Tuesday, April 7, 2015

That looked familiar

So some time during last night's National Championship game, I realized that the game was starting to remind me a lot of Virginia's huge game against Duke back in January in Charlottesville. When everything seemed to be going Wisconsin's way, I tweeted this:

A few minutes later, when Grayson Allen and Tyus Jones started to help Duke get back into the game and ultimately take the lead, I tweeted this:

Ultimately, the game ended up being a LOT like the Duke-Virginia game. Duke seized the game from Wisconsin the same way they seized the game from Virginia back in January.

Today, I wanted to go back and look at just how similar the two games were.

Well, it turns out that my hunch last night was pretty spot on. The two games were nearly identical. In both games, Duke started strong and built a decent lead in the first half. Against Virginia, Duke led 22-17 with 5:15 left in the half. Against the Badgers, Duke led 23-17 with 5:56 remaining. Then, both Virginia and Wisconsin closed the half strong and tightened the games.

Both UVA and Wisconsin carried the momentum they had built at the end of the first half into the second half, as each team built leads over the Blue Devils. The main difference is that Virginia led for longer (the Hoos led for 14:42 in the 2nd half) and by a larger margin (as large as 11 with 9:40 to play) than the Badgers did. Still, it's pretty remarkable how similar the two stretches were.

The biggest similarity between the two games, however, was how Duke finished. Each game featured a moment where it seemed like a light switch flipped on for the Blue Devils. In the Virginia game, that moment came with 5:08 left in the game, as Tyus Jones converted a 3 point play to cut the deficit from 9 to 6 points. This was immediately following Justise Winslow's infamous technical foul, which ultimately ended up being a 4 point play for the Hoos. Prior to Winslow's technical, Duke had cut the Virginia lead to 2, and seemed to be right back in the game. But UVA took Duke's punch, and punched right back (not literally, although almost literally, as Justin Anderson somehow resisted the urge to retaliate against Winslow for his bogus/potentially dangerous play). But then, as I said before, it was as if the lights switched on for Duke. Following the 4 point trip resulting from Winsolw's technical, Duke went on a 22-7 run, including scoring the game's last 11 points.

The "light-switch" moment in the Wisconsin game came a bit earlier than in the Virginia game. When Frank Kaminsky finished at the rim with 13:23 left, he gave the Badgers a 9 point lead, their biggest of the game. In response, Coach K called Duke's 3rd timeout. Coming out of the timeout, Duke freshman Grayson Allen nailed a three pointer and followed it up by diving on the floor for a near steal on the other end. On the next possession, Allen finished off an and-1 play and the Devils were right back in the game. But like Virginia, Wisconsin seemed to have an answer, as Nigel Hayes hit a clutch three to push the Badgers' lead back to 5.

However, from there on out, as well all now, it was all Duke. Once the Blue Devils regained the lead, it seemed pretty clear to all watching that they were not going to give it back.

Anyways, I am not really sure what my message is in this post other than that I thought it was interesting to see how similar the two games were. In the end, Duke won both games (in my opinion, their two biggest/gutsiest wins of the year), for two main reasons. First, they hit shots. No Virginia fan will ever forget what Duke's guards did at the end of the meeting in January. It was so unbelievable, that many if not most members of the media did not really treat Virginia's loss to Duke as a loss. It was pretty common to hear something like, "Yeah they lost to Duke, but it was kind of a fluke. Did you see the ending?!?" Well, maybe it wasn't a fluke after all.

The second reason they won these two big games? They made stops. A lot of people (including myself) liked to rag on this Duke team because they had some embarrassing losses. Well those happened because of their complete lack of identity on defense. If they ran into a team that could score, they were in big trouble. This is the main reason why I honestly doubted they could make a deep run in March. The team I saw all year had far too many holes on defense to win 6 games in 3 weeks against top notch competition. But this wasn't the team I saw all year. Duke's defense didn't just go from bad to serviceable in the tournament. It was legitimately good during the Final Four, and it's the main reason why they cut down the nets last night. Bottom line, Duke made stops, Wisconsin didn't.

For some reason, I haven't seen many Duke fans on my timeline the past few days complaining about how defense is ruining college basketball. I wonder why...

Friday, February 27, 2015

Senior Day Tribute to Darion Atkins

Around this time last year I wrote one of the most emotional pieces I have ever written on this site. It
was essentially a Senior Day tribute to Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, and Thomas Rogers. To be honest, looking back on it, the post really wrote itself. Take Joe Harris, for instance. A coach's son from small-town Washington who decided to put his future in the hands of Tony Bennett by agreeing to follow him from Washington State to Virginia. Or Akil Mitchell, the recruit who has his scholarship offer from George Washington pulled, only to graduate college with the reputation as one of the best defenders in the country. Like I said, the stories pretty much wrote themselves. The only difficulty I had writing them was having to resist the temptation to write a 10,000 word post.

While both Joe and Akil's stories were incredible, they were somewhat predictable. As you watched them during their four years in Charlottesville, you began to realize that the progression of their careers nearly perfectly mirrored the progression of the program as a whole. As they grew and improved, so did the program (obviously, that is not a coincidence). Their final game seemed to be the culmination of everything. What better way to go out than to beat Syracuse to win the ACC in your final home game? In many ways, their stories were too perfect.

