Tuesday, December 22, 2015

terra nova

In calling the Villanova game a potential rock fight, I didn't mean throwing pebbles into the ocean, but that's what you'd guess was happening the way the Hoos and Cats rolled the scoreboard up.  The main surprising thing isn't scoring 86 points.  The main surprising thing is doing it in only 60 possessions, the second-slowest game all year.

When you score 86 points against Morgan State, everyone eyes glaze over and they find a more interesting game to write about.  When you do it against Villanova, people notice - and now Tony Bennett is an offensive mastermind.  These are largely the same players that beat Rutgers 45-26, by the way.

It's all part of a program's metamorphosis into something special.  Mike Krzyzewski isn't known as a great offensive or defensive coach.  He's just known as a great coach.  Even before the Tennessee turnaround, Tony Bennett was getting accolades for his defense, and attention of all varieties for his desire to beat shot clocks into mewling submission.  That's great.  It's an identity, and one I truly enjoy.  I love that the arena gets its loudest for something as mundane as a shot clock violation.  I embrace the pace, and I know for sure Tony won't stop recruiting and selling his defense.

Still, it's one thing to get to the top.  UVA's climbed one Everest already by scrawling its name in the annals of the ACC championship.  Staying there is harder.  Old cliche, but so true.  You have to find and eliminate your weaknesses before the competition does.

That's why that Villanova game was a thing.  If the West Virginia game was proof of the season's chemistry experiment coming together, Villanova is proof the mortar has dried on the program foundations and the walls are ready to go up.  Take one of the really good defensive teams in the country and ruthlessly exploit their weaknesses instead of letting them jump on yours - that's how to keep on winning basketball games.  Not just this year, but in the long term.


-- The flip side to the offensive volcano is that Nova scored 75 points on those 60 possessions.  That's a lot for a Tony Bennett defense - but then, in the play-by-play I counted 11 points off of quick-change turnovers that the defense had nothing to do with.  Without those..... well, that's still kind of a lot for a Tony Bennett defense, but well within acceptable parameters for a top-20 opponent.  The halfcourt, set-it-up defense looked as good as ever.

-- Nervous nellies will rightly point out that UVA isn't going to shoot 8-for-12 from three very often.  No, they won't, but they will if they create as many open looks as they did.  This wasn't luck, it was the product of really crisp and beautiful ball rotation that resulted in probably half those attempts coming completely uncontested.

-- One of them was kinda contested, but it was my favorite of the day.  Malcolm Brogdon walked upcourt, dribbled the shot clock down to five just because Nova was letting him, then took two steps at the basket, pulled up, and nailed it.  That was pages one through seventeen of the Kobe playbook.  Normally that kind of play why I think the NBA game is much less interesting than college, but we already know Brogdon's character and there isn't a me-me-me strand anywhere in his DNA.  But I've already gone on record saying he can and must be the alpha wolf this year, and a little selfishness on his part will go a long way for his teammates when they start finding themselves unguarded.  Jay Wright's a damn good coach and he was basically throwing up his hands in surrender with his postgame quotes, asking what do you do with a problem like Malcolm?

-- A particular pet peeve of mine is the contingent of Mike Tobey haters the fanbase has.  They have a certain expectation of what Tobey should be, which he isn't, and fail to appreciate what he actually is.  This is a problem nobody else on the team has.  Tobey's lone bucket of the Villanova game, though, came from being what they wish he was.  It won't shut them up, because it's all about consistency and why doesn't he tear someone's head off every possession, you see, but still.

(His first foul was the same.  I don't know how everyone in the arena sees a jump ball and the refs see a foul.  A shooting foul!  That was completely bizarre.)

-- The last time more than one UVA player scored 20 points in a game was three years ago against UWGB, when Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris had 20 apiece.  I bet it happens again this season.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

game preview: Villanova

Date/Time: Saturday, December 19; 12:00


Record against the Wildcats: 4-2

Last meeting: Nova 73, UVA 63; 3/20/04, Philadelphia

Last game: UVA 70, WVU 54 (12/8); Nova 76, La Salle 47 (12/13)


UVA: 63.5 (#348)
Nova: 67.4 (#299)

UVA: 115.9 (#7)
Nova: 113.2 (#17)

UVA: 90.4 (#5)
Nova: 90.0 (#4)

UVA: .9455 (#1)
Nova: .9333 (#4)

Projected lineups:


PG: London Perrantes (10.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 5.1 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (16.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.7 apg)
SF: Darius Thompson (8.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.2 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (13.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.4 apg)
C: Jack Salt (3.1 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.0 apg)


PG: Ryan Arcidiacono (12.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.1 apg)
SG: Jalen Brunson (10.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 3.4 apg)
SF: Josh Hart (15.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 apg)
PF: Kris Jenkins (10.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.6 apg)
C: Daniel Ochefu (8.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.1 apg)

I've said this about a couple different schools, like Georgetown, but I don't know why UVA and Villanova don't play each other more.  The last time was over ten years ago and it was the NIT committee who arranged the matchup.  The time before that was also in the NIT.  The last time these two schools played each other on purpose was 1989, which seems silly.  They're a four-and-a-half hour bus ride apart and right next to each other alphabetically.  There's plenty of tradition on both sides.  It makes sense, dammit.

The Hoos jump straight from finals break to one of the most challenging games they'll have all year.  Villanova went 33-3 last season, lost three of their top players, and apparently didn't miss a beat.  Every single one of their games has been a blowout - although one of them wasn't exactly in their favor.  The flip side of that is that they haven't been tested, save for a trip to Hawaii to play a neutral-site game against Oklahoma, which got them killed.  They've played one road game - against St. Joseph's, which isn't so much a bus ride away as it is a carpool.  Nevertheless, they haven't allowed themselves to fall victim to any tripwires, as they've played a few teams that are at least capable.  They'll give UVA a handful in a game with an ACC-like feel to it.

-- UVA on offense

Villanova took Kris Jenkins out of the starting lineup after the Oklahoma disaster, and replaced him with the much smaller Phil Booth, but it's a good bet Jenkins will be back against UVA.  Nova would be laughably undermanned against Anthony Gill otherwise.  Jenkins is a little on the short side at 6'6", but he's beefy and against a lineup with Gill and a true center, he's Villanova's only hope.

Nova is, on the whole, an excellent defensive team.  Even the OU loss was more on the offense than the defense.  They stay in front of their man very well and have center Daniel Ochefu to wipe out a lot of mistakes.  He's a terrific shot-blocker, and lanky Mikal Bridges, playing forward off the bench, creates a lot of havoc on the defensive end too.  Villanova plays smart and fouls very little, and the result of all this is that teams typically have to shoot well from three to have a chance.

The hole, of course, is that they don't have much of a frontcourt outside of Ochefu.  Jenkins, really, plays a small forward's game.  Bridges and Darryl Reynolds play significant rotation minutes off the bench, but Reynolds leaves a hole on offense when he's in.  Nova has good backcourt size, but that doesn't help in scrambles underneath the basket, and second-chance points will be a concern for them all year - especially going up against a good offensive rebounding team on Saturday.  Ochefu does really excellent work on the boards, but he plays only half the time.

UVA probably won't get a lot of opportunities to drive at the rim, as the Wildcats do a good job at preventing it.  But they should be able to pound the ball inside, substituting to try and force mismatches with Gill and Isaiah Wilkins.  Mike Tobey probably won't light up the stat sheet, because Ochefu is a major handful - but simply by existing and occupying Ochefu, he'll force Nova to guard UVA's power forwards with someone who isn't well suited for it.

-- UVA on defense

This could be an exciting matchup for the pack-line.  Nova is a perplexing team on offense.  They finish really, really damn well at the rim.  Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart are both shooting 80% at the rim, and this is not on putbacks because this team, outside of Ochefu, simply doesn't do that.  When they get offensive rebounds - which isn't often - they reset, rather than going back up.  Not surprising for a team of mostly guards.  I digress.  This team does very well driving to the bucket.

Fortunately for their opponents - especially, say, an opponent whose defensive system is designed to slam the door on any attempts to drive the lane - Villanova is 1) in love with the three-ball and 2) not that good at it.  The reason they lost so badly to Oklahoma is they shot more threes than twos and hit on four of them - out of 32.

They were much better at it last year, and shooters gotta keep shooting, so eventually they might snap out of it.  Maybe on Saturday.  But so far this year, only Ryan Arcidiacono has been a threat as a distance shooter.  Jenkins, Bridges, and Jalen Brunson are all in the 20% range so far.  They've rolled their opponents anyway because they're so damn good inside the arc (against Georgia Tech, for example, 19-of-24 for two) and other than Ochefu, mostly automatic free-throw shooters, but they settle for threes a heck of a lot.  They could win a lot of games from the stripe, but they're near the bottom of D-I in free throw attempts.  They have this very peculiar statistical arrangement:

- #4 in the country in 2pt %
- #277 in the country in 3pt %
- #254 in the country in percentage of points coming from two
- #36 in the country in percentage of points coming from three

That is the fingerprint of a team that shoots way too damn many threes.  So pack-line 'em up.  This Villanova team is designed to be stopped by it.  When Nova throws it inside to Ochefu, they'll be dangerous, because dude's a hoss.  When they get past the gate sentries, they'll be dangerous, because they finish so well.  If they're content to settle for threes, and they have been all year, UVA will take it.  I suppose Nova could be an unstoppable force if they ever actually start hitting those threes, and we can't have nice things so they'll probably choose Saturday to start.  But UVA rebounds really well even against teams with actual power forwards, and it adds up to a very bad matchup for Nova's offense.

