Now that we’ve all had a couple of days to process that loss to South Carolina last Sunday, it’s time to talk about the result and what it means for this team.
First and foremost, it’s worth addressing that we as UVA fans have been conditioned to react to each and every loss as if it warrants some overarching reassessment of this program. Virginia just hasn’t lost the last few years, especially not in non-conference play or (gasp) at home in non-con play. In fact, the last time the Wahoos lost at home against a non-conference opponent was December 3rd 2016 against West Virginia. It had been 1,117 days.
With that in mind, its worth admitting that the UVA fanbase as a whole is a bit prone to overreaction to losses deemed “bad.” And yet, Duke, who is ranked second on KenPom, lost to #150 Stephen F. Austin. While, yes that loss may have humanized Duke a bit following the superhuman mentality that partially carried over from last season, nobody is pointing to that loss as some omen of failure for the rest of their season. Okay, it is Duke and Coach K, but at this point, can’t we say that this is Virginia and Tony Bennett? Good teams and even great teams get upset (withholding any references to any notable upsets), this is what makes sport so beautiful.
Virginia is currently twenty-second on KenPom to South Carolina’s eighty-eight. While this isn’t necessarily a good loss, USC is a good team, with good players that shot well and got in the Virginia players’ heads. They’ve faced injuries so far this season so their resume looks weaker than it would otherwise, so let’s not act like Virginia outright lost this game. Did they play poorly at times and give the Gamecocks opportunities that will leave Tony Bennett scratching his head? Yup. But South Carolina beat them. I reiterate, that happens.
What I’m not going to fall back on is that cliché that this loss was a valuable one to expose this team’s issues. Frankly, at this point, we knew what the problems were going to be with this group of Wahoos, it was a question of when and not if they were exposed. South Carolina is a team that likes to disrupt the ballhandler, and Virginia’s struggles in that area reared their heads on Sunday. Admittedly, I thought this collapse of ball security would be put off until the January 15 matchup with Florida State. Nevertheless, it was bound to happen eventually.
So that leads me to address what this issue with turnovers is. If you remember, about midway through ACC play last season, Virginia went through a stretch of high (for that team) turnover games that held them in games they should’ve won handily. The difference between that team and this team is how those turnovers come about.
Last year, the majority of those turnovers were bonehead mistakes that could be fixed with enough emphasis on taking care of the ball. They were usually a result of somebody trying to do too much.
This year though, what concerns me is that the team is committing live ball turnovers while just trying to run through the offense. Outside of Kihei, who I’ll get to in a moment, the other guards on this team all have relatively loose handles, leaving them susceptible to even the smallest amounts of ball pressure.
What is also a tad eye opening is that this result didn’t come in some hostile environment like Cassell or Cameron. This was JPJ, with the fans trying to pull their guys into the game, looking for anything and everything to cheer for. This wasn’t a result of being overwhelmed on the road, and is therefore indicative of a pattern.
Where Kihei plays into this is interesting. Fortunately, a few of his turnovers were a result of trying to make a big play, like trying to loft a ball over the head of a much taller USC player to Morsell on the break. That type of turnover is one that can be amended. But, part of the issue with having sch a lack of ball handlers is that the one that can actually dribble without being stripped is going to be relied upon heavily. Again, we knew this coming in.
Kihei is going to turn the ball over a lot this year, and guess what? That’s okay. He is going to turn the ball over because he’s the guy that has to do just about everything on offense this season. Now, thirteen turnovers in two games is too many, but I’m confident he can get that number down a bit. Please remember, Kihei got a mere two minutes of rest in the last two games. He also did have thirteen assists in those games, which in a vacuum, is good to see. Kihei’s the (only) guy in the backcourt this year, so we should cut him some slack.
That said, this team is turning the ball over at a 21.2% rate, the highest of Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville. The competition isn’t getting any easier, either. This will be an issue that’ll plague this team this season. The solution will come in the offensive scheme that Bennett employs. He’ll want to get the ball inside to his bigs and run the offense through them. Notably that’s what he did last game, and that’s how he almost beat South Carolina. Look for Bennett to run similar offenses moving forward.
Now, the turnovers play directly into the next big issue with that game: transition defense, or a lack thereof. While giving the ball back to the other team is bad enough, what plagued the Wahoos in the South Carolina game was the live ball turnovers. They gave USC too many transition opportunities, which resulted in too many easy points for the Gamecocks on the other end. While a few of those transition scores were a result of a lack of awareness in getting back on defense, turnovers are what made it so easy for South Carolina to score seventy on the Wahoos
A few positives from the game came from Braxton Key and Kody Stattmann. Key, despite still wearing a cast on his left hand, played twenty-nine minutes and totaled eight points and five rebounds. He’s a critical component for this team, as a rebounder, defender, and a swiss army knife on offense. Hitting a three was big for him, and while 3-5 isn’t generally good to see from the free throw line, given he’s got a broken wrist, I’ll take it.
Stattmann seems to have carved his role out on this team. His six points and four rebounds in twenty-two minutes were encouraging, and right now it appears that he and Woldetensae have jumped Morsell on the depth chart. He’s not going to take a lot of shots, but he provided a nice lift for the team, shooting 2-3 from deep.
Two turnovers from Stattmann isn’t so great, especially given how little he’s relied upon to handle the ball. But, one was a result of an offensive charge, which was really just the result of a nice move from Stattmann that the help defender played really well. There wasn’t a lot he could do there, and you’ve got to appreciate his aggressiveness attacking the rim. The other was a dropped pass that he seemed to take his eye off of. Very fixable.
Another encouraging sign for Stattmann is that despite slower than average lateral quickness, he’s been valuable defensively, particularly as a disruptor. He’s currently averaging 1.0 blocks per game along with 0.6 steals per contest. Last season, in his ACC Defensive Player of the Year season, Deandre Hunter averaged 0.6 BPG and 0.6 SPG. Okay yes, apples and oranges, but still good to see from the second-year player
Something else of note, over the last two games the first years (yes Caffaro redshirted but this is his first year of eligibility) have only played sixty-one combined minutes after playing a total of sixty-two against North Carolina. With Key’s return to the lineup, McKoy has been relegated to the bench. Bennett did mention that the first year big had been dealing with a minor illness, but that McKoy’s lack of playing time was more a “coach’s decision.” With Stattmann’s and Woldetensae’s uptick in shooting and Morsell’s steady struggles from distance, Morsell has lost out on minutes to those two. Huff’s offensive flexibility has been valuable recently, and Caffaro has been less necessary against the smaller teams of Stony Brook and South Carolina. I expect for him to get some of those minutes back once ACC play comes and the Cavaliers face more size on the interior.
Of course, Mamadi’s twenty-one points were a big lift, and his 9-11 free throw shooting was very encouraging considering his struggles from the line in the past. I don’t love his 6-13 shooting from the field as a big man, but he is taking difficult shots, including three threes that he missed. As the theme of this game, he also had a few too many turnovers, with three for the game. I will say, that similarly to Kihei, sometimes as the go-to scorer, Mamadi is going to turn the ball over. But, a few of his were just unnecessary, which he’ll need to cut out.
All in all, this was a bummer of a loss. Not many were expecting it. USC’s scorers got going early, and this Virginia team couldn’t match them. The turnovers are a problem, and will be for the foreseeable future, but that’s what you get when you lose four guys from last year’s eight-man rotation. This team needs time to develop, and our lofty expectations are likely too in line with previous seasons and previous teams. While this system is a great one, it’s not a plug and play one. Players must develop in this program for it to be successful. This is a growth year, so let’s treat it like one.