Virginia basketball season is almost here with the season opener at the John Paul Jones Arena on deck Friday. Before the Cavaliers host UNC Greensboro, however, it’s time for what has become a preseason tradition on TheSabre.com: 10 questions for Tony Bennett’s Hoos.
Part I of the 10 questions tackled questions on the redshirt freshmen, Jack Salt, interior scoring, 3-point shooting, and Nigel Johnson as the ‘X’ factor. The goal with the 10 questions is to study some storylines for the season ahead. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, definitive, or revolutionary. Hopefully, it makes you think a little and drives some conversation. Oh, and fun.
With that in mind, let’s dive into Part II!
5. What Is Isaiah Wilkins’ Ceiling?
The Virginia basketball team relies on experienced players quite a bit so in recent seasons, I’ve focused on one of them in the preseason questions. Examples for the ceiling question include Devon Hall, Mike Tobey, and Justin Anderson. This season, I’m interested in senior Isaiah Wilkins’ final run.
Wilkins’ value to the team last season became crystal clear when an illness limited his minutes at first, his effectiveness next, and eventually even his availability at all. The energizer bunny forward brings so much to the table in terms of defense obviously with his ability to challenge or block shots, hedge well on ball screens, and just his general understanding of positioning. Coach Tony Bennett says Wilkins has the ability to sort of be in two places at once defensively due to that knowledge. But he’s also a big factor offensively with good passing skills, touch on set jumpers, and his offensive rebounding work where he just keeps plays alive at times. I counted something like 10 points created in the scrimmage for example based simply on hustle.
Wilkins and his teammates have commented on the senior’s offseason efforts to add more post presence to his game. Based on the scrimmage, post presence in this case means as a face-up player in the post extended area in the short corner. This won’t be a ‘go to the well’ option like Anthony Gill, but any balance Wilkins provides on these sort of touches will be beneficial to the offense. Plus, he potentially could be a good passer on kickouts on these moves.
Statistically, there are two areas I’m watching the most. The first is Wilkins’ points and rebounds, particularly in conference play. He ended up averaging 7.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in ACC games last season, numbers skewed a little bit by late-season games with limited minutes due to that illness. That’s solid production. It looks even better in advanced stats where his ACC per 40 minutes numbers checked in at 10.1 points and 9.3 rebounds.
The second is defensive rating because he’s arguably UVA’s best defender and his individual number will be somewhat representative of the team’s look in the Pack-Line in general. Wilkins posted a defensive rating over 100 possessions last season of 88.4, meaning .884 points per possession when offenses generally consider 1.0 points as a good number. In other words, he pestered teams defensively. A lot.
The reason I’m watching those two areas the most brings this back to the ceiling question. How good could Wilkins’ numbers look as a senior? Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins, the Holy Grail post defenders of the Bennett era to date, put together incredible senior seasons that landed Mitchell on the ACC’s All-Defense team and Atkins recognition as the defensive player of the year both in the ACC and nationally.
Wilkins has that potential for Virginia. That 88.4 number above already compares favorably to Mitchell’s senior season with an 88.2. But what I’m interested in most is whether he can rev it up another level to reach Mitchell’s junior year number of 85.4 or Atkins’ senior year number of an astonishing 83.6. That depends on teammates’ proficiency in the Pack-Line Defense too of course, but what if Wilkins makes a senior year leap defensively like Atkins did? Prior to his POY effort as senior, Atkins posted defensive ratings of 88.7 and 91.9 the two previous years. Going into his senior season, Wilkins has back-to-back ratings of 95.3 and 88.4.
That type of ceiling is an exciting thought in the preseason.
4. What Does Round Two Look Like For Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome?
OK, I’ve made it this far into the preseason questions with limited mention of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, Virginia’s dynamic sophomore duo. It’s impossible to have preseason questions without them, though. In some ways, the success or struggles of these two players could be the most important storyline of the season.
Both players flashed tremendous talent during the true freshman season so the ability is certainly there, but now a large part of the scoring, playmaking, and defensive load falls on their shoulders. UVA lost backcourt players London Perrantes, Marial Shayok, and Darius Thompson from last year’s rotation after all. That means the only senior crutch with Virginia experience for them will be Devon Hall. That means Guy and Jerome have to produce.
The good news is that their freshman seasons gave plenty of hope in that regard. Guy scorched the nets with 49.5% 3-point shooting and a per 40 scoring average of 16.2 points. In other words, increased playing time may be a great thing for Virginia and its offense. Plus, his offseason work included not only strength gains but improved work using the offense’s screens to create not only jumpshot openings but dribble drive opportunities too.
Jerome, meanwhile, really came on strong after the calendar turned to January. He finished the season with 12.4 points and 4.2 assists per 40 minutes. What really got everyone’s attention, though, is how comfortable Jerome looked in the spotlight. Whether that was the oft-referenced late-game drive at Villanova or his minutes against Syracuse in the dome or late-season outings against Pittsburgh, he just seemed to settle in quickly. Plus, with Perrantes off to the NBA and G-League, Jerome now will have the keys to the car so to speak, at least for long stretches of time. That means his decision-making, pace control, and turnover numbers become a magnified part of the UVA offense.