-- Outlook

This game stands a good chance of being a rock fight.  UVA's tempo is certainly up thanks to the shot clock - they're five possessions faster than they were last year and the highest they've been in the Tony Bennett era.  But still they're one of the slowest teams in the country.  Offensive average possession length is clearly faster.  Defensive possession length - hardly any change at all.  Villanova is not a run and gun team either; they're nearly as deliberate and force long possessions as well.  Add in that both teams play excellent defense and one team is a nightmarish matchup for the other's offense, and this game will likely struggle to hit the 70s, if not the 60s.

I said the other day that it looks to me like UVA's chemistry experiment is finally producing a reaction.  West Virginia was held to 54 points in 65 possessions, and just 18 in the second half.  If I'm right, UVA, playing at home and against an opponent that likes to do things that play into the hands of the pack-line, should win this one.  If I'm wrong, Villanova will find defensive breakdowns and derail the good vibes from the WVU win.  I might as well stop writing if I'm to call myself wrong a day after writing it.

Final score: UVA 63, Nova 54

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

shots in the arm

It's sort of a miniature holy grail of sportswriting to be able to call a turning point in a season right as it happens.  Sportswriters give it a shot all the time.  Cover a 162-game MLB season and you'll probably call eight different turning points as the season wears on.  It's easy to do after the fact, but not so easy in the moment; you'd have looked like a lunatic if you'd woken up on New Year's Day 2014 and made UVA a 1-seed in your bracketology.

I'm willing to give it a shot right now, though: beating West Virginia in Madison Square Garden sure as hell looks like a launchpad for the season.  To be honest, so far this hoops team has looked like they've had trouble getting out of third gear.  Putting a nasty ol' hurt on Lehigh doesn't do it for anyone.  Two struggles in two road games (and one loss) against decent but bubbly opponents doesn't scream Final Four - it says "seven seed."

MSG isn't a road venue, but it's a tournament-style venue.  And West Virginia is more than a tournament-style team.  They have really eye-popping efficiency numbers on both offense and defense.  There are things they do better than everyone in the country.  They play in what is probably the toughest top-to-bottom conference in the country (Boston College is doing the ACC no favors in this regard.)  At worst, beating them by 16 in a neutral venue is going to be worth one full seed in the selection committee room.

I think it did more than just move UVA from a 3 seed to a 2, though.  UVA took WVU's best shot, and it was a good one.  The Hoos were reeling, thanks to the Mountaineers' pressure, unable to pass the ball or rebound on defense - two of the most fundamentally simple things in basketball.  Then suddenly they punched back.

Tony told reporters that his halftime message wasn't elaborate: either you'll respond, or you won't.  Is that trust or what?  Up to you, guys.  Whatever you want to do.  Before halftime, it was a legitimate question to wonder if UVA's UVA-ness was taking a vacation this year.  After halftime, the mojo returned from the beach and went back to work, and like most teams before them, WVU found the bucket a mile away and ten inches wide.


UVA doesn't just have a football coach, it now has a whole staff.  Most of that staff is still in Provo, but Bronco Mendenhall wisely brought on (or kept) a few East Coast connections.  Marques Hagans (WRs) is the lone holdover.  Shaun Nua (DL) actually comes from both worlds, having worked with Bronco at BYU in the past but coming more directly from Annapolis where he was on Ken Niumatalolo's staff.  And best of all, UVA snapped up Ruffin McNeill, idiotically fired from East Carolina where his 5-7 record this year was used by their AD (which is no longer Terry Holland, in case you were wondering) as an excuse to win a political power struggle.

McNeill isn't likely to stay long.  Two, three years is the most likely cap.  Sooner or later, some AAC or CUSA team will find itself looking for a head coach.  McNeill will be on short lists maybe even as soon as next year; he was absolutely a success at ECU and other southeastern schools would be stupid to keep him off their short lists.  Western Kentucky isn't going to hang on to Jeff Brohm forever, FAU hasn't gained much traction, Charlotte just went 0-12....McNeill is going to look awfully good to some AD somewhere.  He's 57, so the window is just beginning to close, but it's best to assume he's a short-term staffer.

Nevertheless, ECU's loss is UVA's gain.  McNeill is said to be one of the most top-notch people in the industry, and, y'know, just look what he did at ECU.  Four bowl seasons out of six, and a ten-win season.  He can do some of his most important work right this week while the rest of the staff is preparing for the Las Vegas Bowl.  He and Hagans can give the BYU boys the East Coast high school grand tour.  And whatever he did to beat VT twice, maybe he can transfer some of that mojo too.

Speaking of which.  I sort of hate to begin comparing Mendenhall to Justin Fuente and the Blacksburg crew, but it's inevitable - hired in the same year, the competition and measuring-up is impossible to avoid.  Fuente retained a lot of Frank Beamer's staff and filled out the rest with Memphis coaches.  Both schools are taking a prudent approach.  UVA effected a near-complete overhaul, while VT held on to successful coaches (ol' Bud, Torrian Gray) and jettisoned ineffective ones - that is, most of the offensive side of the ball (li'l Shaney in particular), keeping only Zohn Burden, who produced some pretty good WRs this year.  Fuente brings a badly needed fresh start on offense for VT; Mendenhall brings an even more badly-needed discipline hand to Charlottesville and a large cadre of unified, trusted staff to reinforce the message.

From here in December, though, not even a month from the introductions, I'm willing to predict Bronco outlasts Fuente.  It's largely a question of expectations.  VT fans were mad because Beamer kept going to crappy bowls and almost losing to UVA.  If both programs go 8-5 for the next three years, just take a guess which fanbase will be happier about that.  Fuente needs to put VT in the ACC CG repeatedly or it won't be enough - and if he does produce multiple ten-plus win seasons, rumors will swirl once jobs like Arkansas or Texas A&M open up.  And he'd better not lose to UVA more than once in the next four years.  I think VT fans could handle a loss (as long as it's not in 2016) but if he allows Bronco to put UVA on equal footing with the Hokies in the state, it won't sit well.

But forget the next couple years, just the next couple months will be interesting to watch.  UVA football offseasons are fun again.  I hardly paid attention to recruiting efforts this year, for example - why bother, when there's so little guarantee that a commitment in May will sign in February?  As usual, finals break sucks for sports fans, but Saturday marks the end of boring times - UVA fans can watch one of the marquee basketball games of the year and then root for their coaching staff in a bowl game (which is liable to be a three-hour advertisement for UVA football) and then let the fun begin Sunday when Bronco and co. become full-time Hoos.

Monday, December 7, 2015

bronc and roll

UVA fans watch the Bronco Mendenhall press conference

It's been a little over six years and seven months since Craig Littlepage dropped a bomb by hiring someone other than Rick Barnes or Tubby Smith to coach the basketball team.  That was surprising, and I reacted by going "who the hell is that?" and being incredibly put out for about 10 seconds - the amount of time it took me to look up where he was coming from.  Oh.  Washington State.  I know two things about them.  They've been in the Sweet 16 lately, and they have the basketball tradition of a potato.  They're really good, it's really hard for them to be good, this might work.

But an ACC team trying to find a basketball coach can pick from a large set of possibilities, including other Power 5 conferences and the NBA, so dropping a surprise is not too tough.  An ACC team trying to find a football coach has a much smaller group of candidates.  Football is a smaller pool of teams and the ACC doesn't rank so high on the pecking order.  The media is usually pretty good at identifying the list of available coaches, and surprises are usually unpleasant.  Like when South Carolina turns to Will Muschamp and says, gee, you did such a bang-up job coaching in the SEC East with more resources than any other school in the division, why not take a crack at it with the degree of difficulty cranked way up?  Surprises are bad.

Except, apparently, when pulled off by Craig Littlepage and whatever search firm dug this up.  Littlepage saved me 10 seconds this time around - I knew exactly where Bronco Mendenhall coached.  I got to skip the "who?" stage and go right to "this might work."  The surprise lingered all weekend and into Monday and probably for quite a while.

The pessimistic view on UVA's head-coach gig has been that it's not very attractive because losing record.  I've always called that nonsense.  There's too much going for it for it not to be attractive, and coaches always think they can turn it around - I sure wouldn't want one who didn't.  Mendenhall just vindicated the hell out of that position and took it just one step further: UVA's record was a reason he came.  He had a great thing going at BYU, and there wouldn't have been any point to leaving it for a light maintenance job.  It's clear from everything that's come out since Friday - up to and including Monday's press conference - that he's looking forward to seeing his approach can make a difference.  A really big difference.

