Tuesday, November 30, 2010

minny-haha, or, a hoopstravaganza

I keep saying I'll get around to basketball and now that football season is over, I can do that in spades. Seven games into the season, the team is 4-3, with horrific games, beautiful games, games that were both, and already a significant injury. In other words, Virginia Basketball is back.

With six freshmen, five of whom play, and a string of upperclassmen most of whom have glaring weaknesses, I warned you to expect "a lot of facepalm basketball, plenty of inconsistency, and a couple blowout losses." And because there's legitimate ACC talent, the year should also provide a couple wins for Tony Bennett to hang his hat on.

So in that sense, the first seven games have been a perfect microcosm of the season so far. The team looked awful against Stanford and Washington, providing us with a glimpse of what things look like when they turn the ball over. They looked great in a stretch against Wichita State and for a longer stretch against Minnesota, showing us what happens when they don't. And hey, it's gonna be awfully hard to repeat the 10-for-13 3-point showing against Minnesota, but then again it's about time our own shots started falling like that because somehow our opponents - Washington especially - never seemed to miss a shot either. Some folks seem to think that's because of Bennett's pack-line defense having a weakness against threes, and maybe it does if you don't play it right. But if a properly executed pack-line caused opponents to shoot above 50% from three-land, Tony Bennett would be an assistant coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay, not a head coach in the ACC with Sweet 16 experience.


Lessons learned so far, bulletized:

- The offense can execute very well if you let them, but aggressive man defense, especially if you hound the ball, causes us to commit inordinate amounts of turnovers. Stanford fans will fall in love with that scrappy little punk Aaron Bright over the next four years, because he's lightning-quick, junkyard-dog-nasty on the ball, and when he creates a steal (which is often) it always results in fast-break points because he can shoot and pass. If your team has an Aaron Bright, or a Jontel Evans, or someone who can close off passing lanes outside the arc, you'll murder UVA. (Al Nolen is that type of player and probably would have swung the Minny game their way.) If not, we got a chance.

- This team is wildly overmatched against legitimate contenders, but should be able to handle mid-majors and the dregs of BCS conferences, and at least compete most nights against fringe tournament teams.

- The size disadvantage in the middle is about as bad as we thought it'd be. "The ACC is all about guard play" is the mantra, but that's because everyone has guard play - the middle (especially big-man defense) is what separates contenders from pretenders.

- The execution is better than last year. The combination of players with an extra year in the system and players that are starting fresh without prehammered notions has ensured that.

- Except when the aforementioned aggressiveness on defense comes into play. Then it falls apart like a Jenga tower.


Here are way-too-early impressions of each player so far:

Jontel Evans: Doing about what he's expected to. He's played consistently heavy minutes, and his shooting is better. The team's results are a lot better when he doesn't turn the ball over; he's got to cut that down a little, but his numbers there aren't too much of a liability. Without doubt, Evans has become one of the key building blocks. Needs to improve free-throw shooting; a guard can't be below .600.

Mustapha Farrakhan: The early part of the year has been classic Mu. Against UW he shot 1-for-8 and missed all four from behind the arc. After a solid 5-of-7 performance against Oklahoma, he tried his personal best to lose the Wichita State game with no points, no assists, three turnovers, and four fouls. It was sometime in the middle of that game I decided I knew who'd be giving up his minutes when Sammy gets back. Then he plays like the whole Minny game and explodes. How's this sound: 23 points on 8/14 and 4/5 shooting, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 turnovers, 1 foul.

I mean wut? Who does that? Whenever anyone asks me about Mustapha Farrakhan I will point to those two games. That's his career in a nutshell. Mu is like some unpredictable Warcraft goblin creature that you'd never deploy if you had better options because he's as likely to demolish your own forces as the enemy's. But he will demolish something. I still think it's his minutes that are most likely to be cut into when Sammy gets back.

Will Regan: Hasn't been used much. His minutes have been entirely the mid-first-half kind when you're trying to get a guy quality minutes but you don't want the situation to be all that critical. Hasn't been real effective in that time, either.

