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The Virginia men’s basketball team is working through one final lengthy break before starting ACC play this weekend at Duke. Are the 10-3 Cavaliers ready for conference play? This Sabre Roundtable answers that question and more as three media heavyweights – Richmond Times-Dispatch beat writer Jeff White, WCAV TV sports anchor Marc Davis, and Sabre Editor Kris Wright – weigh in on the Hoos.
Heading for ACC play this weekend, are the Hoos ready for the conference wars? Why or why not?
Kris: To me, this is a hard question to answer because I haven’t been able to get a good feel for this year’s team yet, even though it is January. After going 6-1 by playing a game every three days or less for the first month of the season, the Cavaliers have been resting more than playing since late November. From Nov. 28 to Jan. 10, they have played six games (going 4-2) with four separate breaks of seven days or more – 8 days between Northwestern and Syracuse, 12 days between Longwood and Hampton, 8 days between Elon and Hartford, and 10 days between Xavier and Duke.
At first, I thought the extended breaks would give a young and ailing team a chance to work on improving weaknesses, healing injuries, and strengthening chemistry. Now, I’m not so sure. After showing some improvement from game to game in November, the Cavs seem all over the place since. Play a few good minutes then struggle for long stretches. Missing defensive assignments and boxouts frequently. And so on.
So ready for ACC play? I’m going to say not yet. The next question is whether this final extended break and a game at Duke will help the team shore up its issues before a season-defining stretch the final two weeks of January.
Marc: Based on the game at Xavier, absolutely not. In my opinion, at least half the ACC is better than Xavier, so hopefully Virginia is making the most of the 10-day break. They were not impressive at all in their last win against Hartford, either, struggling to a 78-70 win. Sean Singletary needs support, especially from his big men, as they continue to get healthy.
Jeff: Of the 16 conference games UVa will play, the first – Sunday night at Duke – might represent the greatest challenge, and Dave Leitao’s team won’t exactly swagger into Durham. It’s never easy for visiting teams to play at Cameron, and the Cavaliers are coming off a 38-point loss to Xavier. The good news for the Hoos is that, even when they’re playing well, they almost always lose at Duke, so a setback in the opener won’t qualify as a season-spoiling turn of events.
Solomon Tat has received quite a few mentions as “one of few highlights” for his play against Xavier. Do you think Tat will be a key part of the rotation moving forward?
Jeff: I expect to see more and more of Tat, as long as his health continues to improve. He’s an unconventional 2-guard in that he’s not much of a threat from 3-point range. But at 6’5”, 223 pounds, he brings a physical presence that Virginia lacks. And, of course, the starter at shooting guard, Jeff Jones , hasn’t made a trey since Nov. 17 so UVa won’t be losing much in that area by playing Tat.
Kris: At first glance, it’s tempting to let history be our guide. Tat has not been a key part of the rotation at any point in his career so far so why would he be moving forward? I think he will be and the answer to that has three parts. First, Tat is mostly healthy for the first time in his career so this will be his first chance to consistently prove himself to Dave Leitao. Second, Leitao was so distraught with his team’s defensive performance at Xavier, the players who know the defensive rotations and can play individual defense will get a long look at playing time. Tat is a physical presence, something that Leitao likes in his players because of the brand of halfcourt defense he prefers to employ – pressure the ball and the cutters to disrupt opponent rhythm. The third reason is answered below.
Marc: Until Tat proves otherwise, you have to go to him. He showed a rare case of being an offensive weapon, as Leitao often praises him for his defense. As his health continues to improve, look for him to get key minutes.
Virginia’s defense, particularly against 3-point shooting and in transition, has been inconsistent this season. Can you pinpoint a reason for the struggles? What will help UVa on that end of the floor?
Marc: The Cavaliers have seen a number of different offenses, but I’ve never seen a defense struggle as much as Virginia did against Xavier. The Musketeers made it look easy against them, putting up the most points against Virginia since Dave Leitao arrived as coach. It also marked the worst defeat Leitao has experienced at the head of the Virginia bench. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason, other than all of the Cavs’ size has been out up until last Thursday. For a coach that preaches defense, this must change. You saw Virginia play both man-to-man and zone in last Thursday’s loss. Look for the defense to improve, again, as the size continues to improve health wise.
Jeff: Leitao has said that Jason Cain and J.R. Reynolds were his best defensive players in 2006-07, so clearly their departures have hurt Virginia. The return of Tunji Soroye and Solomon Tat should help shore up the defense, but it’s probably not realistic to expect this to suddenly become one of the ACC’s stingier teams.
