 2 seed, they were a #7.  They deserved to be a better seed,  but that is another story entirely.  Last year they beat us  61-59.  This year we lost 60-54.  We had a better team this year than last, they did not.  But we still lost.

My purpose in writing this post is to talk about objectivity, and to urge my fellow Wahoos to begin to use some of it when they evaluate our Men's Basketball Program.  First let me try and objectively do so.

We just completed our second straight 30-4 season.  We won the ACC Regular Season Title for the second year in a row, after winning the ACC tournament last year.  UVA is a gutsy team of players who were not recruited by the top programs in the country, and they are exceptionally well-coached by Tony Bennett, who has improved the team each year under his tenure.  By any objective analysis, this is a good team and maybe a great team, and a program on the rise.

Virginia Basketball has a distinctive style; I will not spend this column talking about whether it is exciting or good for basketball, or any of that garbage, because it is unimportant to the point about objectivity I wish to make.  That style flows from two main lines of operation:  the first is a crushing, stifling, defense, one that demands a considerable amount of teamwork and floor intelligence.  Watching UVA play defense is a thing of beauty, and objectively, we are among the top two or three teams in the country in total defense.  There is a great deal of pride among the players in their ability to shut other teams down, and the team's ability to force other teams into bad shots at the end of the 35 second shot clock is a big reason for its success.

The other line of operation is a patient, ball control offense that values ball movement and screens, and which all things being equal, passes up the opportunity for a decent look at the basket early in the possession in order to get an even BETTER, higher percentage look later on in the shot clock.  Because we use up a lot of shot clock, we score relatively less than the other "elite" programs in the country.  Because of our stifling defense, we used this formula to gain 30 victories.  It is however, a long term strategy that will continue to result in gaudy regular season accomplishment and disappointment in the Tournament. Simply put, our offense is average at best, and this is with good players.  It is average because of its design, just as the defense is unparalleled because of its design.  UVA will not advance to the next level until we recognize this. Which brings up the question of fan objectivity.

For two months, I have conducted a low-level Twitter War with a legion of Wahoo fans who simply do not look at the team with objectivity.  They've fallen in love with Coach Bennett and with his scrappy players (as I have), and they are genuinely (and justifiably) grateful to see UVA Basketball return to a serious level of competition.  I am right there with them.  Having the ability to write a blog post about my disappointment in a 30 win season seemed a distant dream five years ago, but here I am doing it.  That said, UVA has reached "peak basketball", as it has ridden its defensive prowess about as far as it can take them, because when they reach the tournament, they face bigger, stronger, faster teams than Miami, Boston College, Wake Forest and some of the other teams Virginia beat this year during the ACC (sometimes, in very unconvincing fashion).  Unless the offensive "system" makes adjustments, UVA fans are going to have to become satisfied and familiar with the disappointment many feel today.

We played Duke--a generally acknowledged elite program--when we were 19-0 this year.  At home.  At full strength.  A week or so before the game, a friend of mine who I love dearly, but who I fear had fallen victim to the lack of objectivity trap, told me that he thought UVA could beat Kentucky five out of ten times they played.  I was incredulous.  This is a team that got run around on by Davidson, nearly beaten by Virginia Tech, and beat a Maryland team that was missing its two best players.  Duke beat us in no small measure because our offense simply could not produce against them.

Two games later, we beat a spry Louisville team 52-47.  Yes, we won.  But we scored 52 points.  In that game we lost one of our two stars/leading scorers.  But what people forget is that at the time we lost him, he was 1-9 from the field.  In other words, we were again at full strength and nearly lost.

It was actually during the Duke game that I began to publicly question our offensive production, but it wasn't until today that I realized that it isn't a bug in the system, it is a feature of the system.  It is an offensive scheme that will -- all things being equal-- lead to lower scoring games.  And when you encounter another team that plays good defense, or even great defense, and which has an elite offense, we were and are at a great disadvantage.  And that is why unless we figure out how to raise our offensive production, we are going to have to be satisfied with unsatisfying exits from the tournament.

I debuted this sense of systemic flaw in my Twitter ranting today, and the answer I received most prominently was, "there's nothing wrong with the system, we just didn't execute".  Today?  Or against Carolina in the ACC tournament?  Or against Louisville in the final game of the season.  Or against Duke, at our place, when we were at full strength?  No.  This is NOT solely an execution issue. This is an issue of emphasis.  It is an issue of priority.  We have skilled, athletic players who can occasionally get hot shooting.  But we have a system which supports them sub-optimally when we have the ball.  And when they are not executing, the systems architecture--slow, patient, methodical--almost destines the team to long droughts without scoring and subsequent Herculean efforts to dig out.  Which always DEPEND on the stifling defense--which will tend not to be as stifling when you play a quality team.