Mendenhall said all the right things at the presser about how UVA is a special place with high standards, which is what coaches always say when they're being introduced.  A certain part of fanhood of losing teams involves wanting to be told that things will be all better soon, and the place for that is the introductory press conference, but that's not why Mendenhall blew that press conference away.  He blew it away because he was very blunt and very uncompromising on certain things.  Yes, it would have been a deal-breaker to not be able to coach BYU's bowl game.  No, I'm not gonna sleep at the office.  Yes, I'm going to pay attention to things other than my job, starting with my family.  These are things usually used to demonstrate your all-in-by-golly commitment to your new job, and Mendenhall flat-out told everyone that's not what his commitment entailed.  And it made everything else ring loud, clear, and true.  Because of that, it's easy to believe that the buzzwords like accountability and standards aren't just buzzwords.

Mendenhall, in short, is Mike London with a plan.  It's funny - going back, the things London talked about in his press conference, he did just that.  He talked about being energetic, recruiting the 757, the character he wanted his players to exhibit.  The word "discipline" was not spoken once.  He never talked about the systems he planned on installing, other than a passing mention of a 4-3 defense.  He was asked about his offensive philosophy and gave a generic answer about scoring a lot, and then said, "I think there are several positions that are key" and then proceeded to list all the offensive positions on the field except offensive line.

Eerie, then, how it turned out.  Ironically, that too is reason for optimism.  If London's presser turned out so prophetic, why shouldn't Mendenhall's?  There was a lot of overlap.  Both coaches said, more or less exactly, "you're not just getting me, you're getting my family."  Both talked about academics and character and UVA being the kind of place where it matters, and that being why they wanted to be here.  The difference is that London stopped there.  Mendenhall laid out a plan, a system, and the results it's achieved so far.

And those results are impressive.  BYU has an impressive football history, which belies how tough it is to win there.  You have to convince players to go to a place with behavior restrictions topped only by military academies.  Many of them leave for two years and don't do anything more physically strenuous than ride a bike.  And Mendenhall further limited himself by being Tony Bennett-esque in demanding his recruits fit the requirements, even believing that they should have to sell themselves to him as much as the other way around.  On the one hand, right now, I could probably do a better job than Mendenhall of knowing, say, which are the pipeline schools in Hampton Roads.  (Not for long, but, y'know, this minute at least.)  On the other hand, UVA is supposed to be this hard place to recruit to, and Mendenhall is coming from one of the few places where it's tougher.

It's the splash of the year, at just the right time.  The ACC Coastal won the coaching carousel this year.  The SEC hired two coordinators with no head coaching experience and one retread in all the worst senses of the word.  Maryland and Rutgers did that too and those were the two better hires in the Big Ten, because Illinois hired a guy who was fired from Western Michigan.  USC went full inbred, making it 2-for-2 in laughable hires by schools initialized USC.  VT, on the other hand, made the best Conventional Hire in the country, and Miami took the best coach actually known to be available.  Duke still has the guy that made Duke into a good football team.  Pitt went the coordinator route last year but at least it was with the reigning Broyles winner.  None of these are the guy who actually went undefeated in conference play, which would be Larry Fedora.  UVA needed to find some way to keep up.  Consider it done and then some.  Bronco Mendenhall is both a damn good coach and the right coach.  UVA needed both.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

not with a bang

Frank Beamer played it how Frank Beamer always plays it.  One of his players hit a referee - short of committing an actual prosecutable crime, basically the single most felonious thing you can do on a football field - and that player was suspended for a half.  Because it was "unintentional."  This is sort of like when your kicker breaks into someone's house to steal back his weed and that becomes "trespassing."

And Mike London played it how Mike London always plays it.  Two timeouts burned during his final game because his team couldn't figure out how to substitute.  Three false start penalties and one dingus lined up on offense straddling the neutral zone, which latter penalty you could see coming a mile away.  And a quarterback who's been so well developed and coached that his first choice in the two-minute drill (one minute, actually) is to chuck the ball deep down the middle to a quadruple-covered tight end.  Great play design, incidentally.

Thus did the head coaching careers of two coaches end - the only way either coach knew how.  Mike London's last game could only have been more of a microcosm of his career if he had taken his last timeout to ice Joey Slye on his game-winning kick.  That would've been absolutely precious.  Otherwise it checks all the boxes.  Red zone ineptitude, poor discipline, getting outcoached at halftime, headscratchingly bad QB decisions, and just because Steve Fairchild absolutely had to get in on the be-who-you-are action, lots of third-and-long screen passes.  One of them finally worked, and I imagine that was the instant Fairchild at long last felt at peace with his not-too-illustrious tenure in Charlottesville.

Any further flowery eulogizing of the Mike London era would be literary onanism.  It's not an era much worth remembering.  It wasn't just losing football, it was bad football.  It was aimless, unplanned, unencumbered by identity.  Everything good that can be said about it, is said about the off-field aspects of running a program.  This is like house-hunting and being shown a dilapidated terrible old house with a palatial, immaculate basement.  The other way round isn't desirable either, and at least you've got a nice foundation, and foundation matters, but the world remembers the face you show it.


I'm not going to exhaustively cover the coaching search, but how about a quick tiny blurb on some of the possible candidates?  First impressions, call them, and almost nothing at all to do with probability of landing them.

Mike Bloomgren: One of several under-experienced offensive coordinators on the list, and the least connected in this area of the country.

Jeff Brohm: Impressive offense at WKU, which won their bowl game last year by coming back from a 49-14 deficit.  Experience playing and teaching quarterback a plus.  Would need a very strong DC hire.  Risk to jump ship to Louisville should anything happen to Bobby Petrino, but one of the top fallback options.

Mack Brown: The fanbase is harshly divided on whether this would be a good idea or not; count me in the Yes camp.  A Hall of Fame coach with a national championship ring and extensive coaching tree is not a guy you turn your nose up at.  His age isn't a major issue; if successful here, he could coach 6-8 years and put the program on the right track.  This is an attractive enough job to draw Brown's eye as well as other high-profile names like Mark Richt and Dan Mullen - imagine what it could do with a winning record and full stadium?  Brown would likely provide that.

Troy Calhoun: In the past he's had the reputation of being tough to pry out of the AFA.  His record at a very tough place to win is impressive, as is the accountability he demands - a very welcome departure from London for sure.  And he's got a very good mind for offense.  On the down side, there are very real reasons to be wary of Ken Niumatalolo, and Calhoun has had a tough time beating him.  Calhoun's offense, while more multi-dimensional than Navy's, only relies slightly less exclusively on the run.

Al Golden: Similar to London in that his Miami teams lacked identity.  Far more talented of a coach, obviously.  High-floor, low-ceiling hire.

Pep Hamilton: Star fell a bit after being fired as Colts OC, but was a hot wish-list name for a lot of vacancies for a while.  Seems to prefer the NFL, however, and has never been a head coach.

Dan Mullen: Was winning at Mississippi State before Dak Prescott, so concerns that he's a one-trick pony are unfounded.  Mullen was the favorite choice of the knowledgeable wing of the Michigan fanbase before it was clear Jim Harbaugh was a real thing, and a concerted effort could reel him in.  The top home-run choice now that Mark Richt is more or less off the board.

Ken Niumatalolo: Has done well at Navy, but Paul Johnson is already in the division; trying to beat the master with the student isn't a very likely proposition.  Army has been trying to beat Navy at their own game for a while now and it's not working.

Matt Rhule: Interesting career path; while at Temple, he switched from being DL coach to QB coach, then became OC a year later.  He's certainly taken a difficult situation to tremendous heights this year, but I think, more than any other current HC we could look at (even Brohm), we'd be taking a risk that he's not a flash in the pan.  Temple's defense, not their offense, is leading them to the top.

Mark Richt: The very best choice for the job, tempered only by the fact that he's pretty much turned it down.

Lincoln Riley: Has exactly one year of experience at a Power 5 school; Oklahoma's offense has improved between last year and this year, but it's too soon to tell how much of that is Riley's doing.  And ECU's offense was decent but far from explosive during his time there.  Too thin of a resume to be anything but a colossal leap of faith.

Mike Sanford: See Riley, Lincoln.

Greg Schiano: Reputation as an asshole will precede him wherever he goes.  A Sports Illustrated article painted the picture of a reformed coach hoping for a second chance, and he'll need a fresh start somewhere in order to lose said reputation.  In Schiano you'd certainly see the discipline lacking under London; if the reform job works, Schiano has potential to be the architect of a major turnaround, but you're taking a risk that leopards do change spots.

Matt Wells: Solid record at Utah State for two years - not so much this year.  Raises questions about whether he's been riding coattails.  Also has zilch connections on the East Coast.

Monday, November 30, 2015

game preview: Ohio State

Date/Time: Tuesday, December 1; 7:30


Record against the Buckeyes: 1-3

Last meeting: UVA 89, OSU 73; 1/25/81, Charlottesville

Last game: UVA 80, Leh. 54 (11/25); Mem. 81, OSU 76 (11/27)


UVA: 64.4 (#347)
OSU: 68.3 (#283)

UVA: 115.2 (#5)
OSU: 106.6 (#80)

UVA: 92.0 (#10)
OSU: 98.9 (#92)

UVA: .9299 (#3)
OSU: .7030 (#73)

Projected lineups:


PG: London Perrantes (10.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 5.3 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (16.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.2 apg)
SF: Marial Shayok (7.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.8 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (12.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 0.3 apg)
C: Jack Salt (3.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 0.0 apg)

Ohio State:

PG: JaQuan Lyle (11.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.2 apg)
SG: Jae'Sean Tate (10.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.4 apg)
SF: Keita Bates-Diop (12.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.6 apg)
PF: Marc Loving (16.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.2 apg)
C: Daniel Giddens (6.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.4 apg)

Yes, yes, yes, I'll get to the elephant in the room.  How could I not?  But that can percolate a little, and there's a big basketball game tomorrow, so this post has a closer expiration date.