Beyond all of that talk about offense, however, is the backbone of the program: the defense. This season’s ultimate level of success may hinge on Guy and Jerome -and newcomer Nigel Johnson – on the defensive end. Their ability to play perimeter defense both on the ball and in the Pack-Line scheme without fouling is a significant storyline to follow. They’ll have some legitimate rim protection behind them on defense so that will help, but they still need to be consistent.
This is not a giant mountain to climb like some casual observers may think, though. Both players made big strides late last season and their defensive ratings ended up looking pretty good too. Guy posted a 97.3 per 100 possessions, while Jerome landed at 93.5.
3. Can The Hoos Create More Free Throws?
Virginia knew replacing the production of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill would be challenging, but the area that their absence showed up the most came at the free throw line. UVA’s inability to create attempts or offense at the free throw line became one of the biggest factors of the season with several games having vast gaps between the Hoos and the opponents at the line.
Brogdon and Gill combined to take 329 free throws as seniors, while the entire team took just 474 last season. In 2015-16, the Hoos attempted 13 more free throws than their opponents but last season, they attempted 85 fewer. That’s a net swing of almost 100 free throws in just one year. Some of that can be attributed to playing three fewer games, but it’s still a drastic change.
In the end, Virginia ranked 347th out of 351 teams in free throws attempted per field goals attempted (0.26). last season. The Hoos scored just 15% of their points from free throws, which ranked 341st. Opponents committed fouls on 25.3% of UVA’s possessions, which ranked 325th. You can insert fan frustration remarks here if you want.
Some of the foul-drawing issues can be traced to the Hoos’ style of play, meaning off-ball screening and not pace mostly, as I pointed out with the Synergy Sports data last January. Virginia addressed some of this with some offseason modifications to some of its offense, which I analyzed a little bit from the scrimmage here and here.
Still, some of the adjustments will need to come from the personnel and not the system. Brogdon and Gill attacked the rim more within the offense, which led to more foul calls and free throws (though still not as high as it should have been for those players I think, but that’s another story). Nigel Johnson could be a key piece of that conversation as pointed out in Part I’s ‘X’ Factor question. Will Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Devon Hall, or De’Andre Hunter be able to do similar things in the foul-drawing category off the dribble? That figures to be one big storyline for the year ahead.
2. What Does Devon Hall’s Senior Season Look Like?
Speaking of Devon Hall, he’s about to begin his fifth season with the Virginia basketball program after he took a redshirt year as a true freshman. Hall has since started 55 games for the Cavaliers, including all 34 contests a season ago. He’s a team captain, the ‘hold them accountable’ senior teammate, and one of the key cogs to the ongoing success a year ago. When he was on the floor, no matter which spot he played (and that included all five spots last season!), the team played better than when he rested.
Through his first three seasons, Hall showed steady growth to get to that point last season. He played 10 minutes a game as a redshirt freshman, 21.9 as a sophomore, and 27.4 as a junior. In that time, his averages and percentages improved as well. Hall’s per-40 stats have climbed from 6.9 points to 12.2, the rebounds from 2.8 to 6.4.
The growth really showed up during last season’s conference games, though. Tasked with handling the opponent’s best perimeter threat and/or playing power forward in small ball lineups, Hall still increased his production. In conference games last year, he averaged 10.5 points and 4.9 rebounds, making the whole preseason media take about ‘no returning double-digit scorers’ a little less concerning. Long story short: he played really well last season, particularly in the grind from January through March.
But what about the final encore? Can Hall grow his production and in turn his legacy even more? He said on Media Day that he planned to be more aggressive this season, but that the team had plenty of talent to help carry the load.
After playing alongside London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon for a large chunk of his career, Hall now enters the path they already walked in that sense. Both players shouldered bigger offensive loads as seniors, though Brogdon looked more comfortable in that regard than Perrantes (though the personnel around Brogdon presented less challenges arguably). I get the sense that Hall is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between his two former teammates in that regard. It will be interesting to see what that looks like.
1. Five In A Row?
The preseason questions always end with a big picture question. This year’s is obvious in a way. Can Virginia make the NCAA Tournament field for the fifth year in a row? The expectation is for the answer to be a comfortable yes by the time Selection Sunday rolls around.
Regardless, that would mark a significant historic achievement for the program. The Cavaliers have never made the NCAA Tournament five years in a row. While it is easier to make the expanded field now than many years ago, that’s still a benchmark that would show continued consistency under Tony Bennett. That’s why Nigel Johnson came as a graduate transfer. It’s all the upperclassmen on the roster know otherwise. They play in March Madness. Tradition never graduates and all of that.
Beyond that, Virginia has bigger aspirations. Not only have the Hoos made the field for four straight years, they’ve also won a game in the event. The list of teams that have done that is not crowded. Kansas, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon, Wichita State, Kentucky, Villanova, and Wisconsin are the other eight teams to have a tourney win for the past four years. UVA played Villanova in a preseason scrimmage and faces UNC and Wisconsin this season as well.
The Hoos made the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in two of those years. This year’s team would love to develop and gel by March to make a run at the second weekend or better too. The first step of that quest begins in just a few hours!