The Virginia basketball team wraps up the regular season schedule with a home game against Louisville on Saturday. The stakes are simple: win and secure at least a share of the ACC Regular Season Championship and the No. 1 in the ACC Tournament.
With the Hoos in position for their fourth regular season title in the last six years, that’s a great time for another “Ask The Sabre” segment presented by AskLandis.com. We round up a few panelists to answer fan questions about the Cavaliers.
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Sabre Editor Kris Wright, Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne, and the Best Seat in the House’s Luke Neer provide the answers in this edition.
Ask The Sabre
Let’s talk about Jack Salt’s legacy. In November, the conventional wisdom was that Jack was on his way to evolve into Marshall Plumlee; it didn’t work out that way, though, and his usage and minutes dwindled. When Jarred Reuter left, we noted that there was room for only one player like Jack Salt. But now we ask, is there room in today’s game for any players like Jack Salt? What do you think about the legacy Salt leaves at UVA? ~ 3 U Circle
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: That’s two separate questions really. As far as the players like Jack Salt in today’s game question, I think the answer is yes but probably in limited doses. The 3-point line and the change in rules/emphasis for defending has created a different style of big man. Even the Brook Lopez’s of the world, who once posted up like crazy at the JPJ, now step out and provide spacing as shooters. Lopez took a total of 31 3-pointers (and made 3) in his first eight NBA seasons, but has launched 300 or more in each of the last three seasons (he’s 156 of 422/37% this year). Of course, Salt has never been a huge threat on offense inside or outside so maybe an example like Ben Wallace would be a better comparison. Still, those types of players are not all that common right now.
As for Salt’s legacy at UVA, he’s left a mammoth one in two ways: culture and winning. His coaches and teammates regularly praise his leadership, selflessness, and effort. He characterizes Tony Bennett’s Five Pillars as well as anyone in that regard and make no mistake that culture is a huge part of why Virginia wins so consistently. Salt’s been a part of 110 wins and counting the past four years (not including his redshirt year). Obviously, you can get those traits in players with varying levels of skill and contributions, but Salt has delivered near his ceiling while wearing the UVA uniform.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: There is room for a Jack Salt-type in Tony Bennett’s program all day long. He is the embodiment of the Five Pillars. Just look at these comments from Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome post Pittsburgh.
“He’s a very vital piece of this on and off the court, at practice and at games,” Guy said of Salt. “He exhibits the most selflessness of anybody on the team and he knows his role. He knows that whatever it takes to win he’s happy with. He’s always had problems with his back and stuff, so we’ll just be playing it smart.”
“I think this year Jack has been an asset and has done something that not many people are asked to do,” Jerome said. “He doesn’t know going into a game how many minutes he’s going to get, or if he’s even going to take one shot during the game. His attitude never changes. He will give 110 percent for us every single possession, and that’s something you don’t see in almost any other guy in the country. If you ask them to play 30 minutes one game and five minutes the next, I don’t know if any other guy in the country will give you their all, and he does. He continues to lead every day and fight through back pain. He’s a warrior and I would go to battle with him any day.”
In my interview with redshirting first-year center Francisco Caffaro last week, Caffaro noted how Salt has taught him to play 110% every time out. Coach Bennett recruits players who fit the mold personality-wise of Salt, but his level of selflessness, toughness, passion … those things show the way for younger players. His legacy is embodying what Virginia basketball stands for, for the younger players coming up.
On the court, screening, defense, rebounding and toughness are all integral parts of the Virginia program. Additionally, if UVA runs into a team with a legit low post scoring center (like Wisconsin with Ethan Happ), Salt will be a benefit to have in terms of matchups.
Best Seat’s Luke Neer: I’m a strong believer that in basketball there’s always a need for players who are content with not scoring/shooting and are willing to contribute defensively and on the glass and in the realms that don’t appear in a box score. For that reason (despite the fact that basketball is more perimeter oriented than ever) I believe players in the mold of Jack Salt will remain valuable in the future. Jack’s legacy will be more about the pillars: “servanthood” and “humility” and how he’s been invaluable to team “unity.” The last sentence sounds cliche but look at other examples in sports of how certain talented teams are being poisoned from a chemistry standpoint because too many players want large roles.
Is Jay Huff the next De’Andre Hunter? I think Huff’s surgery has slowed this year’s development by about two months, but he looks to be where Dre was last December or January. Different type player for sure, but match-up nightmares. ~ Lazarus
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: They are such different players, but can create problems for opposing defenses for sure. While Huff can be a shot-blocking or shot-altering threat, it’s hard to see him being as versatile defensively as Hunter has been. He’s not as consistent as Hunter quickly became through ACC play last year either. With that said, Huff looks like a player with the potential to completely swing games in both momentum and outlook. That’s something Hunter has been doing for the better part of a year and a half at this point. If Huff continues to improve at the rate we’ve seen over the last few weeks, what he looks like moving forward will be fun to watch.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: He could be, but how soon? Adding strength is the key. As you mentioned, surgery last offseason set back his physical development and you can see he gets pushed around in the post. A full offseason hopefully will yield significant results as far as strength is concerned, and if it does … let’s just say a Huff who is able to post up as well as step out and shoot the 3 will be a matchup nightmare for defenses. I think he could do for Virginia what Frank Kaminsky did for Wisconsin, depending again on his physical development.
