Saturday, February 27, 2016

game preview: North Carolina

Date/Time: Saturday, February 27; 6:30


Record against the Heels: 52-129

Last meeting: UNC 71, UVA 67; 3/13/15; Greensboro, NC (ACC tournament)

Last game: Miami 64, UVA 61 (2/22); UNC 80, NCSt. 68 (2/24)


UVA: 61.5 (#351)
UNC: 72.3 (#47)

UVA: 117.7 (#11)
UNC: 119.8 (#5)

UVA: 92.7 (#9)
UNC: 95.7 (#32)

UVA: .9397 (#3)
UNC: .9298 (#6)

Projected lineups:


PG: London Perrantes (11.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.4 apg)
SG: Devon Hall (4.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.9 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (18.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.8 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (13.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 0.6 apg)
C: Mike Tobey (7.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 0.4 apg)

North Carolina:

PG: Joel Berry (11.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.9 apg)
SG: Marcus Paige (12.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.5 apg)
SF: Justin Jackson (12.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.3 apg)
PF: Brice Johnson (17.0 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 1.3 apg)
C: Kennedy Meeks (10.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.2 apg)

I brought it to my own attention that I haven't done a single preview of an ACC game all year.  So why not start with the biggest regular season game we've got?

There's a lot at stake here, in terms of ACC seeding.  A top four slot, of course, is the goal, in the hopes that a few of the teams 5-9 or so get taken out early.  The conference is so damn wrapped up on itself, though, that it's going to be all but impossible to avoid tiebreaker entanglements.  There's a fair chance that teams 3-6 are in a four-way tie at 11-5 after this weekend - in fact, that happenstance mainly hinges on UVA beating Carolina.  And if that happens, then 1-2 will also be tied at 12-4.  UVA has collected wins over every team in the top six except Duke and UNC; one of those can still be rectified.  If they get it, they'll be close to bulletproof in any tiebreaker scenario you can concoct.

If not, they'll have to scratch and claw and hope for a few things to shake out correctly.  Even at 12-6, the chances of the coveted double bye would be slim.  With GameDay in town and Bronco Mendenhall hosting a very big junior day, it'll be a big-time atmosphere in Charlottesville; that'll help, and a potentially shorthanded UVA team will need every bit of help it can get.

-- UVA on offense

Lately I've been trying to decide the answer to a chicken-egg question: Is Malcolm Brogdon dominating games because his teammates are suddenly not much help, or are they not much help because they're getting out of the way of a completely en fuego Brogdon?  One clue might be those elbow step-back jumpers he was beating Miami over the head with.  Darius Thompson had the opportunity to try the same thing on more than one occasion and passed on it.  Then Brogdon would go out and do it again.  It was almost as if he was trying to convince Thompson it was possible.

Anthony Gill's one-handers haven't been falling lately, which isn't helping.  I've always thought those are really tough shots - you have to be a smashmouth post presence and then immediately switch to a soft touch.  I'm hoping to see Kennedy Meeks guarding him Saturday, because Meeks isn't quick enough to regularly stop Gill.  I don't think Roy Williams has checked out that much, though.  The much more likely scenario is to see Brice Johnson on Gill and Meeks on Tobey; Meeks's bulk will give Tobey trouble, and Johnson has two inches on Gill.  Both would be forced further from the basket than they'd like to be.  They can hit the jumper (I'm not sure Tobey takes jumpers, though - he's more or less decided to resurrect the set shot) but obviously that's too low-percentage to rely on.

I'm also sure we'll see Justin Jackson on Brogdon, which is interesting.  Jackson has three inches on Brogdon, and step-back mid-range jumpers would be hard to pull off.  Brogdon's much beefier and stronger, though.  I'm always wishing Brogdon would go harder at his defenders and just knock them around a bit - probably no more so than in this game.

Thing is, though, UNC should be better on defense than it is.  They're not bad, but they're not really as good as they should be given their frontcourth depth and overall athleticism.  Johnson is a helluva rebounder on defense, but nobody else really is.  Jackson in particular is pretty much indifferent to the glass.  The Hoos should have plenty of second chances on offense, especially if they shoot enough threes.  Shooting threes is always a good way to increase your offensive rebounds anyway, but UNC's guards basically only take whatever comes to them.

Essentially, though, this will have to be more than the Malcolm Brogdon Show.  I'm very happy to see him take over like this, because I've been asking for it.  But UVA won't win too many games, and zero against Carolina, if he's the only one scoring in double digits.

-- UVA on defense

This Carolina team is no different than any Carolina team under Roy Williams.  Simple formula: Recruit a bunch of horses and let them run.  There isn't a lot of definition to a player's role.  Wing Justin Jackson handles the ball so much that KenPom's normally reliable algorithm pegs him as the point guard.