Assane Sene: Man, if we could get him scrapping for loose balls and rebounds all the time the way he was against Minny that would do wonders for our defense. Honestly, he hasn't played especially well all year - minutes are steady, rebounds are down, fouls are up - but he was absolutely crucial to winning that Minnesota game. It's not like we have nobody to play center, it's just that our biggest guy has hands of granite. But they had a way of finding the ball yesterday. More of that and we may just be able to stop other teams from scoring in the paint whenever they feel like it.

One thing he's improved drastically: free throws. That's another thing that could be huge. A big man like him should get to shoot plenty of free throws. He hit them with regularity before the Minny game and then got to shoot eight against the Gophers and made most of them. He's already hit more free throws than he made all of last year.

Joe Harris: Wherever this guy came from, I'd like a few more plz. So far the absolute ballin'est member of the freshman class. His drive to the hoop is a pleasant surprise, his shot is as good as advertised, and he rebounds. Only complaint: he's a big culprit in the turnover department. Too many for a guy who's not a distributor. Otherwise, he's been the team's second-best player, easy....

Billy Baron: ....which is what we all thought we'd be saying about this guy instead, the way he played against William & Mary. Since the first two games he's fallen right off the radar and is another candidate to lose his minutes to Zeglinski. He hasn't been a liability, except for the shots he's missed, but he hasn't brought much to the table either, and since the Upstart game, he can't find the bucket. Zero points in each of the last two. Way, way too early to write him off, even for just this season, but I think Bennett expects more out of him and will find a way to get it.

Will Sherrill: He looks stronger this year. And he had a very good Maui tournament and was having a great game against Minnesota, up until the scary-looking injury. That injury could have some nasty long-term ripple effects because nobody knows Bennett's system like Sherrill. Unfortunately I don't think he'll be back for at least a month, maybe two, if he's not out for the entire season. Just a feeling I have. Best-case scenario is that Regan and Akil Mitchell can absorb his minutes, with Sene playing a little more as well. We'll see what happens against VT on Sunday, but I can't say I like the Sherrill-less near future very much.

Mike Scott: Simply outstanding. Little bit of an off-game against Stanford, but I can't give much higher praise than to say he's been every bit the senior captain and leader he needed to be. Three double-doubles in a row in three important games, and the and-1 he converted at the end of the Minnesota game was the biggest play of the game.

KT Harrell: Little bit of an X-factor, except that he's had his good games in losses and kind of faded out in the wins. Still, I haven't been able to shake the idea that when Harrell is playing well, the team is better. He's also been one of the team's better backcourt defenders. He and Sene are probably the two players for whom improvement in certain areas and consistency would bring the most benefit to the team.

Akil Mitchell: Argh. I think it's been evident why he was considered the most likely redshirt candidate. Not much in the way of consistent minutes and he looks lost when he gets them. Especially in the disastrous two-minute sequence against Wichita State that culminated in the world's ugliest and most obvious traveling call, since which point he hasn't come unglued from the bench. Sherrill's injury may force Bennett to make a painful choice between more minutes for Mitchell or taking the redshirt off James Johnson, but Johnson doesn't really play the same position as Sherrill and Mitchell, so the ball's in Mitchell's court somewhat.


Questions for the future:

- Who will replace Sherrill in the lineup? As I said, ideally some combination of Regan and Mitchell (actually, ideally they'll tell us Sherrill just had a nasty bruise and will be good to go Sunday, but no), but I think mainly we'll see Regan with a few extra minutes per game, and more of Assane Sene. It'll be hard to give Scott more minutes than he's getting, but he'll get a few too. I doubt Johnson's redshirt comes off unless as a last resort - i.e., someone else gets hurt too.

- Who does Sammy replace in the lineup? Baron's minutes have already come down probably as far as they're going to, unless he regresses even further. He probably won't, so the minutes are going to steady up. Mu's maddening habit of either exploding or taking a dump on the court means he'll probably be the primary victim of Sammy's return. He's already been bumped from the starting lineup.

- How about the rest of the schedule? I'm a lot more confident about the rest of the so-called 50/50 games (ISU, LSU, Oregon) than I was before - call 'em 65/35 games now - and of course the tomato cans are still the tomato cans. And a lot of the rest of the ACC has given us plenty of cause to be confident too. KenPom's projection is 15-15, 5-11, and that seems fair enough, but on the low end.

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