So back to objectivity.  I think Virginia fans need to be willing to question Tony Bennett's judgment.  I think we need to recognize that we can be constructively critical without begin "Haters".  I think we can all be incredibly happy with our coach, our team, its vibe, and its accomplishments and STILL be able to say, "there is something missing in this team."

Let us not be afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.


JB said...

So, given the systemic weakness you speak of, did the selection committee err in making UVA a #2 seed? When I think low-scoring, stifling defense, I think of those Princeton teams of a few years back (I forget their coach's name) - they were never seeded very high, but that may have more to do w/ strength of schedule. Just curious . . .

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Virginia was one of the best 8 teams and deserved a #2. Princeton played Ivy League schedules, UVA beat a ton of quality teams this year.

"The Hammer" said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
"The Hammer" said...

"The ACC was the story of the day on the NCAA Tournament's first Saturday, as the conference moved to a perfect 9-0 in the Big Dance and sent three teams to the Sweet 16."
Except for Virginia which as is typical for them, underperformed, gaged and choked their way to a loss in the second round.

Moon Pie on I-20 said...

I think we dont question Coach's judgement because as long-suffering Wahoo fans we all know that We Are Not Allowed to Have Nice Things. See excellent commentary on this by Brendan at the From Old Virgina blog and by Titus at Grantland, the latter the only redeeming product affiliated with ESPN these days.

Bennett is the best coach since Holland (probably better IMO) and to understand that you have to be my wizened age to recall the days where Holland actually was an employee at U Hall vs simply an honored guest. Bennett is a Nice Thing and we are loathe to consider losing him to his home state and otherwise don't wish to jinx our continued enjoyment of our Nice Thing. Whether we question him on the offensive side of the game is beside the point; he is our Precious. And the fact of the Precious blinds us to its imperfections.

We are correct to view Bennett this way, good guy, a coaches coach, won't get the program in trouble via stupid corner cutting (say hi, Chapel Hill), appears to focus on turning boys into good, complete men in addition to great players. In this respect he nicely represents that double-edge sword of our "traditions" in Charlottesville, with all of the excess baggage accompanying that word.

Bennett has proven that UVA can actually do something other than spend hedge fund profits on palatial athletic facilities. Indeed he has created a team that is worthy of the facilities and justifiably has gotten the nations attention. That's the hard part; raising money at Va is easy.

I fully agree with you. The guys were outclassed offensively tonight, but they had already exceeded the University's true expectations. Until the genuine expectation is something other than simply keeping a Nice Thing there will be no pressure to be better. Bennett is the guy to get us there but the mindset throughout the program has further to go. Bennett is there already, he just has a large tradition- and inertia-laden institution which he must drag along as he gets us there.

Wahoos Against Whatever Whitey Wants said...

Where is your conscience? You write about UVA Hoops when those of us majoring in gender and race studies here believe with all our #hearts that UVA cops are declaring war on drunk and belligerent students of color--really? In addition to what we all wished could have been a real culture of rape at your institution, this Jim Crow law enforcement at UVA is just another case of institutional racism such as we saw with the unwarranted shooting of the gentle giant of color who was simply borrowing some items from that privileged, obviously racist, store owner in Ferguson, MO. We demand you publish a CW post with a race and gender sensitive denouncement of this pattern of white male dominant misbehavior immediately. Please ensure you use "...of color" for all people of pigment and please use gender neutral pronouns so as to not offend those who are either gender undecided, mixed gender, gender confused, gender offended, alternate random cross gender, inverse hyperbolic gender disambiguous, etc. Our society MUST become more accepting of ALL people and civility must be the rule of all discourse. If you white male pigs can't get that message into your racist, male-dominant, white-privileged brains, then we hope to see the heads that hold them on pikes on every road leading to Charleston.

UVA Dan said...

Not sure if it is a systemic problem, per se, or just the people playing the system. We need shooters and scorers.

You can recruit less-heralded players and teach them to play tenacious defense. But it's much harder to teach them the individual moves and shooting prowess needed to score. Hopefully, as Tony becomes more established, we can lure some shooters and scorers (guys who can create their own shot).

I liked how the offense was run last year and the first part of this year -- unselfish, clever passing, etc. I think that was beginning to come apart a little before Justin got hurt, and it fell completely apart later. There simply was not much "sharing the ball," "making the extra pass," etc. in the second half of the season.

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