The same cannot be said about the story and career of Darion Atkins. Less than a year ago, after Virginia had just stumbled past Coastal Carolina to move on to the third round of the NCAA tournament, the frustration finally got to him. In a three month span in which everything seemed to be going right for the Virginia basketball program, the issue of Darion Atkins and his playing time was a kind of "elephant in the room." It was something that all fans were aware of, but few actually worried about, as the team was clearly finding ways to succeed despite whatever tension existed behind closed doors. Those that broached the topic did so mainly referring to its impact on next year, not this year. That changed in the locker room following the win over Coastal Carolina.

While others spoke about the game or the upcoming matchup with the Memphis Tigers, Atkins
vented about the decrease in his playing time to veteran Daily Press reporter Norm Wood:

“I can’t even express how frustrated I get sometimes. I feel like I want to talk a certain way to my coaches, or act a certain way, but I just have to keep it concealed. I mean, I don’t even really know what else to say. It’s really frustrating and I just have to stay positive.

“I feel like some guys mess up, and I don’t mess up. It just works on your head when you’re on the bench and you see people going in front of you and you just feel like you can not necessarily do better, but I just feel like I’m not really contributing.”

There was no more "elephant in the room." Fans stopped wondering about how Darion's lack of playing time would affect the team next year, and instead began to worry whether the issue could pose a threat to the current team's success. Other than a minor setback against Maryland, which most Virginia fans would probably say might have been a good thing, these comments represented the first sign of something going wrong with Virginia basketball in months. It became the topic of conversation in the media. That's not exactly a good thing for a team preparing to face a talented Memphis squad in less than 48 hours.

Looking back on the situation, it is clear that the comments had no impact on the team's results the rest of the way. Tony Bennett and the rest of the team understood that the words were simply the words of a frustrated kid who had more or less been dealt a bad hand, on more than one occasion. They were not indicative of some larger problem concerning Darion and the team. And yet, they did make outsiders wonder about his future at Virginia.

Some speculated that Atkins would graduate early and transfer to use his final year of eligibility at another school. Some wondered what next year's team would be like if he couldn't step up and be the leader that most seniors are expected to be. Many simply assumed that he would remain in Coach Bennett's "doghouse" and worried about the depth in the frontcourt.]

Few, if any, got it right.

Many "experts" will tell you that Justin Anderson is the most improved player in the country. While what Justin has done this year is incredible, I do not believe he is even the most improved player on his own team. That honor is reserved for Darion Atkins. I say this because it is one thing to work on your shot and offensive skillset in the offseason to try and prepare yourself to fill the shoes of Joe Harris. It was clear to Justin what he was working towards. The success of the team was going to depend greatly upon how much he improved, without question. It's another thing to put in all of that work when you're not even sure if you're going to play. It would have been so easy for Darion to just pack it in, not push himself in the offseason, and accept a small role coming of the bench on occasion. Thankfully, that wasn't good enough for him.

Instead, Darion DID put in the work, and then some. The first thing I noticed when the season began, and actually even earlier in the practice videos, was his physical transformation. He looked like he could have never been the skinny guy that he was just a short time ago. Then, you could tell that he had worked hard to become a contributor on offense. Just about every fan knew that Darion always had great potential, on both sides of the ball, but the question was whether that potential would ever become reliable production. We had seen him on the verge of making this step during the early part of his sophomore season. In the first few months of the 2012-2013 season, someone could have asked me, "Who has played the best basketball so far?" and my answer probably would have been Darion Atkins. He was sensational in a road upset of Wisconsin and a tough home win against Tennessee the following week. He was active on the glass on both ends and displayed tremendous improvement in his offensive ability. Many fans were extremely excited about the potential athleticism and versatility of a starting frontcourt of Atkins and Akil Mitchell. And then, Atkins got hurt.

I hate playing the "What if" game, but I will say that I do believe that both Virginia's 2012-2013 season and Darion's career would have turned out very differently had he not injured his shin. That was something that always bothered me. Losing him that year was frustrating, but that team still did some very nice things, and quite frankly, should have made the NCAA Tournament even in his absence. What really bothered me was that last year, when he made those controversial comments after the Coastal Carolina game, I realized that this could have all been avoided had he stayed healthy. He was on track to become on of Virginia's next great post players. I was so high on him that I really believed that he would be in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season last year, now that he was fully healthy. When his playing time decreased as the season went on, I really felt bad for him, and thought he got a raw deal. I didn't blame him for feeling frustrated. I got it.

I will, however, admit that I did not see this type of season from him coming. I thought that he would indeed step up and become a guy that could be relied upon as a solid contributor in the post, but when I thought of our frontcourt, I thought of Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. While those players might have slightly more potential than Atkins, I really feel that Darion has been indispensable this year. I feel incredibly comfortable whenever he has the ball. He now shows the calmness and patience that you would expect from a senior.

This team would still be good even if Darion Atkins had decided to take the easy road and accepted a role coming off the bench in certain situations. He is not as absolutely essential to the team's success as guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, or London Perrantes. But this team isn't just good; it is historically good. That sort of thing only happens when guys like Darion Atkins buy in, something that he is clearly done.

Whether right or wrong, Senior Day's are often tied up and associated with "legacies". Sometimes when you hear enough stories about guys like Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, you forget that things don't always work out perfectly. The path to success isn't always linear, in fact, it rarely ever is. Few fans spent much time thinking about the legacies of Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell because everyone always knew how much they meant to the program, even before the incredible run last year.

