The Virginia basketball team jumped out to a 6-0 record this season and claimed the Emerald Coast Classic title in the process. The Cavaliers have won all six games by double digits with an average margin of victory of 31.5 points.
UVA’s closest victory of the season came in the last outing against Providence, a 63-52 win that clinched the program’s fourth straight November tournament title. Even that contest, however, saw Virginia lead by double digits for the final 7:36 of action.
The Sabre pulled fan questions for the “Ask The Sabre” series to take a closer look at the great start to the season. This series is presented by our newest sponsor Bundoran Farm, where you can Create Your Virginia Legacy. To see the “Ask The Sabre” articles in the archives, just click here. Visit Bundoran Farm here.
This edition features several questions on defense plus recalibrated lineups and expectations. Let’s go!
How would running a four guard lineup change the anatomy of the Pack Line? Is it possible to run our same defense with four guards on the court and what would that look like? Can it be as effective as playing a traditional lineup? ~ nHOOclear
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Playing four guards on defense does not appreciably change the tenets of the Pack Line defense. The rules for it remain fairly simple even with that change. The personnel and strategy of the OTHER team, however, can change things dramatically and that’s where four guards (or stretch forwards) start to really impact the look of UVA’s defense.
For example, Cavalier fans know that the team likes to use a post-to-post trap to double team players on the low block as part of the Pack Line. For teams with traditional lineups that frequently place the other post player on the opposite block or near the high post, that makes the decision and execution a little bit easier for the Hoos. The trap comes from one of two places repeatedly and can be anticipated by the trapper.
An opponent playing four guards, however, can change the location of that player by putting all four non-post players around the 3-point line above the ACC logo. Offenses then can exchange positions of those players on the pass into the post and it becomes more difficult to send a post-to-post trap. The good news here is that UVA already has a different call at times to bother the post that works the same way in four guard lineups and traditional lineups: choke. In this scenario, the guard on the post entry side of the floor chokes down toward the post catch to bother spacing and timing.
Beyond that example, the defense is going to look extremely similar even with four guards on the floor. No one other than the on-ball defender drifts outside the imaginary arc a couple of feet inside the 3-point line. Everyone prepares to help on drives and to take away the paint. Again, the opponent can challenge this differently with four guards on the floor because it creates additional opportunities for players with perimeter skills to drive, pass, and potentially shoot over the defense in an attempt to crack that shell.
The one exception? As always, it’s on-ball screens. I refer to this as a speciality situation vs. pure Pack Line defense because it brings a player that’s not guarding the ball – the screener’s defender – outside of the imaginary Pack Line to help guard the ball. This leaves three players instead of four in the shell for a moment. Teams that can pop or separate away from that on-ball screen defense and especially teams that can drive out of that pop can sometimes crack the pack.
Which brings us to this question …
What play would you say is our Achilles’ Heel? ~ Mg234
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I always think there are two answers to this question.
First, from where we just left off in the last question, the play that challenges the Pack Line defense the most is the on-ball screen with a pop from the screener to become a 3-point shooter. It becomes even more difficult if that screener can also drive off the pop or merely shoot over the defense’s recovery. There are countless examples of this over the Tony Bennett era from Iowa State early on to Wake Forest to Clemson to George Washington. Sometimes, this one look causes all kinds of headaches.
A second layer to it is when teams like Miami or Virginia Tech uses a double on-ball screen with one screener rolling and one screener popping. That really tests the Pack Line rotations with three players outside of the imaginary Pack Line area. Fortunately, that’s a specialty set and not one that teams can go to the well too often to use.
The second play that can be troublesome? Elbow post-ups (isolation) or dribble post-ups (isolation). When the opponent has a player that it can post up either on the elbow or in the short corner (inside the 3-point line) away from the block, those are two areas that are gray in terms of the Pack Line rules. If that player can then dribble into post position or into post moves, it essentially negates post-to-post double teams but still uses the ability of that player to score on post moves.
Can the fundamentals of the Pack Line stay sound while still increasing our steals and increasing our pace? Are we just that much quicker and smarter than in previous years, or is our increase in steals going to lead to a few more breakdowns in the Pack Line than in previous years? ~ HooBear
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: First, some context. Virginia boasts a steal percentage (steals per possession) of 12.5% through six games. That’s a big leap from last season’s 8.6% and would be the highest of the Tony Bennett era if it held through the season (2011-2012 came in at 10.4%). West Virginia led the country last season at 13.5%.
In other words, that number likely won’t hold. Early season games against overmatched opponents tend to skew numbers a little bit. West Virginia for example, currently stands at 17.0%, a similar 3.5% increase to UVA’s 3.9% increase.
With that context out of the way, I don’t think that’s the real essence of the question. Can the Pack Line create some steals and still stay sound? Yes, I think it can. Some of it is personnel related. That 2011-2012 team featured Jontel Evans and Sammy Zeglinski in the backcourt and both had a knack for steals as they combined for 97 on the season. Evans had 50 and Zeglinski 47. On the ACC’s 2014 double champion team, only Malcolm Brogdon cracked 40 steals with 44 and he played 5 more games than the Evans-Zeglinksi duo.