The offense is predicated on driving at the rim.  The Heels want to try and finish there, which they do well, or pull up for a jumper.  When they shoot threes, which isn't often because they don't have a sharpshooter, it's almost always a drive and kick.  Practically every single one of their made threes is assisted.  But they're one of the most skewed teams in the country toward two-pointers - only ODU and Navy are more so.  They're simply more athletic than just about everyone they play, so they use it.

This is where Isaiah Wilkins and Evan Nolte would come in handy.  Wilkins provides the athleticism needed to keep up on the interior.  Nolte is a plodder, but he makes up for it with almost picture-perfect positioning and excellent rotating.

Still, the pack-line is designed to stop precisely this kind of matchup.  ESPN put out a laughable preview of the game online, with keys to the game like "play good defense."  One of them was on the money, though: UNC needs to hit the threes they get from kicking the ball back out.  If the pack-line is on point, there'll be a lot of opportunities like that.  Guys like Joel Berry and Marcus Paige are OK, but far from automatic.

An all-in rebounding effort is crucial, too.  Yes, that's barely a step above "score more points," but Carolina has their bigs crash the offensive boards hard and depends on the athleticism of their backcourt (which doesn't crash) to stop transition chances.  When one of the guards drives the lane, the bigs follow and try to clean up putbacks.

This is the kind of matchup that makes college ball so much fun.  Given a nice oval track, the UNC race cars would love to do laps at 200 mph all day.  UVA prefers offroading it.  It's the race track vs. the mud pit.  Everything is based on whether the Hoos can bog down the Carolina offense, or if UNC can just run past the sand traps.

-- Outlook

The Hoos will need more than to make a mess of the UNC offense, though; they'll have to score some of their own, too.  Hard to do against the size and quickness advantages UNC will have, but the Heels are held back by a bit of an indifference on defense and a massive indifference to rebounding.  Boston College is in the bottom ten offenses in the whole country and still scored just shy of a point per possession.

It helps a bit too that Roy Williams is kinda checking out, as the Duke game so amply demonstrated.  His in-game coaching skills have always been, eh, a bit north of mediocre at best, but his give-a-shit levels are in rapid decline.  A close game gives a major advantage to Tony and Sons.

And close is what it's almost dead certain to be.  Against the ACC's six-team top tier, Carolina is 1-3.  That makes this a huge game for them as much as UVA - they'll still be tied for the ACC lead if they lose, but they would have zero margin for error because the tiebreakers would be hell on them.  And they're 5-4 on the road, having been incapable of putting close road games away against good teams - Northern Iowa and Texas both came up big too.

The tangibles, then, are close, with strengths and weaknesses for both teams, and a few more of the latter for the Hoos if they have to play without Wilkins or Nolte.  The intangibles all swing to the right side.  In the Dean Dome, even though that's not one of the ACC's tougher buildings, I'd have a very hard time giving UVA the edge.  At home, with a crowd that started the day fired up and will have all day to get nice and lubricated.... well, a loss isn't inconceivable, but too many of the intangible percentages are on our side to predict one.

Final score: UVA 68, UNC 64

Thursday, February 18, 2016

up and down and back up

For a long time it's been my biggest bone of complaint about basketball, that there's no such thing as traveling if you're driving at the rim.  Want to take three, four steps, and stick the ball on your hip or cradle it in your elbow?  These may have been literally the precise behaviors that James Naismith intended to leave out of his new indoor game, but in the name of Excitement it makes no difference.  Take what you need.  Any defender attempting to stop you from doing the single most illegal thing in all of basketball will be called for a foul, so run all you like.

(If you're diving for a loose ball, however, make sure to keep your feet up in the air, opponents' jawbones be damned, lest the prize for winning the loose ball scramble be a traveling violation.)

In this context it's not at all surprising the refs, inside Cameron Indoor Home Cookin' Stadium, allowed Grayson Allen to take three or four steps, hop up and down, throw a shoulder into his defender for good measure, and only then heave up a shot that somehow found the bottom.  Forget the idea that refs swallow their whistles on the final play of a game - this is something they let go all the time.

There's no defense against this.  Conceding the shot isn't an option for a competitor, obviously.  Stand your ground and try to defend it, and they'll whistle the foul, because when bodies collide the defender is considered to be at fault 90% of the time.  It's the whole reason Duke mastered the flop in the first place - doing your most spectacular Jenga tower impression is the only way to gain any sympathy from the refs.  I really wish Marial Shayok had flailed his way to the floor on that play - the reaction from the Cameron crowd to an offensive foul call would've been the single most precious thing in basketball history.