The basketball powers that be seem to enjoy having UVA play teams I hate for non-UVA reasons, so here we go into Columbus for our portion of the ACC-B1G Challenge.  Ohio State has had a very nice last decade or so in basketball, with two Final Fours and numerous Sweet Sixteen appearances, but their seven-year tournament streak is already in jeopardy, five games into the season.  Losses to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech do not bolster a tournament resume.

Still, though UVA still shows up well in the early-season KenPom rankings, that's mostly from crushing lousy teams and some preseason carryover.  UVA will have to go back on the road into a difficult environment after playing the last four games in some very friendly confines (the arena in Charleston was decidedly pro-UVA throughout the tournament.)  Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger aren't walking through that door for OSU, but they're not all of a sudden a MEAC team.

-- UVA on offense

The 30-second shot clock has affected the UVA offense in one appreciable way: it's rare now to see London Perrantes walking the ball up the court like he's on a Sunday stroll to nowhere in particular.  UVA now pushes the ball up past halfcourt usually within a couple seconds and then stalls the game to a pokey crawl.  They still rank outside the top 300 in offensive possession length (the shorter, the "better".)

Perrantes has so far been a bit more aggressive in looking for his shot, both at the rim and the arc - not like he considers himself the first option or anything, but he's been getting after it a bit more.  That'll be much harder against OSU, because point guard JaQuan Lyle is not only 6'5", but comes in with a five-star pedigree, too.  Lyle has been anything but aggressive on defense, with only two steals on the season, but he's an obstacle all the same.

OSU is a team with good playable size, and it's shown so far in their interior defense; they've been difficult to score on down low and are one of the top shot-blocking teams in the country in the early going.  Center Daniel Giddens has 16 blocks already - more swats than he has field goals - which is a primary reason for his entry into the starting lineup over Trevor Thompson.  Thompson is no slouch himself - you'll recognize the name, he was last seen as a 210-pound beanpole trying to form some semblance of a backcourt with Joey van Zegeren in Blacksburg.  He transferred to OSU and has re-emerged 40 pounds heavier and a viable rotation member, though he's actually only played about a quarter of the available minutes.

UVA's offense was simply abusive against the last four cream puffs, with the result that almost everyone is shooting over .500 from two and a lot of guys are over .400 from three.  During those four games, UVA scored one-and-one-third points per possession, and even in the loss to GW they scored 68 in 68 possessions.  OSU is certain to slow that pace somewhat, and UVA needs to drop a few more threes in than they did against GW (the Hoos started that game 2-for-14 and found themselves in a hole partly because of it) to keep the large and shotblocky OSU defenders from clogging up the lane.

-- UVA on defense

It's early, so these trends will get tamped down a bit - but OSU's offense is similar to its defense.  Their size means they don't get their shots blocked much, and they shoot well inside.  (The caveat to both this and their defense is that cream puffs, even ones you lose to, are generally undersized.)  OSU also has a few guys who've started the season off hot from behind the arc.

Marc Loving is a tough player to guard, shooting well from both two and three.  The same goes for Keita Bates-Diop, who's only 5-for-18 from three so far, which is a sample size problem more than anything as he shot just fine last year and is OSU's top free-throw shooter too.  Austin Grandstaff - a one-time UVA target on the recruiting circuit - comes off the bench for the specific purpose of three-point shooting and is 8-for-19.

There are a couple glaring red spots, though.  OSU turns the ball over too much, and these are generally unforced errors.  A couple bench players - most prominently Trevor Thompson and backup SG A.J. Harris - are particular culprits.  Worse yet is their free-throw shooting, which doomed them against UTA and wasn't any help in their other losses.  Loving and Bates-Diop - no problem.  Everyone else....whoof.  Giddens and JaeSean Tate are brick factories; both are in the .300s.  JaQuan Lyle has been rotten too.  Those three have combined to shoot more than half of OSU's free throws.

-- Outlook

OSU has good size, and their top two scorers are matchup problems who can score from a lot of different places, inside and outside the arc.  And Daniel Giddens is a legitimately tough center, while JaQuan Lyle has looked so far like a pretty good facilitator of the offense.

That said, OSU has yet to play against anything resembling a decent big man.  They've all been either stiffs or nonexistent.  The one exception is Memphis's Shaq Goodwin, who went completely off on the OSU defense with 23 points on 7-for-9 shooting and nine points from the stripe.  This is a losable game if the defense is still a little too loose for Tony's liking, but OSU's flaws should hold them back enough, and the UVA offense has been clicking - even coming down off the mountain would still put them high above the trees.

Final score: UVA 74, OSU 68

Friday, November 27, 2015

game preview: Virginia Tech

Date/Time: Saturday, November 28; 12:00


Record against the Hokies: 37-54-5

Last meeting: VT 24, UVA 20; 11/28/14, Blacksburg

Last weekend: UVA 42, Duke 34; UNC 30, VT 27

Line: VT by 3.5

As you might have guessed by the utter lack of football content lately, it's been hard to form any emotions or strong opinions about football these days.  Impressively, the players keep plugging.  There's nothing tangible at stake and hasn't been for a while, but they're getting after it.  That whole losing-to-Duke thing was getting really old, so it's nice at least to have that on the resume this year.

It's rivalry week though.  I don't care what anyone says, this is the right week to play this game.  Are the students gone?  Yeah, but most of them can make a day trip anyway.  I made it back from 750 miles away, so the Fairfax mafia can too.  Are people busy with friends and family?  Yeah, but surely a reasonably successful program can scrape up enough fans to fill a stadium.  All we need to do is find a reasonably successful program.

This is the right time for this game because no matter what happens in the season, you still have one last thing to look forward to.  Play this game in October and then what?  Hit the seven-loss mark and look forward to that epic end-of-season clash with Pittsburgh?  No offense to Pitt, but I'm gonna say nah.  Rivalry games are storyline games.

And this one has more than enough to go around.  Frank Beamer is definitely coaching his last ACC game and maybe (if things go just right) his last game ever.  Mike London is almost definitely coaching his last at UVA as well.  These two schools meet for a basketball game on January 4 and both may well have introduced new football coaches by then.  Change is in the air.  Both teams are trying to extend their coach's career - one by going bowling and one by hoping they can stave off a firing.

This latter doesn't seem likely, by the way, even with a win.  Just as the economics made it difficult to fire London last year, they make it even harder to keep him this year.  UVA will have to swallow about a $3.5 million pill, but refusing to do would be the very definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Only two coaches are owed any money after this season: London and Jon Tenuta.  No college football coach ever coaches the last year of his contract - the optics of doing so are prohibitive - so keeping London means extending him, and extending him means doing so for like four years.  Or, I suppose, he could coach the last year of his contract, and UVA can figure out how to convince a whole staff worth of assistant coaches to coach on a one-year contract.  There are those who'll say that the huge number of vacancies this year means that the competition for the right coach is bloody and fierce, and they're not wrong, but the size of the coaching carousel also means lots and lots and lots of assistant-coach vacancies.  Any assistant who chooses a one-year contract working for an obvious lame duck over a longer-term contract on a new staff is too stupid to be placed in charge of mentoring young adults.

For this weekend, that means I can stand on very solid ground in predicting that London's days as UVA's head coach are numbered in the single digits.  I'm not going to spend my time chasing rumors about his replacement - and depending on how various teams' postseasons go, that could take a while - but the spectrum of readings about London's impending release are advanced enough to be somewhere between rumor and confirmed fact.  The program and the rivalry will shortly enter a new era.  Given how both have proceeded recently, it's a welcome sight.

-- UVA run offense vs. VT run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 153 carries, 638 yards, 4.2 ypc, 4 TDs
Albert Reid: 57 carries, 257 yards, 4.5 ypc, 2 TDs

UVA offense:
134.09 yards/game, 3.84 yards/attempt
101st of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

VT defense:
172.55 yards/game, 4.36 yards/attempt
72nd of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

So last week, ACC ref Ron Cherry called an offside penalty on Tech DE Dadi Nicolas, and Nicolas did what anyone would do in that situation: hit Cherry in the arm.  And by "anyone" I really mean no one at all because hitting a referee is as big a taboo as there is in all of sports.  Nicolas wasn't just randomly flailing his arms and didn't realize who was behind him; he actually walked up behind Cherry and angrily whacked him in the outstretched arm (Cherry was signaling "on the defense").

