Tony Bennett may have finally turned the corner down in Charlottesville, where the Virginia resurgence is in full swing. The Cavaliers return nearly every player, including star shooter Joe Harris, from the 23-12 team that picked apart Wisconsin on its home court in last year's Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Don't let Virginia's absence from the Top 25 fool you -- the Cavaliers (7-1) are even better this season, adding two quality players (Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill) who sat out last year. The Wahoos are ranked higher (No. 14) than Wisconsin (No. 17) by Ken Pomeroy due to their stifling defense. But they need to win this game to strengthen a mediocre schedule.
The Badgers (8-0) moved up to No. 8 in the AP poll this week, their highest ranking since 2008 -- the same year UW last won a Challenge game on the road.
Previewing the rematch with us is Paul M. Wiley from SB Nation's Virginia blog Streaking The Lawn.
B5Q: People seem to enjoy discussing how Wisconsin's pace has gotten (slightly) faster since last year. Virginia would seem on paper to be a very similar team to the one that beat the Badgers last season, if only because of the number of players returning. Can you tell us what, if anything, is different about the Cavaliers this year? Have we seen the last of the mass transfers out of Charlottesville?
Streaking The Lawn: In almost all respects, this year's Cavaliers are better than last year's. And that's primarily because of depth. I'll talk more about specific players below, but Coach Bennett has done an unbelievable job of recruiting the last few seasons, pulling in talented guys who fit his system and unearthing some diamonds in the rough. Over the last few years, the talent level has come up each season. That's meant that some guys who played a lot as freshmen knew their playing time would evaporate as they stayed and more talented players came in behind them. Transfers are a part of college basketball these days, no matter what program you're talking about. While those transfers have hurt us the last two years, it's put us in a great position this year. Young guys who had to step up before they were ready are now fire-tested and battle-ready.
B5Q: Senior forward Joe Harris is fast becoming a world-swallowing offensive force (obligatory #SWOON reference here). His effective field goal percentage (74.1) ranks 14th in the nation due to his insane 16-for-29 shooting from 3-point land so far. Instead of asking how to stop Harris, I'd rather find out where he ranks for UVA fans as one of the greatest Cavs of all time.
STL: His jersey is going to get retired. That's a given. He is absolutely the best player we've had since Sean Singletary (although it has been lean years in between). The ceiling for all-time greats at U.Va. is pretty high, but that's because Ralph Sampson has to be in the conversation for best college basketball player of all time. Granting that Sampson is going to be #1, the conversation usually turns to who else is in the top five. And you're always going to get some collection from the following pool: Bryant Stith, Barry Parkhill, Wally Walker, Buzzy Wilkinson, and Curtis Staples. That list is about half prolific scorers in Stith, Wilkinson, Staples, and half post-season heroes: Parkhill led Virginia to the NCAA Tournament for only the 2nd time; Walker fueled the Miracle at Landover in 1976 for Virginia's only ACC Tournament title. If the Hoos can make a deep run in the Big Dance this spring, I would imagine Joe cracks into that pool.
B5Q: The Cavaliers have a very special sophomore class that should form the backbone of a rock solid team for the next few years, even after the departure of Harris. What can you tell us about this group and the progress they've made this year? Who stands out?
STL: Justin Anderson stands out, primarily because he is an absolute physical freak. He makes blocks in transition that draw favorable comparison to LeBron. He can slash, he can drive, he can shoot over the top; in sum, he's worth every one of his five-star recruiting status. Evan Nolte provides some interesting match-up problems for opponents, being a 6'8 forward who can drain the deep ball. He's too big for most college SFs and too fast for most PFs. He had to bang down low a lot last year, and that helped him bulk up to be even more of a nightmare. The single biggest leap forward has been Mike Tobey. He played great at the World University Games over the summer and his entire body shape has changed (except for the part that's almost seven feet tall). He's got tremendous touch around the basket and can pop from the outside, making him a great big in Bennett's blocker-mover system. Anthony Gill is technically a sophomore as well, but it's his first year playing for the Hoos. The best part about the sophomore class is that any of them can step up and have the big game that puts Virginia over the top.
B5Q: Predictably, the Virginia defense is elite once again under Tony Bennett. What's the secret to exploiting it?
STL: Y'all are as familiar with the pack-line as we are, so you know it works very similar to a zone defense off the ball. Beating the pack line ends up coming down to a lot of the same things that can beat a good aggressive zone. But we've really struggled with teams that cut well to the basket and can take advantage of post doubles. SMU picked it apart and made that game a lot closer than anyone in Charlottesville was comfortable with. A big man who passes well down low is going to give us the most trouble, especially if he can kick it back out to open, hot-shooting three-point specialists.
B5Q: On the flip side, the Wahoos are turning the ball over quite a bit on offense and missing a fair share of free throws. What worries you the most about this year's matchup with Wisconsin?
STL: Definitely the free throws. This year's squad is ten points lower from the line than last year's. We've already lost the VCU game by leaving more than a dozen points at the charity stripe. In a game like the one I anticipate against Wisconsin, every possession matters. Having a possession that culminates with getting the ball inside, drawing a foul, then leaving half the possible points on the floor when you're taking an uncontested set shot ... that's all it'll take to drop a close game again.
B5Q: Last year, both teams were unranked and sitting at 4-2 heading into the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. A year later, Virginia is the newly-crowned, one-loss champion of something called
STL: The "successful season" question is one we batted around quite a bit before the first tip-off. I'll stick with what I said pre-season: I EXPECT this squad to make the Sweet Sixteen. I think the problems that have popped up so far are eminently fixable. Coaches have myriad ways of fixing bad free throw shooting, and Bennett is one of the best coaches in the country. Our point guard play has been pretty solid with London Perrantes, who provides an offensive threat at that position we've never really had under Bennett. We'll get to play pretty much every style there is during the ACC season: UNC-Chapel Hill's run-and-gun, Notre Dame's grind-it-out, Syracuse's smothering zone, Duke's ceaseless Dukeness. By the time the Big Dance rolls around, our young players will have had another season's worth of development. Barring major injuries or other setbacks, I expect to enjoy March and April quite a bit.
B5Q: Give me a prediction for this game and for the Challenge overall.
STL: Oof. The only prediction I'm really comfortable with is taking the under. Maybe first to 63 wins? I think Virginia wins the boards; we're second in the country at pulling in defensive rebounds, and Wisconsin is in the bottom quarter of teams by offensive rebounding percentage. That advantage may be almost entirely negated by poor free throw shooting. At the end of the day, I think Virginia's depth wins out and we hold on for a tight one, 65–62. As for the Challenge, I'll take Syracuse, Duke, Pitt, Virginia, and NC State for five ACC wins. But five wins don't win a Challenge, so I'll say the B1G gets the better of us this year.
Virginia's rotation is battle-tested, no doubt. But I do like Wisconsin's ability to hurt the Cavs from the outside. Rebounding though ... that's a tough task against that group.
To get more thoughts from a Virginia perspective, remember to check out Streaking The Lawn. Big thanks to Paul for his time -- you can find him on Twitter @PWiley87 and the whole UVA crew @TheUVaFool.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||F||Anthony Gill, So.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Akil Mitchell, Sr.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G||Joe Harris, Sr.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Malcolm Brogdon, So.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||London Perrantes, Fr.|
KenPom win probability: 32% (64-60 L) 61 possessions
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