I have always wondered what Darion's legacy will be. While he came to the school as part of recruiting class with Paul Jesperson and Malcolm Brogdon, he'll be the only scholarship senior honored tomorrow afternoon. I wonder what the reaction is going to be like. It will be near impossible to top last year's incredible ceremony. But I hope the fans realize what guys like Darion Atkins mean to a program. These days, more often than not, when a player struggles to find playing time, they look for it elsewhere instead of being patient and working to improve. UVA has seen at least one player transfer every year for I don't even know how many years. And yet, tomorrow we get the chance to honor a guy who was patient and chose to fight his frustration by working his butt off instead of looking for an easy way out. Before this season, it was common to see or hear Virginia fans say, "We'll be good this year, but we'll be GREAT the next year."

UVA is great this year, and for that, we can thank Darion Atkins.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Showdown in South Bend

When I went back to review last year's matchups between Virginia and Notre Dame, I realized something. Virginia's win in South Bend last year sort of set the tone for the rest of its season. What I mean by this is that we as fans started to look at that team differently after what they did to the Irish. It wasn't just that Virginia won, or even that they won by a wide margin, but rather it was the way they played. I think if you went and asked Virginia fans what game was the most fun to watch of the incredible 2013-2014 season, that road win against the Irish would be right up there with the wins against Syracuse, Duke, and Memphis. That says something. Against Syracuse, it was a Senior Day blowout to clinch the ACC regular season title. The win against Duke gave Virginia its first ACC tournament title since 1976. And the thrashing of Memphis allowed Wahoo fans to dance their way into the Sweet 16. It's easy to understand why fans would have fun during those games. But then you have that Notre Dame game. It was a game Virginia was expected to win, even on the road. The Irish still had plenty of weapons, even with the loss of their star player Jerian Grant. They proved that they could still be dangerous by beating a top 10 Duke team shortly after losing Grant for the season. But still, this was a game that if Virginia was as good as its fans believed they were, or could be, they should go into South Bend and leave with a win. That they did, but again the reason why I'm even discussing this game with the likes of the Syracuse, Duke, and Memphis games is because of how Virginia played.

If you need a refresher, check this out...

Or if you're short on time, this will suffice.

Basically, Virginia went into Purcell Pavilion and put on a clinic. I hate using a cliche like that, but honestly that's what it was. If you want to see how a team ought to play on both ends of the floor, just watch that game. It was incredible.

It started with the defense, as UVA employed the post trap early and often against Notre Dame's most bearded post player, Garrick Sherman (not to be confused with Jean Valjean).

Sherman really struggled against the double team and turned the ball over, leading to some easy transition buckets for Virginia, including Malcolm Brogdon's "Hollywood" slam.

The Cavs also played beautiful basketball on the offensive end. One of the main reasons the game was so much fun to watch, especially on TV was to hear Bob Knight and Digger Phelps gush over London Perrantes as if he was the second coming of Bob Cousy (Knight would later refer to him as the best point guard in the country). London gave them plenty to talk about, too, as this game effectively served as his coming out party.

Anyways, for a number of reasons, the game was incredibly and somewhat surprisingly enjoyable to watch. It was the first test of a BIG week for Virginia, as UVA would head to then #18 Pittsburgh for a Super Bowl Sunday showdown with the Panthers. It was a game that in the past, Virginia probably would have lost, killing the momentum they had built up by winning 6 of their last 7 games since the Tennessee debacle. But there was no letdown, and that is why I'm spending so much time discussing this game. I truly believe that what we were able to do that night in South Bend is a big reason where the program is where it is right now. Obviously, a lot of things happened in between that beautiful win and starting 14-0 and earning the #3 ranking, but that performance seemed foreshadow the success. It was, in a sense, the start of the incredible journey that continued into last season and still continues even today.

I say all of this because I think there's a decent chance that journey hits a bump in the road tonight. This year's Notre Dame team is very, very good. Sort of like Virginia, they do what they do, and they do it well, and what they do is play flawless offense. Any Mike Brey team is going to be a good passing and shooting team, but this one is possibly his best. They have guys that really know each other and understand how to play well together.

Obviously, it all starts with Jerian Grant. We all saw how valuable he was to that team last year when they nosedived to the bottom of the conference with his absence. Some fans will ask, "how are we going stop Jerian from scoring?" and while that is clearly an important question, it's not the one that concerns me the most. That would be, "how are we going to stop Jerian from distributing?" While Grant is a fantastic scorer, it's almost as if he scores just so he can make it easier to set up opportunities for his teammates. He's not a terrible three point shooter, but he knows that he's got guys like Pat Connaughton, Steve Vasturia, VJ Beachem, and Demetrious Jackson to kick it to, and since 3>2, he realizes that the best way for him to help his team is by attacking, breaking down the defense, and setting up clean looks for his hot-shooting teammates.

That's really what this matchup will be about: how deep will Jerian Grant be able to penetrate into the lane. If he gets into the paint often, UVA will be in serious trouble, as he'll not only be able to convert close to the basket, but he'll almost surely be setting up 1-2 WIDE open looks for his teammates. That's exactly what he did against the Tar Heels on Monday. He only made one shot from the field, but he won that game with his 8 assists. Good shooting teams are tough to stop as it is, but when you have an athlete like Grant that can break a defense down, that's when these types of teams become terrifying.