Best Seat’s Luke Neer: I think in terms of development there are some correlations. The only difference is Hunter was/is able to dictate a little bit more as a playmaker due to his position on the wing and ability to handle the ball. I think one huge similarity is how Hunter was able to save Virginia last year in certain big time games by taking over offensively. Huff has played his best minutes in close games against the toughest competition in this current campaign. Examples: both Duke games, NC State, North Carolina, Louisville, and Syracuse.
Question on UVA’s offensive efficiency improvement this year. I know it’s the result of a very high 3-point %, good 2-point %, low turnovers, decent OR%, etc. but wondering what your thoughts are on why there has been such a big jump in the ORtg this year? Isaiah Wilkins was not a huge contributor points-wise, but Devon Hall had the highest offensive efficiency rating of all our players last year. So is it the improved offensive play of the big 3 due to further skill development and experience? What impact has Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff’s improved play and the addition of Braxton Key and Kihei Clark had on it? Anything else I’m missing? ~ unknown
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I think you hit on a lot of the reasons. UVA’s taking and making 3’s more. The Hoos still don’t take many bad shots and that always helps. I also think there’s more offensive scoring talent on the floor together more often this year than at times last year, which probably is providing some boost. The last thing I can think of is the use of more ball screens in the offense, which I think is leading to more uncontested shots near the rim for the bigs, more catch-and-shoot 3’s on kickouts, and slightly better chances of earning free throws.
Best Seat’s Luke Neer: De’Andre Hunter is playing significantly more this year. People forget he averaged 20 minutes a game last season. That average is now up to 31 minutes per game. Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff are outstanding finishers while Braxton Key and Kihei Clark provide spacing. All those factors lead to an increase.
How, if at all, have Tony Bennett’s attitudes towards substitution patterns changed over this season? ~ fallacy
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: The biggest changes I’ve seen are shuffling starters at the beginning of either half and a willingness to stick with different combinations around the trio of Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome if a particular group finds a groove.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: I’m not seeing much difference with substitution patterns from year’s past. I do think this year’s group offers more versatility in than year’s past, giving Bennett more options as far as matchups are concerned.
Best Seat’s Luke Neer: I think Coach Bennett doesn’t rely on depth as much as he used to. He has more talent and realizes that the talent needs to play more to maximize production on both ends so the rotation has shrunk from 10 (at times a few years ago) to 8. Some games it feels like a 7 man rotation because often there’s an odd man out depending on matchups. I also think he’s more inclined to ride a hot lineup as we witnessed this past Monday against Syracuse where Jerome, Guy, Hunter, Diakite, and Huff played for what felt like a 13 minute stretch.
Do you beat UVA by trading or enticing 2’s in place of 3’s? ~ UVAECON
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: That’s certainly a formula that a lot of teams go to – pressure the guards on the perimeter, lock and trail through all screens, and try to make players score off the dribble. Virginia is shooting more 3-pointers this year (37.8% rate vs. 35.0% last season), but still isn’t as reliant on the 3 as many teams. The Hoos rank 196th nationally in 3-point rate. Virginia has countered that strategy a bit with more ball screens on offense this season. The Cavaliers also have produced a slightly higher free throw rate and a higher percentage of shots at the rim than the previous two seasons to help try to deal with a run them off the 3-point line strategy.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: No question, teams want to run Virginia off the 3-point line given how well Guy, Jerome, and Hunter can shoot it. In general, though, teams must beat the Hoos at their own game – playing tough, hard-nosed defense and executing well on offense throughout the entire game. Defending the 3 well is certainly part of it, but it’s everything from fighting through screens to pressuring the ball and doing it consistently throughout the game.
Best Seat’s Luke Neer: I think to beat Virginia a team needs to protect the lane/rim and pray they have an off night shooting from 3-point range. Examples that come to mind include Virginia Tech’s strategy from last season at JPJ and the first Duke meeting this season. The perimeter shooting is significant but not always an absolute must. In the Louisville win, the Hoos went 2-17 from 3 and still won comfortably because everything at the cup was available.
What does UVA still need to clean up to optimize their chance to win it all? And what teams do you think would be the worst match-ups for UVA in the NCAA Tournament and why? ~ RallyEagle
Which teams in the top 25 are structured to give us difficulty in the NCAA tourney? ~ 105A
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Virginia seems to have corrected some of the careless turnovers that were popping up for a few games in February, but that’s still one area that can be concerning in a one-game format like the tournament. I’m keeping a close eye on dribble drive defense as well because any combination of foul trouble among the three big scorers and opponents getting free throws against UVA’s defense could be an issue. So teams with a decent blend of shots at the rim, 3-point percentage, and free throw rate could be concerning for UVA (I guess that’s true for any opponent though). Teams like Duke, Michigan State, Auburn, Purdue, Wofford, and Texas Tech are the blend of offense-defense that could get into a rock fight with the Hoos and make it difficult.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: I like the direction the team is going in. I like the toughness and the “blue collar” mentality Coach Bennett has mentioned before. I think the team is playing with confidence and with an edge. Virginia is getting a handle on turnovers, which was an issue in late January into early February. So I don’t think there is anything to “clean up” specifically – just keep the “blue collar” mentality and keep playing fundamentally sound basketball while also playing with confidence.
