Sports

Hoo Dreams

Can Virginia basketball transcend its plodding ways and make the Final Four?

Tournament MVP Kyle Guy of the Virginia Cavaliers celebrates with teammates after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels 71–63 during the championship game of the 2018 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on Sunday in New York City.
Tournament MVP Kyle Guy of the Virginia Cavaliers celebrates with teammates after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels 71–63 during the championship game of the 2018 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on Saturday in New York City.
Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The University of Virginia Cavaliers have spent the past month and change as the top-ranked team in college basketball, the first time the Cavs have held that position since 1982, back when center Ralph Sampson was on his way to his third consecutive Naismith Award and guard Rick Carlisle still had a full head of hair and no idea who Dirk Nowitzki was. The Cavaliers—or “Hoos,” as those of us in the campus community are obliged to call them—enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed for the third time in the last five years and as the No. 1 overall seed for the first time in head coach Tony Bennett’s nine-year tenure. Although Bennett has presided over one of the most successful hoops eras in the school’s history, Virginia has yet to make a Final Four on his watch. This year’s team hopes to break through that ceiling and then some, while also putting to bed a widely held belief that UVA plays a highly effective brand of basketball that’s boring at best and utterly unwatchable at worst.

In recent tournament appearances, the Cavaliers themselves have helped cement their own bad reputation. In 2015, the second-seeded Cavs were upset by No. 7 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16; UVA shot a ghoulish 29.8 percent and still only lost by six, which gives you a sense of the overall aesthetic pleasures of this 60–54 contest. In 2016, the last time UVA was a No. 1 seed, they blew a 16-point lead to No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Elite Eight, shooting a cringe-inducing 35.7 percent in the second half. Most ignominiously, last year the Hoos managed only 39 total points in a 26-point, second-round loss to Florida, once again failing to crack 30 percent from the floor.

This year, in a season when UVA was expected to regress, the Cavs have been the most dominant team in college hoops; they’ve essentially been doing what they’ve always done but much better than they’ve always done it. Under Bennett, UVA has become renowned for its “Pack Line” defense, a swarming and suffocating man-to-man that alternately pushes opposing offenses to take low-percentage long-range shots and squeezes them into ill-advised dribble penetrations that often result in turnovers. Put simply, UVA almost never allows a good shot—if there’s a way to beat the Cavs, it’s either by getting ridiculously hot from beyond the 3-point line or boasting such superior athleticism that offensive players can outrun the Pack Line, either in transition or, even less likely, in the half-court. UVA leads the nation in scoring defense, ranks second in defensive efficiency, and is first in adjusted defensive efficiency (which figures in strength of opponents).

Executed at its highest levels, the Pack Line is a thing to behold. In the first half of a Feb. 24 victory at lowly Pitt, the Cavs held the Panthers to 7 points in the first half, on a mind-numbing 1-for-22 from the field.

Performances like this, virtuosic as they may be, do little to dispel the notion that, even on their best days—or perhaps especially on their best days—the Cavaliers are brutal to watch. And, even leaving their spectacularly brick-strewn tournament losses aside, it’s a stereotype with at least a kernel of truth. Bennett’s UVA teams have often been held back by a lack of explosion and creativity on offense, a deficit that’s led to plodding, grind-it-out possessions that too often result in mid- to long-range jump shots from lineups lacking in world-class shooters.

This year’s team is different, or so the denizens of Hooville would like to hope. While UVA still scores at a pace that might be politely called deliberate (the Cavs score 67.5 points per game, tied for 309th in the NCAA), this isn’t due to lack of competence. Those low-scoring totals stem from the fact that they play at a pace that, according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo rankings, is the slowest in Division I. If you take tempo into account, this season, UVA’s offense has been indisputably effective: They rank 21st in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and turn the ball over less frequently than any offense in college hoops.

The Cavaliers also feature a number of players who can heat up fast and torch opposing defenses. The team’s leading scorer is sophomore guard Kyle Guy, a former McDonald’s All-American and Indiana Mr. Basketball who arrived in Charlottesville as probably the most ballyhooed recruit of the Bennett era; after an up-and-down freshman season, he’s matured into a versatile scorer and lethal off-the-dribble creator. His backcourt mate, fellow sophomore Ty Jerome, is a crafty playmaker and enormously confident shooter with a knack for the spotlight—his game-clinching, Curry-esque 3-pointer against Duke was among the most satisfying moments of this Cavs season.

And neither Guy nor Jerome is the Cavs’ best long-range marksman. That distinction goes to fifth-year senior Devon Hall, who’s second to Guy in scoring and has shot a scorching 45 percent from beyond the 3-point line this season.

The Cavaliers’ most talented player sadly won’t be playing at all. On Tuesday, the team announced that freshman sixth man De’Andre Hunter will miss the entire postseason with a broken wrist. Hunter is the latest in an increasingly storied tradition of Bennett-era wing players that includes Joe Harris, NBA first-round pick Justin Anderson, and last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon. Hunter has the potential to be better than all of them, and without his length and explosiveness, his teammates will have to defend and score with even more precision and intensity to avoid the premature exits of their predecessors.

While UVA hoops has been synonymous with its defensive system under Bennett, the Cavs’ postseason traumas have proven the limits of such strategic religions. To win big in the tournament, a team needs more than execution. It needs transcendence, the sort that springs from player talent and in-the-moment creativity just as much as discipline—an inconvenient reality for college basketball’s coaching cultists.

This college basketball season has been defined by an ongoing scandal that has already taken down one of the sport’s biggest names and will likely take down more in the coming months. It’s my own belief that the NCAA is a moral and institutional disgrace that deserves to die a quick and fiery death. As a UVA fan, nothing terrifies me more than the possibility of the Cavaliers becoming a security blanket for the NCAA’s professional amateurism fetishists, especially if the Cavs face Arizona or Kentucky in the Sweet 16 next week. UVA is a prestigious school with a photogenic coach, a program that’s historically been long on four-year players and short on future pro stars. Bennett’s famously “values”-oriented program has had nary a whiff of scandal during his tenure at the school. The Pack Line defense itself feels like an easy metaphor for NCAA exceptionalism, a system that wouldn’t work in the NBA, where players move, pass, and shoot too well.

But if UVA wins the national title, it won’t be because they defended the hill of the status quo or carried the banner of amateurism more nobly than anyone else. Rather, it will be because their coach has been a shrewd recruiter who’s blended the right combination of players and system into a machine no one else can crack—in other words, the same reasons any other team might win a national championship. The only remaining goal of this year’s team is to be one of the last two teams standing three Mondays from now, where they’ll try to prove to the biggest audience in college basketball that they’re the very best the sport has to offer. And if they manage to do that, absolutely no one will be bored.