Thankfully, Virginia will be prepared for this. They know that the way for Notre Dame to win depends upon their ability to get the ball into the lane. As everyone already knows, Virginia's pack line is prevent this from happening. Yes, pack line teams will always be a bit more vulnerable from three, but that really only becomes an issue when teams can successfully break down the defense, forcing perimeter defenders to sag even further off their men.

So that's the main question of this game. If UVA and the pack line can stop Grant from getting into the lane, it should be able to limit Notre Dame's offensive opportunities. If this happens, Virginia will certainly win the game. That being said, another thing to keep an eye on is what's happening in the post. The Cavs have an enormous advantage in the post, in size, talent, depth, experience...you name it. Notre Dame's lone reliable post player is Zach Auguste. That's pretty much it. They have guys like Austin Torres and former UVA recruit Martin Geben who may see some time, but neither of those guys are anywhere near the level of Virginia's three headed monster of Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, and Darion Atkins. Heck, personally I don't even think Auguste is any better than any of those three. So offensively, it will be important for Virginia to work inside out, getting those post players as many touches as possible. Look for Notre Dame to test out some post traps to try and limit the mismatch, but I'm not sure how effective that will be. If UVA can get some buckets down low early or even better, get Auguste into foul trouble, then they could get a firm grasp on this game.

And really, that's what it's all about. I think the team that wins this game is going to be the team that forces the opponent to adjust to them, and not the other way around. I know, "duhhh" but this game especially will depend upon which side feels like they are in control. For Virginia, this would happen by getting the ball inside and executing in the post on offense, and preventing penetration on defense. For Notre Dame, it would involve moving the ball across the court and forcing Virginia to play small to keep up. One of the main reasons why this program is rolling right now is because the team has been so darn good at establishing this type of control that I'm referring to. The past few games, however, we have seen Virginia show a remarkable lack of control. If UVA figures it out, I think this game could be a lot like the game in South Bend last year. If not, however, we might see out first loss since March. I'm not going to give any sort of prediction other than the only outcomes that would surprise me are a blowout loss and a close win. I think this is going to be one of those games where Virginia shows up and rolls (like they did against VCU) or continues to struggle a bit and comes up just short on the road.

My hunch is that we show up. I can't see this team playing poorly 4 games in a row. It still would not surprise me at all if Notre Dame won because they are a legitimately good team that could hurt us in a few ways, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this team isn't quite ready to lose. Not yet...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Podcast Link

So Michael Pittman (@WahooBasketball) was nice enough to ask me to join his podcast with the famous (infamous?) Phony Bennett to recap the first week of the season. The plan is, according to Michael, is to record about every week or two so stay tuned for future shows.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Let the Games Begin

Nearly eight months ago, I was surrounded by hundreds of utterly dejected Virginia fans, staring at the TV screen of Mustang Harry's, a bar in Midtown Manhattan, just a block away from Madison Square Garden, I was in the exact same place about 6 hours earlier, as the bar was one of a few designated Virginia bars for the weekend. Obviously, the mood was quite different at 1 AM than it was around 7 PM. Before the game, everyone was just so incredibly excited. You could tell just by looking at the number of people wearing blue and orange in this one bar that UVA was going to be well represented in the stands of the newly renovated Garden. I don't even remember people talking all that much about the game beforehand. It just seemed like everyone was so thrilled to be a part of something so "big." Seven hours later, those same people were at a loss for words.

Most of the people who made the trip to MSG, especially those from outside of the city, came into the weekend with a similar plan, which was to essentially "make a weekend" out of the game. I even know plenty of people who made the trip even though they didn't have tickets (which ended up costing a few hundred dollars just to get in the door). So, while the game was obviously the main attraction, I got the feeling that everyone was excited to just experience New York while Virginia was in town. I think this is why I will always remember that weekend as one of the best weekends of my life. A few weeks later back in Charlottesville, I talked with Joe Harris about that weekend and he felt the same way. It was clear that the loss stung, but he too mentioned how amazing the overall experience was. I think the reason why we look back on that weekend positively, despite the pain of such a loss, is because of how big the stage was. It doesn't get much bigger than playing Michigan State in the first NCAA Tournament game at MSG in 60 years. When I left New York on Sunday morning, all I was thinking was, "Man, I want to do this again."

It's easy to think about the "what ifs." What if Anthony Gill didn't hurt his ankle? What if Joe had hit that open three when UVA was building a lead in the second half? What if the refs had called Keith Appling for pushing off of Teven Jones?

This brings me back to Mustang Harry's. We had been in the bar for about 5 minutes when the UVA-MSU highlights started playing on SportsCenter. Some fans walked away from the TVs, some ordered a round of drinks, and others simply prepared to relive their agony. When the Appling pushoff played on the screen, one fan screamed "$%(#" Normally, this is when you'd try and get as far away from the person yelling expletives, but in this context, he was just saying what we were all feeling.

So we, as Virginia fans, could have spent this entire offseason asking "what if." And usually, I'm the first to think about these "what ifs," but for whatever reason, I haven't spent much time dwelling on them at all. Instead, my focus has been on how can we get back to this stage. How can we get to within a few plays of the Final Four? How can we win a National Championship?