As for worst matchups, a full-strength Duke squad presents problems no other team presents in my opinion. Nobody else can feature what Duke can when they are healthy, offensively and defensively. That being said, I do think the Hoos can beat a full-strength Blue Devils squad. In terms of teams who UVA could see in region play, the SEC trio of Kentucky (can attack the basket, score in the post), LSU (guards playing very well, really good athletes and offensive rebounders) and Tennessee (experienced, gritty, tough minded) come to mind – not necessarily as horrible matchups but in terms of teams who would be very tough outs. With LSU, it’ll be interesting to see how the team reacts to the Will Wade/FBI scandal news that just broke. A major distraction for a team that has played really well down the stretch.
Best Seat’s Luke Neer: Short answer: keep turnovers in single digits. When you’re rolling out the No. 2 offense and No. 2 defense in adjusted efficiency per KenPom.com, it’s desirable to play possessions out.
I tend to think teams who are strong offensively have a better opportunity to give Virginia trouble in a single game tournament setting because defense can elevate in a do or die scenario for opposing teams. Also hot offensive isolation play can be a game changer as we’ve witnessed with Syracuse in 2016 and the Duke game in Durham this season. Coaching also is a factor so let’s add Texas Tech (if they shoot like they have this past month) Michigan, Michigan State, Gonzaga, and Kentucky. And obviously Duke and North Carolina inside the conference. Not going out on any limbs there. If we’re throwing out sleeper teams who could cause trouble I’d go with Purdue and maybe Marquette if Markus Howard has a 30+ effort in him.
Who do you see as most critical to tourney success beyond the big 3 & Mamadi Diakite? ~ hoosnick
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I’ll say Braxton Key or Kihei Clark. Those two are the others in the consistent eight-man rotation that are capable (or likely) to have to play 20 or more minutes in a matchup somewhere along the way. If those two are able to provide what they do defensively with rebounding and ball pressure plus something offensively during those big minutes in a certain matchup, it could be the difference in certain situations.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: Jay Huff, Braxton Key, and Kihei Clark are all critical for Virginia. It’s hard to pick just one, because I think UVA will need all three to play well to fulfill those Final 4/Championship aspirations. Virginia needs Huff to provide consistent offense to open things up for the rest of the offense. His rim-protection defense seems to be improving as well. Key’s versatility will be needed. His defense and rebounding are excellent. If he can become more of a factor on offense, being able to convert opportunities when they are presented, that would be huge. Finally, Clark’s on-ball defense is huge. As he hounds the opposition, Guy/Jerome can get back, set up on defense, and not have to work quite as hard, at least for the first 5 to 10 seconds of the possession. The key with Clark is being able to convert just enough offensively to keep defenses honest and keeping turnovers low.
Best Seat’s Luke Neer: Jay Huff is my pick. If Kihei Clark is playing crunch time minutes, other teams sag off asking him to score either from distance or on a drive. That will put additional pressure on the other four, which could be problematic. The case for Clark would be his defense, but I think other guards can and will shoot over him. He has value, but I’d prefer it in the first half. Braxton Key is steady so I don’t think his play will fluctuate in either direction dramatically. Huff is an elite finisher who can also draw traffic away from the paint by stepping out to the perimeter. If we’re looking at his defense, the majority of elite late game opposing scorers operate from the perimeter or the high post. Ethan Happ (Wisconsin) and Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga) are exceptions. I tend to think teams stray away from pounding the post in tournament settings, when the game is on the line, because there’s great turnover risk. He needs to play if Virginia is trailing. He’s been crucial in the notable comebacks this year. If there’s a decent lead, I could see an alternative lock down defensive lineup being the route.
Is the zone press coming back for the tournaments? UVA had mostly stopped using the zone press during ACC play but it has reappeared in the last 3 games (Georgia Tech, Pitt, Syracuse). Does this mean we can expect to see it more in tournament play? ~ Toolie92
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I think we’ll see it in limited doses at most. It feels like a club that’s in the bag, but one that isn’t going to be used as much as the putter.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: I expect to see it in tournament play, but I think it will be used as it has been in the regular season – as an occasional different look for the opposition. I don’t think it’ll be used a lot more, although that could change depending on the matchup and how effective it is.
Best Seat’s Luke Neer: I could see it emerging in an early game setting to disrupt rhythm. I think Georgia Tech and Pitt were games where Virginia had an opportunity to work on their bag of tricks so I wouldn’t expect it in high volume. But who knows?
What do we need to do to convince everyone who can stay to stay next year? Besides begging “please, please, please, please, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?!!”? ~ QBSacker
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Fruit baskets. That’s an NCAA approved snack right?