Because Frank Beamer is either an idiot, or thinks we're all idiots, he claimed it was unintentional and suspended Nicolas for 30 minutes.  And because the ACC is full of gutless wonders, they let the suspension stand instead of immediately stepping in and telling Beamer "nuh-uh."  So VT will be missing one of their better run-stoppers for a half - but not the important half.  Great precedent.  Hit a referee, be suspended for basically no time at all.

UVA's running game has settled into an area a notch or two above what it was to start the season.  Back then it was minimally functional - now it's sort of just plain functional.  It strikes fear in the heart of nobody, but at least it moves the ball.  But fortunately, Tech's defense is a tiny shadow of its past self.  The VT D-line has held up well.  Nicolas was much more terrifying last year, but he and Ken Ekanem do a more than passable job of keeping the edges clean.  VT is undersized at tackle, but it doesn't matter too much; Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall, and Woody Baron make for a pretty good rotation in the middle.

The difference is at linebacker, where VT is accustomed to getting good if not great play, and they're not getting it this year.  Hokie fans complain incessantly about Andrew Motuapuaka's play in the middle.  Deon Clarke has done alright, but it's clear the linebacking isn't up to the usual standards.

Still, VT will have the advantage in the trenches and a fresh Nicolas to start the second half, so running the ball will be difficult.  VT can only be said to have truly shut down one team this year (the totally impotent Boston College offense) so there'll be yardage at the end of the day.  It's not likely to move the needle much, though.

-- UVA pass offense vs. VT pass defense

Matt Johns: 229/365, 62.7%; 2,639 yards, 19 TDs, 15 INTs; 7.23 ypa, 132.4 rating

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 68 rec., 671 yards, 4 TDs
Canaan Severin: 51 rec., 713 yards, 7 TDs
T.J. Thorpe: 20 rec., 295 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
244.4 yards/game, 7.2 yards/attempt
68th of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

VT defense:
174.0 yards/game, 7.1 yards/attempt
67th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

The yards-per-attempt numbers that I like so much don't tell the story here.  VT is missing Kendall Fuller, who's been out since September.  Without him, opponents have generally avoided Brandon Facyson (who has 10 PBUs and 26 tackles) and gone after Chuck Clark instead.  Clark's not the worst, but he leads the team in tackles, which is partly a function of run support and partly a function of getting thrown at.  A lot.

The real story, though, is still in the numbers.  Tech has only allowed three opponents to complete more than 50% of their passes.  Good for them.  When opponents do complete passes, they average over 14.7 yards per completion.  Bad for them.  To put that in perspective, UNC is the fourth-best passing offense in the country and the second-best non-wacky passing offense in the country (Army and Air Force run goofball offenses where passing is used as a trick play) and they average about 14.5 yards per completion.

In other words, welcome to the wild funland of inconsistent safety play, where VT trusts their free safeties so much they only ever start strong safeties.  (Or rovers, in VT terminology.)  Adonis Alexander is the team leader in picks and he lost his starting job a few weeks ago because he's a wide receiver adventure waiting to happen.

Because of UVA's use-the-pass-game-as-the-run-game approach to offense, that 14.7 is coming down, and Matt Johns probably will complete more than 50% of his passes.  Bypassing the defensive line in this way is probably smart.  Facyson will probably draw Canaan Severin, so with adventureland safety play and the potential for some big gains, T.J. Thorpe could be the game's X-factor.

-- VT run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Travon McMillian: 166 carries, 880 yards, 5.3 ypc, 5 TDs
Brenden Motley: 88 carries, 224 yards, 2.5 ypc, 3 TDs

VT offense:
159.09 yards/game, 3.71 yards/attempt
109th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
164.91 yards/game, 4.68 yards/attempt
96th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

The numbers are a little misleading here, too.  VT looks like one of the worst run offenses in the country at first glance.  When they're handing off to Travon McMillian, though, they get a lot more effective all of a sudden.  McMillian started the season at the end of the depth chart, but by the beginning of November he'd shunted aside both Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman and has become the official workhorse back.  With fullback Sam Rogers getting a steady diet of change-of-pace carries, Edmunds and Coleman have all but disappeared.

The stats are also skewed by Brenden Motley, a mobile-ish quarterback who doesn't actually run all that well.  Motley was standing in for Michael Brewer, who returned to the lineup four games ago from a broken collarbone and who never runs anywhere if he can help it.

Neither UVA's D-line nor VT's O-line has been anything like you'd call impressive this year; the thing that matters here is McMillian vs. the linebackers.  McMillian has been very good.  Micah Kiser's 107 tackles say he probably knows what he's doing too.  If the linebackers are on point, McMillian will be bottled up, but that's something most teams have had trouble doing consistently.

-- VT pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Michael Brewer: 88/150, 58.7%; 1,122 yards, 10 TDs, 5 INTs; 7.48 ypa, 136.8 rating

Top receivers:
Isaiah Ford: 57 rec., 816 yards, 9 TDs
Cam Phillips: 43 rec., 536 yards, 2 TDs
Bucky Hodges: 33 rec., 458 yards, 6 TD

VT offense:
214.1 yards/game, 7.2 yards/attempt
66th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
256.4 yards/games, 8.2 yards/attempt
110th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

Some teams spread the ball around, getting passes to a lot of different receivers.  Then there's Virginia Tech.  The backs are a small, barely significant part of the passing game.  Backup tight end Ryan Malleck gets a token catch or so each game.  Three guys have 72% of VT's completions.

Those would be receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips, and tight end Bucky Hodges.  To be sure, these are three legitimate players.  Particularly Ford, the ACC's receiving yards leader.  Hodges is a difficult mismatch; he's huge, standing 6'7", 241, and your prototypical tough cover as a tight end that nickel corners can barely tackle let alone reach balls thrown high in the air, and who linebackers have a tough time chasing down.

At quarterback, Brewer is....fine.  He doesn't light up the stadium, but he doesn't lose the game by himself, either.  He lets his three main receivers do most of the work and then finds the one that's most open.  If they're open, he can usually find them; if not, he can't throw them open.  He won't make any plays with his feet, either; Brewer is one of the least mobile quarterbacks around.  VT doesn't protect him real well, so Tenuta should be able to pressure him.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 4
Pass offense: 5
Run defense: 4
Pass defense: 4

Average: 4.25

-- Outlook

Stat sheets and past impressions, yes, all well and good; this one's still coming down to intangibles.  These teams are about evenly matched; the difference between them is basically one extra OOC challenge game.  Both have solid quarterbacks, large positional weaknesses that prevent them from contending for anything, and coaches on the way out.

So, cliche as it sounds, it comes down to things like turnovers, wanting it more, making a clutch play, all those things that announcers think every game is about.  VT carried Beamer off the field despite the loss last week; no doubt they'll be motivated to win the last one for him.  UVA, likewise.  VT is pretty good at coming up with wrinkles for the UVA game that surprise the Hoos; UVA, not so much likewise.

Still, UVA is at home, where it so happens they're 4-2, and 3-0 in ACC play.  Tech has a slight edge on paper and a big edge on the sidelines, but....if not now, when?  Mike London shrugged off one demon last week and beat David Cutcliffe.  Why not another one?  Let's go ahead and say the extra motivation is on the good guys' side for once.

Final score: UVA 24, VT 21

-- Rest of the ACC

Miami @ Pittsburgh - Fri. 12:00 - Nothing at stake here anymore except trying to look good for bowl suitors.

Georgia Tech vs. Georgia - 12:00 - 8-3 vs. 3-8 would seem like a pretty lopsided matchup, but GT did beat FSU at home.

Louisville @ Kentucky - 12:00 - UL tries to keep one SEC team out of bowl contention.

Clemson @ South Carolina - 12:00 - The third-best football team in the state of South Carolina stands between Clemson and an undefeated regular season.

Boston College @ Syracuse - 12:30 - Battle for Atlantic un-supremacy.

Duke @ Wake Forest - 12:30 - Wake me when it's over.

North Carolina @ NC State - 3:30 - UNC could set up an ACC CG between 8-0 teams.

Florida State @ Florida - 7:30 - FSU isn't going to the CFP, but they can throw a wrench in the works.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

do not panic

OK, so I think most people reading this probably take a pretty even-keeled approach to UVA sports.  Either because I've trained you to do so or because you decide to read this stuff because my mindset is similar to yours.  (Most assuredly it's the latter, but I like to pretend it's the former and that when I ring a bell, someone somewhere gets glassy-eyed and says "We Can't Have Nice Things," eliciting a dirty look from their spouse.)

So you already know not to panic just because UVA lost to George Washington, but I'm gonna take it a step further and say, don't even fret a little.  Feel free to be annoyed, of course, and to grumble that it puts a ding in the ol' tournament resume, but here's what you shouldn't do under any circumstances: listen to anyone who takes two games of evidence and declares "we don't have this" or " X can't do that" or "Y needs to Z or else" or just about anything that draws a conclusion about how this team will look in March based on two games in November.  One of which was against a horrendous team missing two of its better players.

For one thing, even if there's nobody on the team with a shooter's rep, the vast majority of basketball games will not start off at a 2-for-14 clip from three point range.  Making three of those 12 misses would be highly mediocre and have made the game very different.  Second, the number of times GW got a bucket from a ball bouncing on the rim - sometimes multiple bounces - was obscene.  I can't count the number of flailing prayer-drives the GW players tried that resulted, somehow, in a bucket, and sometimes in a foul too.

