The Virginia basketball team jumped out to a 2-0 start as wins against UNC Greensboro and Austin Peay sandwiched the weekend. UVA either led or sat tied for 79:11 of the 80 minutes in those two games.
Since the Cavaliers grabbed control of the two games, there was plenty of time to observe storylines without much stress on the outcome. One of the preseason questions focused on graduate transfer Nigel Johnson as the ‘X factor’ for this year’s team and he did nothing in the first two games to dissuade that theory.
In the opener against UNCG, Johnson posted seven points, six rebounds, and one blocked shot. In the Monday game with Austin Peay, he followed up with 10 points, one assist, and two steals. His 3-point shooting numbers have started a little slow (1-6/16.7%), but he’s gotten points up inside the arc (5-7/71.4%) and at the free throw line (4-6/66.7%). The six boards out of the gate was interesting because that’s not a category that he likely will be a big contributor in over the course of the season, but if he can have some big games there then that’s a helpful extra contribution.
Really though, what made Johnson a possible ‘X factor’ candidate was his ability to lift some point guard and ballhandling weight off the shoulders of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Devon Hall plus his ability to really provide a different kind of defensive presence. Or a shorter way to say all of that: he’s quick with the ball and against the ball. In the first two games, he really pestered ballhandlers without getting lost much away from the ball with the Pack-Line’s other duties.
All of that should make Johnson a valuable piece of the puzzle as the season unwinds.
“I think Nigel brings a new dimension with his quickness, when he touches the paint,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after Friday’s game. “He had a nice drive for us, guarded the ball, he did some nice things for us. I think he is just getting more and more used to it. I like, of course, when he gets the rebound and pushes but then sometimes when he is flying of screens or then using his quickness to get a shot or touch the paint, I think he can help us that way too. He just gave us a dimension that I felt like we needed and he had a couple of big baskets for us late.”
Free Throw Attempts
At times during the 2016-2017 season, the Hoos struggled to get to the free throw line. In some games, like the nail biter at Villanova, the differential at the free throw line really jumped off the page; in that game, UVA made all three of its free throw attempts, while Nova converted 20 of 24 in its 61-59 win. For the season, the dust settled with Virginia ranked 347th out of 351 teams last season in free throws attempted per field goals attempted.
So far, a bit of an encouraging sign has unfolded. The Cavaliers have attempted 20+ free throws in each of their first two games, going 20 of 24 (83.3%) against UNC Greensboro and 19 of 24 (79.2%) against Austin Peay.
One year ago, UVA attempted 20+ free throws only nine times all season and only twice in back-to-back games. The best stretch of the season came during an eight-game stretch in February when the Hoos posted five games with 20+ free throw attempts. In even better news, the first two games this season surpassed all but one of those nine games in percentage.
- Ohio State: 14-20 (70.0%)
- Wake Forest: 18-24 (75.0%)
- Boston College: 12-20 (60.0%)
- Virginia Tech: 16-21 (76.2%)
- Louisville: 18-20 (90.0%)
- Virginia Tech: 14-24 (58.3%)
- Miami: 13-20 (65.0%)
- NC State: 13-22 (59.1%)
- UNC Wilmington: 17-25 (68.0%)
The last time Virginia put together three games or more in a row with 20+ free throws was the end of the 2014-2015 season when the final four games all fit the bill (two in the ACC Tournament and two in the NCAA Tournament). That season, the Hoos had 15 games with 20+ free throws, including back-to-back games of 29 and 39 attempts against Davidson and Miami.
In 2015-2016, they posted 16 games with 20+ free throws (and two with 30 even), but never had three games in a row with that many attempts. That season saw five different times where UVA had 20+ free throw attempts in back-to-back games.. That team did have one five-game stretch with 15+ free throw attempts that came at the end of the regular season and into the NCAA Tournament.
”I think the sample size is too small to be honest,” Bennett said. ”In this game just the way it was, we got off to such a good start. That’s important for us, to try to. It was good against Greensboro,. It’s more important to make them when you get there. Again, it’s just being assertive and trying to drive. We’re not throwing the ball in the post a lot. This game, they really got up and they overplayed and they took shortcuts on all of our screens so we lifted some things up and attacked the baseline. Anytime we can get some transition points or offensive rebound points or at the line, those are those ‘X factor’ points that help us.”
Virginia’s 93-49 win against Austin Peay on Monday night set the new team scoring high in the Tony Bennett era. During his time with the media, Bennett mentioned that he thought the team scored 80 or 90 in his first game with the Hoos.
Good memory. In the first game of the Bennett era, UVA defeated Longwood 85-72 at the JPJ. In fact, the Cavaliers scored 76+ points in four of Bennett’s first six games at the helm. Looking back through the archives, Bennett’s Virginia teams have scored 80+ points 25 times with a 24-1 record in those games.
Austin Peay coach Matt Figger opened his media session with some thoughts on UVA coach Tony Bennett:
“It’s a good opportunity always to go on the road and play a team like Virginia that’s so well coached. Tony’s one of the best, not only coaches in the business, he’s one of the best people in the business. You guys got a treasure of a coach here. He is such a genuine human being. I was joking with him before the game. My first two games coaching I got to coach probably against two of the nicer guys in the business. Hats off to those guys, they played well today. If anybody questioned what their offense was, we gave them the confidence to get their offense back. You can put that one to rest. I thought they played extremely well tonight.”