These are the questions we are now asking of this program and it's awesome. I can get used to reading articles UVA basketball and seeing the phrase "legitimate national title contender" pop up frequently.

Keys to the Game:

This preview will be short and sweet for a few reasons. First, what I love to do and what I think I'm really good at is analyzing film. Well, there just isn't any film to analyze, at least not of JMU. With the suspensions of Andre Nation and Matt Vodanovich, the Dukes are a completely different team. I don't even think they know what to expect tonight. They only really have two guys that are even somewhat proven. Ron Curry is their biggest threat. The 6'4 Guard from NJ scored 9 pts on 3-7 shooting last year. He's a balanced guard in that he has a decent shot and has enough athleticism to drive to the bucket. I think he could very well have some success against UVA tonight, but the Dukes will need much more than that. The only other returning player who played more than 20 mpg last year is 6'7 wing Jackson Kent. The Sophomore Kent had 4 points against the Hoos last year. He'll obviously be asked to play a bigger role tonight. Personally, I'm not sure he's ready for it. While I haven't seen him since last year's game, I'm going to assume he's still quite skinny. That's a problem against guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, and Marial Shayok. I have a feeling Kent will struggle unless he heats up from deep. Outside of those two, the other name to be familiar with is Yohanny Dalembert. The half-brother of Samuel Dalembert showed flashes of potential in last year's game. He's a 6'8 PF/C with solid athleticism and decent strength for a sophomore. I remember noticing him doing some nice things defensively and altering some shots. Still, he wasn't able to make any sort of an impact on the offensive end of the floor.

This brings me to my main point regarding this game. Look for Virginia to pound the ball inside. UVA has size, strength, and ability in the post that JMU just cannot match up with. Last year, Anthony Gill went 5-5 and never really broke a sweat. In fact, Virginia's three returning big men, GIll, Mike Tobey, and Darion Atkins, combined for 31 of the team's 61 points. None of JMU's returning post players scored a point. I expect all three of Gill, Tobey, and Atkins to have big games tonight. Also, JMU still has Malcolm Brogdon to deal with as well. I have read that Matt Brady has been tweaking his defenses often in the offseason. If players aren't certain what they're supposed to be doing on that end, you can be sure that Malcolm will take advantage of it.

The biggest area of concern for Virginia is clearly three point shooting. With London Perrantes and Evan Nolte sidelined, who is going to step up and knock down shots? Well, I'm sure Tony Bennett would like the answer to that question to be "No one, because we'll be able to score at will from close range." But if we struggle early and fail to knock down our shots, this one could be closer than it should be.

Still, Virginia just has too much talent, experience, size, and discipline to let the Dukes hang around for too long. This game will be a good experience for a team looking to replace two SR leaders. Opening with a road game in what should be a somewhat hostile arena will prepare the team for its biggest non-conference tests: trips to Maryland and VCU.

I'm looking forward to watching basketball again. I'm excited to see what Devon Hall can do as starting PG,  how Marial Shayok will factor into the rotation, whether guys like Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson have improved their games, and how we play as a team compared to what we looked like last March.

This was a fairly basic preview. As we learn more about the team and the opponents, I'll go into greater detail. Still, I'm excited to be writing about Virginia basketball again. It should be another incredible year.

I've got the Hoos winning 67-45.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Once again, I set big goals for myself in the offseason and life got in the way. No worries. I will make sure to make up for it in the coming weeks. I probably wrote half a dozen drafts of posts trying to wrap up last season and transition it into this year, but honestly, nothing worked quite the way I wanted it to. It either ended up simplifying the emotions of last year or was just wayyyyyyy too long to read. So, I have decided to move forward into this season. In a way, I feel that this is kind of symbolic Last year was last year, this year is this year. Why try and segue one into the other?

Maybe I'm just making excuses, but whatever. I'll make sure to have some good content relating to the 2014-15 version of Virginia Basketball. Obviously, last year was special. Some moments were especially memorable. I'm not just thinking about the expressions on the faces of Coach Bennett's family members as the Syracuse game came to a close. Nor am I simply thinking about my amazing experience with my Dad in Greensboro, which included nearly breaking my ankle after jumping on my seat as Joe hit the ACC Championship sealing three pointer against Duke.

What really stands out in my memory from last season is my gut feeling after the heartbreaking loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium in January. I was understandably upset following the conclusion of that game. Yet, I was anything but discouraged. While on the whole, Virginia had played a pretty terrible game, I was just so utterly encouraged by the way they fought back at the end of the game and nearly stole a road win at probably the most difficult place to win in the country. Something in me (perhaps it was the beer) made me go out on a limb and say that we would win the ACC.

This is where I'd like to write, "I TOLD YOU SO," but I can't do that in good conscience. Yes, what I saw in that game made me feel confident that we had what it took to win the ACC. But what actually happened was so, so much better than I ever could have envisioned. That night, I looked at the scheduled analytically, and determined that Virginia had a good chance to take advantage of a favorable draw and win the ACC. But that's not what happened. I didn't think we could dominate the conference like we did. I didn't think we could beat a team like Syracuse by 19. I didn't think we could win the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. And I DEFINITELY didn't think we could earn a #1 Seed in the NCAA Tournament. Even as soon as a week before the Selection Sunday, I would have told you that Virginia earning a #1 seed was nothing more than a fantasy.