Kris: Virginia’s struggles on defense can be traced back to the absence of three players in the rotation last season: Jason Cain, J.R. Reynolds, and Tunji Soroye . That trio understood Coach Leitao’s demands on that end and bought in to the team defensive concept. All three of those players could hold their own individually on defense as well. This season, none of the three have been on the floor – Cain and Reynolds are gone while Soroye has been recovering from offseason surgery. Therein lies part of the answer concerning how the Hoos will improve. Soroye has been slowly working his way back in to the line-up the last two games. He will get a chance to earn serious minutes if he can find a rhythm for ACC play. That could make everyone else on the floor better at defense simply because they can pressure the ball and passing lanes more with a shot-blocking, shot-altering presence behind them.
Offensively, the Cavs are missing the playmaking ability of J.R. Reynolds. Has anyone shown flashes of helping Sean Singletary create offense? If not, can someone fill that role the rest of the way?
Kris: This is where I get to finish my thoughts on Tat from above. The third, and in my opinion most important, reason Tat could see more playing time the rest of this season is because he brings something to the table that most of the other guards haven’t. A to-the-basket game. Noted as a slashing, scoring type of recruit, Tat can create off the dribble and force the defense to play the paint differently than some of his teammates. That’s the one element of J.R. Reynolds’ game that the Hoos are sorely missing this season – the assists and free throw attempts are down at the off-guard position. Truthfully, only Sean Singletary and Calvin Baker have shown signs of being able to dribble-drive consistently and Baker doesn’t earn trips to the line as frequently as Reynolds did. Jeff Jones shows flashes of the trait, but hasn’t played consistently on either end of the floor. So that brings us back to Tat, who can bring that characteristic to the offense while also boosting the team on the defensive end of the floor.
Marc: Right now, I think Jeff Jones is the guy that can make it happen. Jones has shown the ability to be a playmaker. He has started all 13 games, and is averaging 6.1 points
per game. Another player who has stepped up is freshman Mike Scott, who has proven to be a weapon in the post. Scott is second on the team in rebounds with 6.3 per contest. Calvin Baker is another guard that has shown signs of being able to step up, as well.
Jeff: Early in the season, Jeff Jones showed signs of being a capable replacement for Reynolds, especially in the upset of Arizona. But Jones’ production has dipped, and he appears to be in danger of losing his starting job. Calvin Baker has been a pleasant surprise for UVa, but he’s not J.R., and neither is freshman Mustapha Farrakhan . Virginia desperately needs Mamadi Diane to contribute night in and night out.
Is Virginia an NCAA Tournament team? Why or why not?
Jeff: Not if the bids were going out today. That said, if the Hoos were 11-2 and had beaten Xavier or Syracuse, their case would be significantly stronger. But UVa has only one non-conference victory of note – the win at Arizona – and that came ages ago. There’s still plenty of time for Virginia to earn another invitation to the NCAAs, but its poor play of late isn’t cause for optimism among fans.
Kris: Yes. EDGE subscribers know that I break down the schedule and NCAA Tournament hopes into three preseason categories: must-win games, 50-50 games, and résumé builder games. So far this season, UVa is 9-0 in must-win games (flipping Seton Hall and Penn in the analysis gives you this mark). The Hoos are 1-1 in résumé builder games thanks to a split of road games at Arizona and Xavier. That leaves the make-or-break category for most team’s seasons – 50-50 games. So far, Virginia is 0-2 in the “approximately .500” category. That means UVa has a little bit of ground to make up in conference play, but truthfully it’s just one game behind the projected success needed to make the dance thanks to the Zona win. And most people would say a 9-7 record in the expanded ACC is what’s needed anyway. In other words, Virginia has put itself in position to make the tournament if it performs well in the league and I think it will. UVa figures to be in the mix for spots 4 through 8 in the standings (UNC, Duke, Clemson at the top and Wake, BC, Virginia Tech near the bottom) – finish sixth or better and you dance. The Hoos will accomplish that.
Marc: Right now, no, but last season at this time, Virginia was 9-4, while they are 10-3 right now. They are actually giving up fewer points per game than they did at this time
last season, and shooting the three at a higher percentage. Free throw percentage is down a little bit from last season. If Virginia can improve its defense, and find a way to be consistent on the offensive side, they could make a run in ACC play, but right now, I’m