Yeah, there's a few things to fix.  Tony won't be so phlegmatic about the result, and he'll have some ideas for his team in practice.  The positioning was a little sloppy, probably a little too far from the rim.  The offense took maybe a couple too many contested early jump shots.  (I'd guess the acceptable number of those is zero.)  It's possible, even likely, the 30-second shot clock is in the players' heads a little.

Tony's kind of a good coach, though, so everyone obviously should believe he can fix things.  And it's that last point that leads me to the main deal here.  Just about every year, I point out that a basketball team is a chemistry experiment, one which has to be rebalanced and retried every season.  You can't ever say exactly what you'll get from your players, not even your seniors and juniors.  Mike Tobey has been a work in progress his whole UVA career, because that's the nature of a skilled big man.  Anthony Gill has to learn to play defense without having a spring-loaded 6'9" spiderman next to him on the block.  Perrantes and Brogdon have to relearn how the offense is going to work without a lion-maned maniac on the floor.  Lots of other guys have to learn what their new, expanded role is.  And this year there's rule changes up the gazoo, and the team has to learn what they can and can't do and how to deal with a faster-paced clock.

This is a veteran team, of course - one with a very high basketball IQ and coached by a damn genius.  A lot of instinct has to be relearned, but that relearning process is partly automatic.  They'll get it without trying to get it.  They're about to embark on a full weekend of basketball - they'll be playing Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.  That's how you get into the comfort zone again.  They did look a little uncomfortable and out of sorts, and I'm sure the incredibly brah-riffic crowd at GW likes to think they had something to do with that, but these players have been to ACC road games before, so, nah.  I think it's much more to do with the new rules environment, and the fact that the chemistry experiment is still percolating.


-- I wish I could get mad at the refereeing, but the simple truth is it's impossible to know right now whether they were following the directives from the NCAA to the letter or whether they were just being ticky-tack.  There weren't a lot of replays of the fouls they called.  I do know that Jim Calhoun expressed his pleasure that they were "letting the teams play" and that was the clear winner for dumb announcer statement of the night.

-- I liked the look of Jack Salt.  If he continues to play that way he should be a regular.  He had a blocked shot and it made an audible slap-thud even in the noisy court.  By the way, students, if one of you doesn't bring a huge cardboard cutout of a salt shaker this year to a game, you're wasting your whole educational experience.

-- I think Malcolm Brogdon started to take seriously the idea of being the takeover guy.  He forced a few drives, and it was honest-to-God working.  But then he sort of stopped.  I still want to see a little more selfishness at the end of tight games, especially when the refs are calling fouls for breathing.

-- Mike Tobey would've been more successful on the block if he didn't start his moves with the idea of a fadeaway hook already in his head.  But I love that he dropped in a three-pointer.  Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

-- The hair this year is something else.  Gill has Jheri curls now.  Darius Thompson has a skunk stripe.  Mike Tobey is trying to look like a trucker instead of a huge 15-year-old, but all he's managed to do is look like a huge 15-year-old trucker.

Friday, November 13, 2015

basketball season preview, part 4: nonconference

No football preview this week.  OK, maybe a little one: Gonna lose.  Instead, on the eve of Basketball Season, which is a long, long time coming, it's time for the yearly look at UVA's OOC slate - which this year is undoubtedly the toughest in a long time.

Morgan State
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

'14-'15 record: 7-24 (5-11)
'14-'15 postseason: none
'14-'15 KenPom: .1097 (337th)

Conference projections (out of 13):

Media poll: 7th
KenPom: 8th
SI: 7th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 93.1 / 105.3 / .1964 / 311th
SI (Hanner): 95.2 / 108.9 / .2013 / 321st

Chances of winning: 100%

As if Morgan State weren't a bad enough basketball team, they'll be without two of their top players (Cedric Blossom and Rasean Simpson) on Friday, lost to an academic penalty for the first few games of the season.  Blossom was Morgan State's only legit offensive threat, other than maybe shooting specialist Andrew Hampton.

No other returning player for the Bears had an O-rating higher than 91.2 last year, and that's really stretching the limits.  Starting point guard Donte Pretlow is a special kind of lousy, with an astonishing O-rating of 70.9 thanks to his comically poor shooting.  Nobody on this team can shoot free throws let alone contested shots, and they leaned so hard on Blossom last year that nobody else is used to the leadership role on offense.  This is a foregone conclusion.

George Washington
Atlantic-10 Conference

'14-'15 record: 22-13 (10-8)
'14-'15 postseason: NIT second round (5 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .7072 (74th)

Conference projections (out of 14):

Media poll: 4th
KenPom: 4th
SI: 6th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 104.2 / 94.6 / .7512 / 57th
SI (Hanner): 108.2 / 98.1 / .7319 / 70th

Chances of winning: High

A much more interesting test awaits, as UVA goes on the road for the second half of a home-and-home.  In last year's edition, GW led at halftime before the Hoos clamped down and allowed just 16 points in the second half.

GW lost the top scorer from that game; Kethan Savage has transferred to Butler.  But they had only one senior last year and return a lot of dangerous three-point shooters - point guards Joe McDonald and Paul Jorgensen; stretchy mismatch forward Yuta Watanabe; instant heat Nick Griffin, whose job it is to come off the bench and hit threes.  Small forward Patricio Garino isn't a great three-point shooter, but is very, very efficient inside the arc.

The Colonial's weakness is inside, where only Kevin Larsen is a dangerous player.  Other than him, this is a small team, as the 6'8" Watanabe is too skinny at 197 pounds to bang around inside, and freshman Collin Goss is just as much a beanpole.  UVA will have to contend with an array of scorers, but should be able to use a large frontcourt advantage to good effect.

Missouri Valley Conference

'14-'15 record: 9-24 (3-15)
'14-'15 postseason: none
'14-'15 KenPom: .2787 (270th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 10th
SI: 10th
KenPom: 10th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 92.7 / 99.7 / .3026 / 275th
SI (Hanner): 92.6 / 101.6 / .2787 / 292nd

Chances of winning: Near-lock

Bradley fired coach Geno Ward after last season, and the result was the usual amount of turnover times ten.  The Braves had one senior and a whole bunch of juniors last year, and now they have four players on the roster who aren't freshmen - one of whom is a transfer and has to sit.

That leaves them with their backup shooting guard, two end-of-the-rotation forwards, and ten freshmen who've never set foot on a college court before.  Yikes.  This was a horrendous offensive team last year (and the holdovers were among the worst) and while a new coach and basically new team could change that..... there really isn't much hope of that kind of makeup being able to defeat a veteran Tony Bennett-coached team.

This game is UVA's opener in the Charleston Classic; after a very likely ruthless dispatching of Bradley, UVA would play the winner of Seton Hall and Long Beach State.  Probably Seton Hall, as Long Beach has a lot of minutes to replace from last year and Seton Hall has some dangerous players, like former UVA recruit Sterling Gibbs as well as quality forwards in Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez.  The favorite to come out of the other end of the bracket and hopefully be UVA's opponent in the championship game is Oklahoma State.  UVA is the marquee team in the tournament, though, and the heavy favorite to win it.

Patriot League

'14-'15 record: 16-14 (10-8)
'14-'15 postseason: none
'14-'15 KenPom: .4201 (196th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 1st
KenPom: 1st
SI: 2nd

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 101.8 / 99.0 / .5801 / 119th
SI (Hanner): 100.6 / 100.0 / .5153 / 166th

Chances of winning: Really, really high

If you're gonna play low-major teams, and you pretty much will have a few on your schedule, this is the way to go - pick one that's the favorite in their conference so they go out and boost your RPI once you've finished beating them.  Like Lehigh.  They've got the build of a giant-killer, with some solid shooters like the teensy Kahron Ross, who had an impressive debut season last year.  But the offense goes first and foremost through center Tim Kempton, the reigning Patriot League POY.  It's hard for low-major teams to find good, skilled centers.  Still, he gives up 35 pounds to Mike Tobey.

Ohio State
Big Ten Conference

'14-'15 record: 24-11 (10-7)
'14-'15 postseason: NCAA 2nd round (10 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .8640 (21st)

Conference projections (out of 14):

Media poll: 8th*
KenPom: 8th
SI: 6th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 106.4 / 93.9 / .8077 / 42nd
SI (Hanner): 112.6 / 95.4 / .8454 / 28th

Chances of winning: Decent

*The Big Ten likes to make sure nobody gets their participation ribbons all in a bunch by getting voted last, and refuses to release anything past a top 3.  In past years the Columbus Dispatch has orchestrated an unofficial poll, which I couldn't find this year and so threw up my hands in failure and just used the Dispatch's own predicted order of finish.

UVA's assigned opponent in the ACC-B1G Challenge is a bit of an unknown quantity.  OSU lost four starters to graduation and the draft, but hopes to soften the blow with a top recruiting class.  That class is led by Jaquan Lyle, trying to fill the scoring shoes of one-and-done guard D'Angelo Russell.  Top holdovers include Jae'Sean Tate, who shot .631 inside the arc last year, and Marc Loving, who shot .461 outside it.  Of the main contributors, however, only Loving will be an upperclassman.  This is a talented but inexperienced team.  Probably one that's more athletic than UVA, and the game is on the road in what's likely to be a full building.  We'll be hoping age and guile beats youth and foolishness.