So, basically, what I learned from last year is to not use the past to limit the present and the future. My gut told me that we were really good, but history told me that "really good" meant being about the 20th best team in the country. I have since learned that, under Tony Bennett, in this system, if I get a gut feeling about a team...just go with it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Next Step: Madison Square Garden

Scouting the Spartans:

Let's get this out of the way: Michigan State is better than any team Virginia has played this season. To some, that might not seem like that bold of a statement, as the Spartans are a hugely popular pick to win the National Championship and have been playing incredible basketball recently. However, I think there's a portion of fans who tend to roll their eyes when they hear people go on and on about how good Michigan State is. They are under the impression that MSU is a 4 seed for a reason, injuries or no injuries. They'll be the first ones to remind you that a healthy Spartan squad lost to North Carolina, a team Virginia had little trouble with, by double digits at home. Or that they lost to a mediocre Illinois team (also at home) this very month. While these results should not be ignored, they do not shed light on just how difficult tomorrow night's game will be. I've been watching and analyzing teams on film in write to do these posts and I cannot recall a team ever being more impressive than this Michigan State team, at least since the start of the Big Ten Tournament.

Okay now that I've made that clear, enough gushing over the Spartans. They are great, but nowhere near invincible. While I slightly discounted the Illinois loss above, as they're clearly playing much better basketball than at the start of the month, I have to admit that the outcome is interesting to say the least. Many fans correctly assume that one of the deciding factors in tomorrow's game will be how well Virginia imposes its will on Michigan State and makes them play "Bennett-Ball." It makes one wonder what teams has MSU faced that play a similar style to Virginia's and what did that game look like...

Well, if you take a peek at the KenPom Ratings and focus primarily on Adjusted Tempo and Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, you'll notice that Illinois is pretty darn comparable to UVA in those aspects of the game.

Adjusted Tempo:
Illinois- 329
Virginia- 346

Adjusted Defensive Efficiency:
Illinois- 11
Virginia- 5

So when you look at those numbers and consider that Illinois won a 53-46 game in East Lansing, it makes you feel pretty confident that win or lose, Virginia should be able to make the Spartans play its brand of basketball. Now this is not to say that, "Illinois' style worked and beat MSU. Therefore, Virginia's style will work and beat MSU." The result in the first matchup between the two Big Ten schools, a 78-62 Spartan victory in Champaign, shows how you can not simply look at that March 1 matchup in isolation. However, when you add to it the fact that Columbia and Northwestern were also able to make Michigan State slow it down (though they still lost), you start to feel pretty confident that Tony Bennett's team will be able to dictate the pace of the game.

Illinois was not just similar to Virginia in terms of tempo, but also in terms of defense. Everyone and their mother knows about Virginia's defense. While it is ranked only 5th in KenPom's efficiency, I have absolutely no problem saying UVA is the best defensive team in the country. The closest comparison to Virginia defensively out of Michigan State's opponents would be Ohio State. While the Buckeyes play a more physical, aggressive style of defense than UVA, they're still make it difficult as tough to score. MSU and OSU split their two meetings, which were both extremely close games. In both contests, Ohio State prevented the Spartans from scoring 70 points in regulation. This season, Michigan State played 9 games against top 30 defenses and only broke 70 once, and that was the second game of the year against the youngest team in the country, Kentucky. Interestingly, the Spartans only managed 65 points (and more shockingly allowed 79 when Leslie Mcdonald was still ineligible) points in a home loss to North Carolina, 11 points fewer than Virginia scored against the Tarheels.

The elephant in the room here is that Virginia's offense is SIGNIFICANTLY better than Illinois, Ohio State, Northwestern, and North Carolina. You hear many people compare this team to those of the Dick Bennett days in Wisconsin. While I understand the temptation to make such a comparison, Virginia is simply different from those squads. They're not trying to play slowly and defend hard to keep themselves in games, but rather they're doing it to keep the opponent out of games. Those former teams who tried to dribble the air out of the ball or required that every player touch the ball before anyone could shoot a la Hoosiers did so because they knew they didn't have the talent or offensive firepower to play otherwise. If UVA really wanted to, they could play exactly like Michigan State. Bennett chooses not to because when you insert talent and athletes into his system, it just makes it that much better. When you're facing the best defense in the country, you're already worried about whether you can score. But when you add in the fact that Virginia has incredible offensive efficiency, it makes you task twice as hard. With other Bennett teams, you're thinking about whether you're going to run out of possessions and look up at the scoreboard just to see you lost 53-51. With this team, you're worried that if you go a couple of possessions without a score, you're going to get run out of the gym. In this manner, this UVA team reminds me of some of the recent Alabama football teams. Everyone knows their defense will be great, but they tend to overlook their offense. In 2012-2013, when they beat Notre Dame for the National Championship, their offense was actually pretty damn good. But like this UVA team, its strength was in efficiency not explosiveness. If they got a stop, they'd then slowly march down the field and score. Another stop, same thing. One more, same thing. It got to the point where you had better find a way to score on them early, because once they get 10-14 on the board in the first half, the game becomes out of reach.