Therefore don't be so surprised when every pundit who throws in a comment about the play qualifies it with "might" and "maybe."  It was traveling, just as most drives to the rim are traveling; what they mean is it "might" have actually been egregious enough to call.  Sort of like how whether or not you get pulled over for driving 79 in a 70 depends on what kind of mood the cop was in when he left the house this morning.  Such is the state of basketball, when even the rare and always-called form of traveling - that is, up-and-down - is ignored.

Thanks to the fact that Roy Williams just isn't even trying anymore, the ACC race is tight like drum, and UVA could realistically win the whole thing or fall out of the top four.  Most of the top six has three games left against someone else in the top six.  Again - this is how the ACC looks when the basketball world is right and good.  And I'll say it right now, before it sounds like sour grapes: the regular season title is nice, and you can put it on a banner, but it's not the ACC championship.  It's something you can point to if you don't win the tournament, but if you do come out with that tourney title, you'll just about forget whether or not you won the regular season - especially if you didn't.

And right now, UVA is one of about ten teams that has as good a chance as any other to win the national title.  Can't ask for more than that.

Monday, February 8, 2016

road sweet road

This was a rotten weekend to be a Panther.  The Super Bowl did not go their way, the NHL's Florida Panthers lost on Saturday, and so, believe it or not, did most D-I basketball teams of that nickname.

In the case of the Pittsburgh variety, it was cruelly done.  Malcolm Brogdon returned to the building where two years ago he shanked the hopes and dreams of a raucous crowd with a buzzer-beating three, and this time gave them no reason to stay excited for that long.  Brogdon put 21 points on the board and extended his team's winning streak to six.

This is what a top-ten team is supposed to do, repeatedly.  I also did say, a little while ago, that the ACC is supposed to be this minefield of obstacles, and those two statements don't seem to jibe at first glance.  But you're not one of the top teams in the conference if you keep stepping on the mines.  And if and when you do rise to the top, as UVA has been doing the last couple weeks, you become that top-ten team.  I recall, in the days B.T. (Before Tony), even when UVA had a good team, the elite teams (mainly the Tobacco Road ones) would still come in, generate a lot of buzz around Grounds, and then generally bomb us back to the stone age.

Life on the other side of those trenches is pretty good.  For two successive weekends now, an opponent of perfectly good standing in the conference has welcomed UVA to their gym, packed the house and legitimately fired up the crowd, and then skulked out with welts on their backside.  UVA hadn't held an ACC opponent under a point-per-possession all year, until they did so at Louisville, and now rides a three-game streak of doing so.  That's twice, in case you lost count, in someone else's full and very loud gymnasium.  Should they shut up three road crowds in a row, it would be the most satisfying road win of all time.

Actually, this is just the right week to really get the chemistry perfected.  VT visits on Tuesday and then the Hoos are in Durham on Saturday.  Getting it right against Clemson is fine, but not every win is created equal.  A couple months ago I prematurely declared the chemistry experiment finished, and UVA ready to open up with both guns.  They were not.  This time around, with the defense much more locked in, they just might be.


-- One reason I have legitimate hope for the chemistry this time around is the play of the bench in the second half.  During a roughly five minute run with all of UVA's stars on the bench (Brogdon, Gill, Perrantes) UVA stretched the lead against most of Pitt's starters.  I was even leery of seeing them subbed back out - sometimes you just roll with what's working - but the starters came back in nice and fresh and picked up right where the subs left off.

-- I don't think I've ever seen UVA be the beneficiary of such a clearly bullshit call as the offensive goaltending the refs (with Jamie Luckie in charge, natch) slapped on Pitt.  Not only was the ball four inches off the rim, it was part way below it.

-- The Louisville game was even worse in the refs department.  The crowd was clearly pissed, and they mostly had a right to be, except that they were getting their fair share of nonsense calls too.

-- I still can't decide whether Ike Wilkins should develop his big-man game or small-man game.  Is he a really big frontcourt player who can post up and guard down low, or is he a smallish stretch power forward?  Where he plays on defense strongly suggests the latter - but then, look at all the jump shots he makes, or that pass to Gill for the dunk on a fast break.  Evan Nolte has at times been used on both sides of that equation, and Wilkins probably will over the next couple years, too.

-- I'm not very wild about the three-game football series with ODU that UVA just announced.  You can put me in the camp that says we have very little to gain and a great deal to lose.  Lose just one of those games and you hand ODU a great reason to keep all those Tidewater players right where they are.  It's not like we should need to play a game in Norfolk to establish a recruiting presence there.  That series doesn't start til Bronco's third season, though, so hopefully the team has a culture change well on the way by then.  And if I still lived five minutes from the ODU campus, which I did, ten years ago, I'd be all about the idea.  As I'm sure 757 Hoos are right now.  It's not all bad, but I think there are better scheduling ideas out there.