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How Virginia's Season Turned, and Taking The Next Step

How Virginia's Season Turned, and Taking The Next Step

The Virginia Cavaliers have reeled off seven consecutive wins, sitting at a strong 2nd place position in the ACC standings and quieting bubble concerns.  It’s been quite a turnaround over the past three weeks.  

How They Got Here

Weakness Into Strength

Virginia’s frontcourt play was a definite weakness in the early season.  They weren’t getting reliable offensive production from the power forward and center positions.  And the problem was even worse on the defensive end, where opponents took advantage of their lack of physicality. 

The emergence of Jordan Minor has been the main cure.  The Hoos are 7-1 since he entered the starting lineup.  Prior to that, he had been completely out of the rotation.  He’s averaged 8.3 points and 5.1 rebounds over that stretch, while solidifying their interior defense.  It took a while to get there, but this is what was expected when they signed him.  He deserves a ton of credit.  A lot of players would have given up.  His perseverance saved UVA’s season.  

Jake Groves has taken it up a notch lately. The stretch forward scored in double figures in each of the last three games. He should have been the ACC Player of the Week last week, in my opinion, after averaging 17.5 points on 9-12 from deep in wins over Notre Dame and Clemson.  And Blake Buchanan seems to have found his comfort zone,, as Minor’s emergence has helped take some pressure off the freshman.  



Add in the great energy and athleticism Ryan Dunn provides, the four man group has transformed into one of the better frontcourt rotations in the ACC.  That would have been hard to believe just a month ago.  

Familiar Identity

Tony Bennett’s teams always eventually settle into a familiar identity.  They win the possession battle by taking care of the ball and limiting opponents to one shot.  Connected on defense, cohesive and patient offensively.   When there are new pieces like this season, it sometimes takes a bit longer to come together.    

Virginia struggled on the defensive boards early in the season, surrendering far too many second chance opportunities.  Over the full season, they rank 146th in defensive rebounding percentage.  However, they’re 18th in that category over the last ten games.  Some of that is personnel changes, some of it is just improved defensive rotations ending with players in better position to rebound.  

Even during the win streak, UVA’s scoring numbers are still pretty average.  They’ve been much more consistent though.  The Hoos have topped a point per possession in six of those seven wins.  They had failed to do that in eight of the previous 12 games.   Improved frontcourt play is a big factor.  But they’re also just running their stuff more crisply and creating better shots.  

Taine's Time 

Junior guard Taine Murray has quietly become an important part of the Virginia rotation, logging 17 minutes per game over the last five.  He was especially key in the overtime win over NC State, scoring 11 points.  



His stats aren’t eye popping, but he’s been a stabilizing force at times.  Even called on to close out games.  It’s clear that he’s entered Bennett’s circle of trust.  He makes shots when left open, hitting 46% from three-point range this season.  And his offensive game has become much more well-rounded.  In his first two seasons, Taine was only credited with a combined five assists.  He dished out four on Monday alone, 23 total so far this year.  

The Next Step 

Maximize The Arc

UVA is shooting 40% from three-point range against ACC competition.  Only two Bennett teams surpassed that mark, the 2019 national champs and his 2016 Elite Eight squad.  Not bad company.  Yet, this year’s bunch isn’t statistically great offensively, only ranked 145th in efficiency.  

The reason for that disconnect is that they don’t get many three-point attempts.  32% of their shots come from behind the arc, the 298th rate in the country.  The issue is that it’s only two players doing most of the damage, Isaac McKneely (47%) and Jake Groves (50%).  They’re marked men.  Opponents are doing everything possible to prevent them from getting those shots.  

Virginia is a perfect 11-0 when they make 6 threes, 14-1 when they make just 5.  They’ve found consistency now, giving them a high floor.   Their game to game upside is mostly determined by how many threes they make.  To climb to the next level, they’ll need to find ways to create more good looks for their shooters. 

By Committee

Sophomore guard Andrew Rohde is still in Virginia’s starting lineup. but it’s become a committee situation.  Rohde has struggled with his shot all season, and lately he’s become uncharacteristically turnover prone.  His minutes have dipped substantially, to just 18 over the last five games.  

The shift isn’t due to Rohde’s play alone.  Other guys have stepped up.  Taine Murray’s play has earned him more time, basically equal to Rohde’s minutes over the last five games.  They’ve gotten creative in finding ways to get Jake Groves on the floor more, by going with a big lineup and shifting Ryan Dunn out to guard at times.  And the return of Dante Harris has given Bennett another option.  

The third guard by committee plan has worked obviously.  The Hoos are winning.  Bennett has ridden the hot hand, or gone with the best matchup.  All those guys will no doubt be part of the rotation going forward.  But there’s clearly an opportunity for someone to assert himself and grab a bigger role.  And the team may be better off if/when that happens.  

Bracket Watch

Blowout wins are really good for the old NET ranking.  Virginia moved up ten spots to #32 following Monday’s 60-38 trouncing of Miami.  The ranking itself isn’t supposed to matter, but it does affect perceptions.  

Virginia is seeded 9th in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket, well off the bubble.  Just about all the recent picks on Bracket Matrix include UVA in the field, anywhere from a 7 to a 12 seed.  They would be safely in the NCAA Tournament if it started today.  And if their recent trend continues, we’ll be more interested in seeding than qualifying.  The Hoos probably need to win four of their last eight games to secure a bid, five would be a lock. 

(Featured Image Credit: LegacyMaker Sports) 

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