In terms of basketball, I actually can't really think of a team that is genuinely similar to Virginia. I think Pittsburgh is the closest, which is why it makes sense that they played UVA tough twice even though I think they are not really near the same level as them, but Virginia is more talented, athletic, and deeper than the Panthers. I mention all of this to point out that if Michigan State assumes that Virginia is just another Ohio State, they're in for a rude awakening.

So now that I have laid out one of the most important factors of the game, how Virginia's style of play will affect Michigan State, let us now turn to the individual matchups.


At point guard, we will see London Perrantes vs. Keith Appling. Following his wrist injury, Appling just has not been the same player as the one that looked like an All American early in the year. It's sad to say this, but he's just a shadow of his former self. While he is still a talented player with great experience and athleticism, I do not expect him to be a big factor in the game, especially offensively. Expect Perrantes to play off him like Virginia did to Jontel Evans for so many years. Appling, who when healthy was a great three point shooter, has made just 2 from behind the arc since his return 11 games ago. By comparison, Perrantes has hit 23 threes in the past 10 games, shooting 64% from behind the arc during that stretch. The key for London is to keep Appling out of the lane and from getting to the rim. If Keith is going to score, it will most likely be close to the basket. Perrantes needs to make sure he limits his opportunities and essentially eliminates him as an offensive threat. On the other end of the floor, London will just need to do exactly what he has been doing: play steady basketball, protect the ball, and knock down shots. Appling is a solid defender, probably slightly above average. Again, I don't think this matchup will decide the game unless something uncharacteristic happens.

While everyone is excited for the main matchup in the post, the one at SG might be just as intriguing. In Malcolm Brogdon and Gary Harris, you have two pretty similar guards that score in a variety of ways. When you watch the two play, it's hard to discern many real difference in their games. They both can get to the rim and finish in traffic, they both have excellent midrange games, and they can both knock down threes. As far as their differences, I would say that Brogdon is bigger and stronger whereas Harris is a bit quicker and a little more skilled. Both are fine defenders, though Brogdon is the better of the two. He will have his work cut out for him, though, as Harris is a really tough cover. He has nice range and gets his shots up quickly, so the most important job Malcolm has will be making sure to contest his jumpers. Harris will have to prevent Brogdon from using his size to get to the rim, as Michigan State tends to be a little slow in help. This should be a really fun matchup. Whichever guy gets the better of the other might be moving onto the Elite 8.

At the wing is really the only place that I see a mismatch in this game. Joe Harris will likely be matched up with State's Denzel Valentine. Valentine is someone that has not really impressed me much on film. Offensively, he doesn't add much other than a made three here or there or an easy dunk/layup. Against Joe and the Pack-Line, I just can't see him being a factor offensively. You could actually compare his offensive game to Justin Anderson's at the moment, except Valentine doesn't have the wildcard of Justin's dynamic athleticism. And on defense, the mismatch might be even worse. Valentine is big and strong, but also pretty damn slow. He also has a tendency to take plays off and doesn't always go his hardest. Look to see Joe Harris be aggressive from the beginning, running all over the floor without the ball, coming off screens left and right. Valentine won't want to chase him and will likely call for a switch. Ultimately, Izzo might realize that this is indeed a mismatch and put Valentine on Brogdon (which is still a mismatch, though not as bad as one) and Harris on, well, Harris. If not, Joe could be in for a very big night.

Neither team is particularly deep off the bench in the backcourt, though both do have great 6th men. Justin Anderson will play early and often for the Wahoos and will likely matchup with Valentine or even Dawson in the post. As for the Spartans, their 6th man, Travis Trice, is a tiny guard who can really shoot it from deep (45%). Trice isn't a huge threat to drive, so whoever is guarding him has to make sure to stay close to him and contest his shots. One thing to watch with regards to Trice is how he deals with Virginia's size in the backcourt. Even London Perrantes has a good couple of inches on him, so he might find it difficult to shoot over the bigger defenders.


Fans who love good post play are in for a treat with this game. Both teams have talent and depth in the frontcourt and try to use that to wear the opponent down. The most talented player of the bunch is Adreian Payne. Payne is pretty much the poster-child of a Tom Izzo player. He's versatile, experienced, tough, etc. As a neutral fan of the game, I love to watch him play. He can do a little bit of everything with the ball. He has a nice low post game where he uses his big body to back defenders down for easy hook shots near the rim. But where he's really unique is how he shoots the ball like a guard. A lot of bigs can step out and hit deep shots when the defender gives them to him, but Payne actually creates shots for himself as a guard or wing would. This is why it's crucial to be disciplined when guarding Payne, because at any time he can pop out to the three point line and bury it. I expect Payne to play with great passion, as he knows how good of a defender is waiting for him and he does NOT want to be Izzo's first class to miss out on a Final Four appearance. That said, I expect Akil Mitchell will make things difficult for him, at the very least. Mitchell has elite quickness and footwork, which is something Payne probably hasn't seen before and may catch him off guard, on both ends of the floor. I expect Payne to reach double figures, but Mitchell can still claim a win if he makes sure Payne is inefficient. In the ACC Championship Game, Jabari Parker score 20+ yet all anyone could talk about was how Akil's defense won Virginia the game. Another outing like that one and Virginia could be moving on.

