SCOUTING THE CAVALIERS
Virginia has done nothing to dispel the rosy preseason outlook that had some predicting a Final Four finish for the ACC school. The Cavs are 7-1 on the young season, suffering only an early upset loss to George Washington before winning the Charleston Classic and running off six consecutive wins. Led by head coach Tony Bennett, UVA has been a regular postseason participant, having been to three NCAA and one NIT tournaments in his six full seasons in Charlottesville.
Virginia is led by guard Malcom Brogdon (Sr., 6-5, 215 lbs.) who averages 17.3 points per outing, but the bigger story in the backcourt lies with junior London Perrantes (6-2, 190 lbs.) who missed the last two games after undergoing an appendectomy. His status for the WVU game remains uncertain, so all eyes will be on the Cavs warm-ups to see if he is in the lineup. He is the linchpin in the operation of the UVA offense, averaging ten points and 5.3 assists per game, and controls their patient attack by protecting the ball effectively. His assist-to-turnover ratio is a gaudy 4.6-1.
If he can’t go, Darius Thompson (So., 6-5, 195 lbs.) is expected to again step in, but he’s no mere place-filler. He’s averaging 8.3 points per outing on 55.6% shooting from the field, and has 18 assists against just seven turnovers. Another big guard, Marial Shayok (So., 6-5, 215 lbs.) adds 5.8 points per game. Forward Anthony Gill and center Mike Tobey add punch on the front line. Gill (Sr., 6-8, 230 lbs.) is a consistent scorer with 12.8 points per game, and leads the team in rebounding with 5.8 retrievals, while seven-foot senior Tobey adds 8.4 points and five rebounds per outing.
Off the bench, Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins add a combined ten points per game, with Hall sniping from the outside while Watkins operates inside, scoring consistently on offensive rebounds. Jack Salt has started three games in the frontcourt, and while he isn’t a high volume scorer (3.3), he is efficient, as he shoots the ball at a 58% rate.
That last term, efficient, describes the Cavs to a T. They are deliberate on offense, pass the ball very well and get excellent looks at the basket. As a team, they are shooting a dead-even 50% from the field, and have assists on 125 of their 236 made shots this season. Those numbers have allowed them to average 77 points per game this year – a very high total given their pace of play and possession total. They also don’t give the ball away, having suffered just 59 turnovers in their eight games, setting up a huge battle with the Mountaineer press.
Virginia is very good defensively, ranking 38th nationally in team defensive efficiency ratings, but the Mountaineers sit atop that metric, allowing just .757 points per possession. WVU, of course, does so with its frenetic press, while the Cavaliers limit foes’ chances by slowing the pace of the game and not giving away extra opportunities with the ball. The stat to watch here? Total shots. WVU has gotten away 106 more than its 2015 opponents, while UVA has 87 more attempts than the opposition. They do so in a different manner, but the result is the same. West Virginia has allowed 57.6 points per game this year, while the Wahoos match that with 57.5.
Pace of play is the focal point of this game, and it might best be expressed in a pair of stats. West Virginia, forcing so many exchanges, is 53rd nationally with 76.1 possessions per contest. UVA is just two spots from the bottom of the country’s 351 teams, averaging only 63.5. However, both schools are also excellent at creating more offensive chances for themselves. Effective Possession Ratio, which figures in extra scoring chances via offensive rebounds while subtracting turnovers, shows both teams riding high. Virginia is third nationally, largely due to its low turnover rate, while WVU is ninth, based largely on its offensive rebounding superiority. The team that can forge the better rates in these areas will likely be the winner.
While Perrantes’ presence, absence and game shape will have a big impact on the contest, it won’t be the determining factor. Virginia is very good with its ball control and solid defense, and it isn’t likely to fall apart without him. The Cavs knocked off Ohio State on the road in their first game without him, and have developed a rotation that covers, if doesn’t entirely make up for, his absence. His return would certainly give them a boost, of course.
On the West Virginia side, the Mountaineers must be patient. That doesn’t mean they should slow things down – they still need to press and run in their usual manner. However, if UVA does get the ball up the floor, they can’t get frustrated. If they don’t force a high number of turnovers, they can’t go overboard and try to make hero plays, reach in, or overcommit in an effort to make the game frantic. While still trapping, they must be very sound in their defensive rotations and get to their spots – otherwise UVA will cut up the defense with their excellent passing. It’s a balance that can be difficult to maintain, but it’s probably the biggest key to a Mountaineer win.
West Virginia is 32-44 all-time at Madison Square Garden, while Virginia is 5-7. UVA won two NIT championships in the venue, while the Mountaineers won a Big East and NIT title there.
The Mountaineers will be trying to break the 7-0 barrier for the second consecutive season. WVU began last year with seven consecutive wins before dropping a 74-73 decision to LSU at the Coliseum.
This game will break the current 8-8 series tie between the state (not exactly friendly) neighbors. Despite the proximity, it has been 30 years since the teams’ last meeting – the longest break in the series that began in 1916. WVU owns the longest winning streak (four games). UVA has won five of the previous seven games, but before that WVU ran off a 6-1 advantage.
Virginia’s excellent shooting percentage is greatly assisted by its shot selection from 3-point range. The Cavs that can make them, shoot them. Those that can’t, usually don’t. That sounds simple, but it’s not a common occurrence across the college landscape. Of the Cavs’ five primary shooters from distance, four are above the 40% mark from beyond the arc.