William & Mary
Colonial Athletic Association

'14-'15 record: 20-13 (12-6)
'14-'15 postseason: NIT 1st round (7 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .5688 (130th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 4th
KenPom: 4th
SI: 5th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 104.3 / 101.4 / .5794 / 121st
SI (Hanner): 108.7 / 108.0 / .5165 / 167th

Chances of winning: Very good, but watch out

Gotta have an instate team somewhere on the OOC schedule, and William & Mary draws the honor this year.  This was an interesting team in the KenPom stats last year, with the 27th-best offense in the country and a defense outside the top 300.  They lose point guard Marcus Thornton, 8th in the country in minutes percentage last year, but return a lot of players who stood out on the stat sheet.

Thornton took a whopping 242 three-point shots last year, amounting to more than seven per game, but the Tribe return their actual best shooter in Daniel Dixon.  Forwards Omar Prewitt and Terry Tarpey can find the bucket with relative ease as well, and Tarpey is also a standout defender and free-throw shooter.  Sean Sheldon is also very, very tough to defend, shooting .641 for the 19th-best two-point percentage in the country.

These guys will definitely be upset-minded, and it's definitely one of the more dangerous games on the schedule....but fortunately, of course, at home.

West Virginia
Big 12 Conference

'14-'15 record: 25-10 (11-7)
'14-'15 postseason: NCAA Sweet 16 (5 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .8346 (26th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 6th
KenPom: 5th
SI: 5th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 107.5 / 93.1 / .8399 / 28th
SI (Hanner): 110.8 / 94.4 / .8378 / 32nd

Chances of winning: Respectable

Sandwiched around finals break is probably the toughest three-game stretch any major team will play outside its own conference.  West Virginia was a tournament team last year and looks headed right back there this year.  They have to replace Juwan Staten - tough to do, but WVU ran pretty deep last year and didn't rely too heavily on anyone, so they're equipped to do so.

The Mountaineers play a decidedly different brand of hoops that should make for a fun contrast with UVA.  They're one of the more up-tempo teams in the country - but not necessarily on offense.  They like to get a lot of steals.  Point guard Jevon Carter is very, very dangerous in this regard.  West Virginia also likes to hack, hack, hack.  This might actually get worse than last year because Staten and fellow departed senior Gary Browne were two of the more restrained player.  There is a stat called FTA/FGA, which simply tracks free throws divided by field goal attempts; WVU's defense was dead last in the country at 55.5% percent.  In other word, opponents took well over one free throw for every two field goals they tried.

But they were also #1 in steals percentage, which is attributable only partly to Carter.  It's a team effort.  They gamble, and it can cost them in giving up easy buckets, but their opponents also turned the ball over 28% of the time last year.   UVA's methodical offense will be tested.

Big East Conference

'14-'15 record: 33-3 (16-2)
'14-'15 postseason: NCAA 2nd round (1 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .9504 (6th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 1st
KenPom: 1st
SI: 1st

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 112.3 / 90.5 / .9233 / 5th
SI (Hanner): 116.9 / 94.6 / .8975 / 8th

Chances of winning: 50/50 at best

The Big East is anything but a chump league, and Villanova ran away with it last year.  The Wildcats - before flaming out in the second round - entered the NCAA tournament as Big East champs with a 32-2 record.

The bad news for them is that their frontcourt will feel the loss of JayVaughn Pinkston, as it leaves them with really only two big men in Daniel Ochefu and Kris Jenkins.  These are some pretty darn good players, though.  But it's Nova's incredibly deep backcourt is what gives everyone the idea they might be pretty good.

Even losing Dylan Ennis to transfer, Nova probably won't miss a beat.  Ryan Arcidiacono is back, as are Josh Hart and promising sophomore Phil Booth, both of whom were top-notch shooters last year.  Nova also adds five-star recruit Jalen Brunson to the backcourt.  This is a team with few, if any, question marks, and as difficult a test as you could ask for coming out of the final exam break.

Pacific-12 Conference

'14-'15 record: 18-15 (7-11)
'14-'15 postseason: none
'14-'15 KenPom: .6047 (113th)

Conference projections (out of 12):

Media poll: 2nd
KenPom: 6th
SI: 2nd

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 106.1 / 94.8 / .7846 / 47th
SI (Hanner): 113.7 / 94.3 / .8719 / 13th

Chances of winning: Pretty decent

Cal is a trendy pick as a breakout team this year.  It's not so much their performance last year and all the great players they return, although Jordan Mathews is a heck of a shooter and this was a tremendous defensive rebounding team last year.  It's more about their recruiting class, with two five-stars in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, both of whom should jump immediately into the starting lineup.

Thus the wild difference between KenPom and the other projections, because KenPom doesn't try to project the effect of incoming freshmen too heavily.  And the media might get a little overexcited about them.  Pundits are looking at Cal to be a tournament team in 2016, but they definitely have to show it - and the UVA game is their big chance to.

Horizon League

'14-'15 record: 16-17 (11-5)
'14-'15 postseason: CIT 1st round
'14-'15 KenPom: .4848 (164th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 2nd
KenPom: 4th
SI: 2nd

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 104.3 / 104.2 / .5032 / 160th
SI (Hanner): 111.3 / 108.4 / .5672 / 139th

Chances of winning: Very high

Oakland is confidently predicted to be one of the Horizon's better teams this year, but that seems like going out on a limb a bit.  Few teams relied so heavily on so few players last year.  Oakland had three different players getting more than 85% of available minutes, two of which are gone.  They do return point guard Kahlil Felder, which is good because they literally don't let anyone else run the point.  Felder was the nation's minutes leader, playing 95.7% of available minutes.  During 12 of Oakland's games he literally never got to sit the bench, and that includes one OT game and one double OT game.  It doesn't include three other OT games where he played over 40 minutes.

He's also a hell of an assist man with an ARate of 39.6%, so there's a good reason Greg Kampe doesn't turn the keys over to anyone else.  Felder has a few good players to find with the ball, including SG/SF Max Hooper and promising rising sophomores Jalen Hayes and Nick Daniels.  Oakland's offense is respectable.  Their defense, however, stinks in all regards, and UVA shouldn't have much trouble scoring in their final reprieve between the three games of doom and the ACC schedule.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

basketball season preview, part 3

Time to round out the players portion of the season preview.  Tomorrow, we move into the very interesting nonconference schedule, and then finally, next week, the ACC itself.  48 hours, man.  48 hours.

#32 - London Perrantes - Jr. PG

Now entering his third year as the unquestioned starter at point guard, Perrantes's sophomore year efficiency stats are a bit interesting.  Compare:


3pt%: .316
2pt%: .394
FT%: .778
ARate: 26.5
TORate: 20.3

Olivier Hanlan:

3pt%: .353
2pt%: .513
FT%: .759
ARate: 29.1
TORate: 15.0

Hanlan was Boston College's do-it-all star, the league's top point guard last year and a draft pick of the Utah Jazz after his junior year.  There's no doubt who was the better player.  But Perrantes finished with an O-rating of 105.0; Hanlan, 107.4.  Very little difference.

It goes to show two things: one, I don't know anything about what goes into a player's O-rating, though I'm rashly assuming that crazy things like shooting and assists and turnovers are involved.  And two, whatever is in the secret sauce, it rates Perrantes's contributions to the offense pretty highly.

Perrantes has a quality to his play that you can spot even if you don't know you're spotting it.  That's what helped drive a narrative last year that was barely borne out on the stat sheet - that Perrantes asserted himself more, shot more, and picked up the scoring pace to help UVA's offense cope with the loss of Justin Anderson.  He didn't do much of that, actually, not so's you'd notice if all you did was peruse stat sheets.  But it looked like he did, and perception is reality.

So far, the Cali-cool image he projects has been a perfect fit with Tony's methodical approach to offense.  There's an ever-so-slight backwards lean that he sometimes projects in pictures of him making the opening pass of the play setup.  Tony hasn't minded him setting an offensive pace that uses all 35 seconds of the shot clock.  But he will now, because that 31st second is a doozy.  With a tad bit more urgency required on the offensive end, Perrantes will have to adjust.  Move a little quicker.  Maybe save some time on the front end by not always walking the ball up the court like a stroll through the gardens.  The adaptability of Perrantes's game will be challenged this year, and because of the way he can project on the flow of the offense, how he responds will set the tone.

Oh, and it'd be cool if he could improve his shooting a little this year, too.  /every critique of every point guard ever.

#33 - Jack Salt - rFr. C

UVa's New Zealand import will get to take the court this year after a redshirt year spent bulking up and getting used to the pace of American basketball.  Salt added 15 pounds, which is bad news for opponents because every report we've ever seen says he likes cracking skulls.

