Virginia in State of Denial

Thomas Jefferson’s presence looms large over the Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia, which he conceived, designed, and founded exactly 200 years ago, in 1819. In doing so, he was motivated by a desire to perpetuate through a great learning institution the principles he set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, namely the preservation of individual freedoms and the right of each individual to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Called “Jefferson’s Masterpiece,” the campus gives physical shape to his ideals. The Academic Village, the Rotunda, and the Lawn continue to serve as reminders of Jefferson’s vision of bringing educational opportunity, and the full panoply of human rights, to the common man.

But there is one section of Charlottesville to which Jeffersonian egalitarianism does not extend.

On the outskirts of town, about fifteen times a year, within the unfriendly confines of the John Paul Jones Arena, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team routinely denies opponents their heretofore fundamental right to possess the basketball, dribble the basketball, pass the basketball, and yes, God forbid, to shoot the basketball.

They do it with a defense which never lets up and is first in the nation in points allowed (52.9 ppg ), overall field goal defense (37%), and 3-point field goal defense (24.7%). They’ve held nine of their opponents this season under 50 points. Often, they’ll blitz you right out of the gate. Recently, they led Wake Forest 25-3 and Notre Dame 15-0 in successive games. In fairness, the referees should issue a Miranda warning to the opposition before tip-off because when an offense tries to score against the Cavaliers, they ain’t got no rights at all.

How does Virginia do it? And why does no other team in the country come close to replicating the havoc caused by Cavalier defenders?

TJ looks things over

TJ looks things over

The short answer is their pack-line defense which is a variation of man-to-man defense developed by ex-coach Dick Bennett, who just happens to be the father of Virginia coach Tony Bennett. Under the pack-line man-to-man defense, one man pressures the ball outside and the other four defenders sag back inside the imaginary “pack line,” which is about two feet inside the 3-point line. The idea is to clog the inside, prevent point-guard dribble penetration, and to always have a hand in the face of the 3-point shooter. Deny the post, deny the drive, deny the three-ball.

But they do not do it on defense alone. They’re patient with the ball and milk clock with every possession, shooting 48% from the field, 76 % from the stripe and almost 40% from 3-point land. Trying to come from behind against the Cavaliers is like slogging in heavy boots in quicksand.

Playing in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference against the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Louisville, Virginia’s regular season record since Bennett took over has been phenomenal. Since 2013-2014, They’ve won 30 or more games three times, 29 once, and at 20-1, they’re on track to win 30 again. Their record within the ACC during that stretch is 81-18, a full eight games better than North Carolina and Duke.

The knock against the Cavaliers is two-fold. They do not have elite talent and they have performed disappointingly in the NCAA tournament, most notably last year when they became the first number one seed ever to lose in the first round. They start two skinny white kids in the backcourt, a four year journeyman at center, and they have exactly one NBA prospect on their roster. Duke, their opponent Saturday night in what is likely to be the game of the year, has four future pros, including the unstoppable force, Zion Williamson.

The counter to the talent argument is that the Cavs are better than they look, and because of their cohesion, their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Their spindly backcourt duo of juniors Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome is wily strong and plays like assassins. On 50-50 balls, they go 75-25. They will bury open 3’s as if they were lay-ups. Jack Salt, the nondescript pivot man, sets picks, rebounds and blocks shots. At opportune times, he will provide surprising offense, and he is an excellent interior passer. The front court is filled out by superstar, D’Andre Hunter, and by the rapidly improving Mamadi Diakite.

Mamadi Diakite an Emerging Star

Mamadi Diakite is an emerging star

But the secret weapon for the Cavs heading into the last third of the season may be their bench. 7’1” Jay Huff is a productive replacement for Salt, and 6’8” Braxton Key, a transfer from Alabama, is athletic and can shoot the three. 5’9” back-up point guard Kihei Clark, a skilled ball-handler and the only freshman who plays, completes the 8-man rotation.

As for their post-season play, the notion that they under perform is a canard fueled by their untimely exit a year ago. They stormed through the ACC tournament last year and lost their best player, Hunter, to injury on the eve of their first round game against UMBC. It will come as no surprise if they turn last season’s humiliation into a run to the Final Four.

When Duke and Virginia meet, it’s not just for supremacy in the ACC; it’s a clash of cultures. Duke in the past few years has parroted Kentucky and recruited McDonald’s All-Americans for instant gratification. So what if they depart for the pros within eight months of enrollment? Virginia recruits for the long haul with a view to developing midlevel recruits into ACC stars. The classic example of the Virginia way is Malcom Brogdon, an unheralded recruit who stayed five years, improved every year, and is now a mainstay for the Milwaukee Bucks.

When they played at Durham January 19, star power won out. Williamson and RJ Barrett combined for 57 points in Duke’s 72-70 triumph, and Virginia shot an uncharacteristic 3 of 17 on 3-balls. If the Cavaliers shoot their normal percentage and keep the bullish Williamson under wraps, Saturday’s outcome will be different.

With their overpowering talent, Duke is one of the few teams which can contend with the Virginia defense. Another is North Carolina, Virginia’s opponent Monday in what will certainly be a defining week for the scrappy Cavaliers. To win, their defense must contain these prolific quintets to 70 points or less.

There’s no denying that.

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