The other matchup in the post will likely come between Anthony Gill and Branden Dawson. While Mike Tobey has started every game for a while now, I think there's a chance we will see Gill on the floor to start the game. For one, Gill has been on fire as of late and has pretty much played starter's minutes regardless.  Additionally, rumors are swirling that Tobey broke his thumb in practice sometime. While apparently the injury is a non-story, it might be the perfect cover to slide Gill into the starting lineup and play a bit of gamesmanship by making it seem like Mike is more hurt than he really is. Anyways, AG is going to play a lot, no matter what, and for most of the time, he'll be matched up with MSU's Dawson. For all intents and purposes, you can pretty much call Dawson a clone of Justin Anderson. They're both freak athletes, have great strength, and can defend multiple positions. Oddly enough, despite their similarities, I don't think we'll actually see them guarding each other all that much. Instead, Dawson should be tasked to go against the bigger Anthony Gill, but don't think he's intimidated by AG's size in the least. Dawson is used to being the shorter guy down low and his strength and athleticism makes his height more or less irrelevant. In all honesty, I don't know how this matchup will play out. Dawson has the strength to stand up to AG's aggressive drives, but is that enough from him finishing anyways? I wouldn't be surprised if the pair went for double digits or had relatively quiet games. The key to the matchup, though, will be AG making sure he limits Dawson on the offensive glass. He's one of the best offensive rebounders around and this is not a game where UVA can afford to give the other team second chances.

The rest of Virginia's froncourt includes Atkins, Nolte, and, obviously, Tobey. I think that Tobey will try and do his work on the MSU reserves, as neither Dawson nor Payne is a good matchup for him. I don't necessarily think he'd get abused by Payne or anything, but I don't want to see him matched up on AP for longer than necessary. Offensively, Tobey could do some damage against those reserves. However, Mike has not strung together back to back double digit outings since November. He had 11 on Sunday, will he break the streak?

As for those MSU reserves, they include Kenny Kaminski, Matt Costello, and Gavin Schilling. Schilling does not play all that much and I doubt that changes tomorrow night. Kaminski and Costello will see time, as both average about 15 points and 5 rebounds per game. Kaminski is more skilled and has range out to the three point line, whereas Costello is more of a "post presence" type of player and is a solid rebounder. Overall, I don't expect either to make any sort of a significant impact.

As for Atkins and Nolte, it pointless to predict what kind of role they will have because it really changes from game to game. They'll both play at least some, but how long that is depends how well they fit into the flow of the game and how the matchups play out on the floor.


This is going to be a great basketball game. It's been said a lot lately, but it really feels much more like a Final Four game than a Sweet Sixteen game. Just look at the ticket prices. You can get tickets to both Final Four games AND the National Championship Game for less money than the cheapest ticket to tomorrow night's games. Yeah, UConn. Yeah, MSG. But still, this is an enormous game.

Strictly on paper, this one is as they say, "too close to call." Both teams are really good at what they do, so it's hard to either bending to the other's will. You're tempted to say "UVA will impose their will" but then you remember Izzo and how adaptable his teams have been. You're tempted to say "MSU will be too tough in transition and simply has more talent" but then you remember that you've heard that said about countless of UVA's opponents, including the last one, who proved no match for the Hoos. For this reason, I think this one simply comes down to execution. If the teams played 10 times, they might split 5-5, so this game will just be one of those five where the winning team does enough good things to come out on top.

Still, I must admit that the storyline, or rather storylines are a bit intimidating. They've got Tom Izzo, who has certainly has the resume of a champion. They've got Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, who are looking to avoid becoming Izzo's first class to miss out on the Final Four. They're finally healthy and playing like the team they were supposed to be a few months ago. The list goes on...

And yet, why should I turn back now? This team has not just met my expectations for them, but has far surpassed them. After my prediction that UVA would win the regular season title came true, I desperately wanted to show others that "I was right." But I wasn't right. Yeah, I thought we'd win the ACC, but with a record of 14-4 thanks a very favorable schedule. I didn't really believe that this team would be the consensus best team in the ACC. But they were. I was rewarded for my optimism and then some. Why should I throw in the towel now?

As I left the bookstore to walk back across Grounds to my apartment, I thought about the Sweet 16 T-Shirts on display around the store. I had absolutely no desire to purchase one. Not because of the cost. Not because of the design. Rather, there was something terminal about them. Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to diminish the feat of making it this far. If this is as far as we go, I might reconsider and ultimate buy one. But buying the shirt now reminded me of a feeling I had during a golf match in high school. It was the league championships and I was having the round of my life. I had NEVER played like this before. I had always thought I was capable of such a round and even perhaps that I should expect myself to play like that more often. Through the first nine, I was at the right balance between focused and relaxed, not too stressed, not too casual. As I got closer and closer towards the finish, and the rain became steadier and steadier, I began to think about the final score, and about how it would guarantee me All League. That kind of thinking was actually okay, as it made me work harder, realizing how badly I wanted it. But the worst thought that came across my mind was one of satisfaction. Somewhere in the midst of my focus on the finish, I thought to myself, "Man, even if things went south in these last couple of holes, I can still look back on this as the best I've ever played." I don't have to explain to you what happened, but I will point out that my thought couldn't have been further from the truth. The only thing I care about that round is what happened towards the end.

I am confident that Virginia is not satisfied. They will not make the same mistake I did. If someone beats them, it will be because they played better and nothing else. This team has a goal. This weekend is just another step.

Two feet at a time.