Also, literally every story I've read about him this year - and there are a lot because a yet-to-be-unwrapped 6'11 Kiwi is a curiosity worth finding out about - mentions that he sets brutal screens.  It seems random.  I don't know what to make of this.  It could be bad news in disguise - if he were playing Bad Boys defense with eight nasty streaks or was a sudden scoring revelation, they'd write about that instead.  But it could be secretly really good news - because part of the reason Will Sherrill became a regular player was his diligence in setting screens.

The safest bet is that Mike Tobey is still a very skilled player, much more experienced, and going to take up 95% of the minutes that call for a true center.  It might seem that Salt and Jarred Reuter are competing for the last of the big-man minutes, but I doubt that because Reuter could easily be on the court at the same time as Tobey; Salt never will.  I think whatever meaningful minutes Salt gets will be in cases where Tobey's in foul trouble and the opponent has trotted out a true center of their own.

I also think that even though he won't be seen much, there's major cult-hero potential here.  If he's as powerfully physical as all the reports say, somebody is either going to get whacked on a perfectly legal screen, or have a shot ruthlessly rejected after Salt roots himself into place in the post, and people will notice.  What I'm hoping for is a future where Salt and Reuter are both patrolling the middle like a couple of roughneck bastards and everyone just hates them.  For this year, it'd be cool if we got a few glimpses of that.

#51 - Darius Thompson - rSo. SG

Here's redshirt number two from last year, another Christmas present to open on November 13.  With Malcolm Brogdon in charge, the chances that Thompson breaks into the starting lineup are zilch.  But like Anthony Gill before him, Thompson is a potential really big deal.

Possibly the most athletic player on the team, Thompson brings a slashing, driving threat that's been a little lacking in Tony's tenure.  Truth is, in his year at Tennessee he was a lousy shooter.  Two or three, it didn't matter, he couldn't hit it if it was a jump shot.  But he also took 71% of his shots at the rim....where he also was a lousy shooter at just .369.  And all that was two years ago.  If those numbers improve, and you ought to believe they will to at least some extent, Thompson has the chance to be a tremendous bench scorer and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

Thompson will probably be asked to play the point some, where he'd give opponents a completely different look from Perrantes.  Perrantes is smallish, conservative on defense, and more likely to shoot a jumper than drive.  Thompson will try to use his excellent length and athleticism to jump passing lanes, and look to drive on offense.  Justin Anderson was a tremendously important player because his athleticism scared opponents and forced them to give the rest of the team room to operate.  Thompson can look to partly fill those shoes this year.

#1 - Austin Nichols - Jr. PF
#2 - Justice Bartley - Fr. SG
#24 - Caid Kirven - Sr. PF
#25 - Mamadi Diakite - Fr. SF
#34 - Jeff Jones - Jr. SF

Here's the end of the bench - the walk-ons and redshirts.  UVA will have the most talented non-playing players in the country.  Kirven and Jones are familiar sights at the end of blowouts and do an admirable job of keeping comical scores comical.  Bartley brings a fair amount of talent; he turned down a scholarship at UNLV (that due to his late appearance on the recruiting scene would've had to wait til his sophomore year) in order to study business at UVA.

And of course, the redshirts.  Nichols is coming off a season where he was one of the top ten shot blockers in the country (efficiency stats) and a starter at Memphis - possibly the top prize of the transfer circuit this summer.  Diakite was planning on playing a prep year, but UVA convinced him to essentially prep under Tony Bennett instead.  By some accounts he's the second-best athlete on the team and UVA is redshirting him just because they can.  They'll stay in the shadows for a year and then help cushion the blow of losing four rotation seniors after this season.

Monday, November 9, 2015

basketball season preview, part 2

Moving on with the second third of the UVA roster, including its two biggest stars.

#13 - Anthony Gill - Sr. PF

Nothing in life is guaranteed, so you're allowed to be nervous about whether this coming season can be as brilliant as the last two.  But you're not allowed to be worried about whether a healthy UVA squad will still be a winning team.  Anthony Gill is half the reason.

Gill is a brute force of nature in the post, and unguardable by the average ACC big man.  It takes a hell of an athlete to keep him in check, because he's one of the most powerfully strong basketball players in the country.  It's fortunate that he's a respectable free-throw shooter, because he draws a ton of fouls.  He averaged almost five free throws a game last year, and that's even with opponents finally realizing that hacking him isn't much of a strategy.  Gill is also a tremendous force on the offensive boards, which, combined with Mike Tobey doing the same, is an incredibly potent weapon - it lets Tony Bennett have his cake and eat it too, with stifling transition defense and second-chance points.

Simply put, Gill is the focal point of the frontcourt and one of the ACC's top players.  He's not a flashy defender like his predecessors Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins, but regardless he's going to draw the top assignments on both ends of the floor.  He'll have to fight double-teams on offense and take on everyone's best in the post on defense.  Even though he moved into the starting lineup last year, this is still an extra step of responsibility for him.  Worry all you like about that, but your dose of Xanax for that is that the rest of the ACC has to figure out what the hell to do with him.

#15 - Malcolm Brogdon - Sr. SG

Heart and soul of this team, sure - but every team has a heart and soul, or at least, most of the good ones.  (We could all name a few soulless teams.)  Malcolm Brogdon's a bit more than that.  With apologies to Joe Harris, whose journey from Chelan to ACC champion embodied Virginia's rise to the scene, Brogdon is the quintessential Tony Bennett recruit and player.  He doesn't just fit the mold, he is the mold.  Much of this was encapsulated in a Sports Illustrated article that went way, way in depth into what makes Brogdon tick.  His family collects advanced degrees like Halloween candy, and Brogdon himself is unselfish and almost fanatically dedicated to improvement - both on the court and off it.  Never has Tony Bennett betrayed more truth about his move from Wazzu to UVA than when he simply says, "I came to Virginia to be able to recruit players like Malcolm."

Brogdon has enough skills as a ballhandler, enough quicks, enough hops, but unlike most star guards in the sport, none of these are elite qualities.  Where he stands out is - like Gill - his strength.  Brogdon is big for a college guard and probably the most physically strong backcourt player in the nation.  This means he, too, draws a lot of fouls, and his near-elite free-throw shooting makes opponents pay for it.  He's more of an average three-point shooter than his free-throw shooting would suggest, but he's good enough you have to respect it, and he fearlessly shoots two-point jumpers as well - which is nominally a very inefficient shot that Brogdon turns into one of his best.  And on the other end, his on-ball defense is simply terrific - partly because of his strength and partly because he's taken all of Tony's coaching to heart.

Now that he's a senior, what he can do best to help his team is to demand the ball in crunch time and go full-speed angry bull at the rim.  Brogdon lacks much deception in his ballhandling, but he's better than he thinks he is at slashing and driving.  Because, quite simply, he can shoot through whatever you swing at him, and draw and-1s with ease.  Maddeningly, he didn't fully realize this even up through the last game of the year; if he had, the MSU game would've ended up a lot different.  When he figures out that it would take Bill Laimbeer to stop him from scoring in the lane, he'll routinely swing close games his way.

#21 - Isaiah Wilkins - So. PF

Marial Shayok is the player whose second-year improvement I'm most excited to see, but Isaiah Wilkins's improvement is the most critical to the success of the team.  Indisputable, that.  UVA has a tremendously experienced frontcourt just with Gill and Tobey alone, but it won't be a deep frontcourt without Wilkins.

In last year's season opener, Wilkins was all the rage - eight points, five boards, three assists, two blocks, and two steals.  Unfortunately, there was no repeat performance, though in large part because of the emergence of Darion Atkins.  Offensively, Wilkins struggled the rest of the way, and he was clearly a step slower than the veterans in the complicated defense.

Best-case, Wilkins can be the player he was against JMU.  He's got potential to be a terrific shot-blocker, and he's put on a few pounds which should help his defense as well as keep him from getting shoved out of the lane on offense.  He can shoot the occasional three - in fact he was two-for-three last year - so in an ideal world he's a matchup nightmare, able to stretch the floor and be comfortable on the outside and yet do all the dirty work required of a big man.  We've seen him do all of that, but only in flashes.

How consistently he's able to play like a true power forward will help to dictate usage elsewhere.  It's a problem if Wilkins isn't putting it together, because it means playing Mike Tobey in less-than-ideal matchups.  It's too much to expect for him (yet) to be the high-flying defender that Mitchell and Atkins were, because he's only a sophomore.  But take that JMU performance and turn it into 12-15 minutes a night of that, and UVA's frontcourt instantly becomes one of the most formidable in the conference.

#31 - Jarred Reuter - Fr. PF

Not much is expected of Reuter this year.  He'll be at the back of the bigs rotation.  It's not likely he'll redshirt - Tony is limited to eleven scholarship players because of the commitment to redshirt Mamadi Diakite and the requirement to redshirt Austin Nichols.  Reuter should get some minutes mainly to spell the starters, probably those ones in the first half about two-thirds of the way through where we usually see the back-of-the-rotation players.  Some games he might not play at all.

He won't be counted on to generate offense.  Reuter's game is to bang and crash down low.  Just rebound, occasionally put a hammer on someone trying to score, and set good screens.  As time goes on we'll see how his game develops, but for now, this team doesn't yet need him to play a featured role.  Some contributions here and there on defense and a few bruised opponents is all he'll need to make his mark.