Isaiah Wilkins, Marial Shayok, and others all can be steal threats so the team percentage may go up this season. The experience factor can help there as well because four perimeter players getting minutes have played at least one full year in the defense, meaning better positioning and more steals are a possibility without more mistakes developing as a result.
Who do you see on the court at the end of a close game? Especially when we have the lead and the other team will need to foul but we want to get the defensive rebound? ~ bookhoo
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I suspect the answer is opponent dependent, but I could see a lineup of London Perrantes, Darius Thompson, Devon Hall or Marial Shayok, Isaiah Wilkins, and Jarred Reuter as an option. All of those players are good free throw shooters (or at least off to a good start in the case of Hall and Shayok vs. previous years) and that gives you at least four rebounding options too. I can accept arguments for Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy as well. Both look to have a good shooting stroke and have good poise vs. ball pressure too.
How important will Mamadi Diakite be and can he be a significant contributor on offense and defense for the Virginia basketball team? ~ NoPlaceLikeHoo
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Boy oh boy did Diakite draw a lot of eyeballs in his first five games! Some of that, of course, is true because of the dismissal of Austin Nichols. But a lot of it – most? – has nothing to do with that. Diakite’s potential jumps off the floor, grabs you by the eyeballs, and won’t let you look away. Simply put, his athleticism is mesmerizing.
Back to the question, though. The Nichols situation changed the degree of the answer. Diakite went from mildly important to vitally important with the roster change. He provides post depth that will try to preserve the redshirt year for freshman Jay Huff and guard against potential foul trouble for Isaiah Wilkins, the only other extremely mobile post defender in the rotation.
As for that magic word potential, I don’t think there’s any question after seeing Diakite’s first five games that he can and will be a significant contributor on both ends of the floor. Defensively, he produces a high activity level, challenges shots to provide rim protection, and erases a lot of his mistakes with the aforementioned athleticism. I suspect teams will eventually try to challenge his recovery in rotations, but so far he’s been good enough to avoid foul trouble or being too late in those scenarios. Offensively, he’s shown good hands and touch around the blocks plus the ability to hit rhythm jump shots periodically.
Watching Diakite’s development will be one of the most entertaining parts of this current team.
How tight does the rotation get against better competition and who gets left out? ~ NycHOOps
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I think this is a fascinating question. I’ve often stated that Coach Bennett plays 8.5 to 9 guys in the rotation. History supports that. Four perimeter players, four post players, and one player getting spot minutes in either spot (8.5) or one player getting a steady does of short minutes (9). There are exceptions for foul trouble and early in the season, but the blueprint mostly sticks to that outline.
In this season’s first six games, Bennett seems to have settled on 10 players in the regular rotation (9.5 if you want to count Ty Jerome’s minutes as spot minutes). The interesting part of it that feels like a departure from previous years at this stage of the season is that it has felt like a planned rotation vs. just experimenting with lineups. That makes me think this season may play out with this look vs. it getting trimmed mid-January for the stretch run.
Part of it has an almost NBA feel to it where the second unit gets a lot of time together with one veteran. The lineup I’m thinking of specifically is Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Marial Shayok, Mamadi Diakite, and Jarred Reuter. That lineup tends to get a few minutes together late in the first half. Guy-Shayok join first with London Perrantes, Isaiah Wilkins, and Jack Salt. Reuter checks in for Salt. Diakite for Wilkins. Finally, Jerome gets Perrantes. Those subs are staggered but eventually you end up with this NBA second unit vibe anchored by Shayok.
Long story short: I’m not sure the rotation tightens up too much as the season goes, though the minutes might get a little more scarce for Jerome and possibly one of the post players in certain situations.
Biggest question is, “What is the (revised) upside of this team, given Austin Nichols’ departure?” And, perhaps, is it any different? ~ CalmHoo
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: The million dollar question. Can I phone a friend? I’ve answered the Nichols’ question among friends and family like this: significant loss, but not an insurmountable one. Considering that I devoted one whole spot in my preseason 10 questions to Nichols, to pretend that his dismissal isn’t a big deal doesn’t make much sense. It is. The redshirt season and the offseason included plans and preparation with Nichols in mind.
With that said, the loss is not an insurmountable one. First, Virginia has depth so it can spread some of the minutes and production hopes across multiple players. Second, Virginia has a system that emphasizes team defense and team offense anyway. Third, Virginia has coaches that put players in comfortable spots and who outline a strategy to maximize each players’ potential.
So what does that do to the team’s upside? I think most fans had Sweet 16 or better hopes in mind for this season. In other words, a second weekend NCAA Tournament team with hopes of a good tourney draw and potential breakthrough. The floor – a first weekend exit – comes into play at a higher percentage probably, but with experienced guard play still in place, I don’t think the ceiling changes too much even with the roster shift.