The best regular season event in college hoops is almost upon us, and for the first time since I added a second school to my college loyalties, UVA and Michigan will face each other in an event I care about. Who better than your resident Virginia fan to get you up to speed on Michigan's Challenge matchup this year? Here is your scouting report on the Hoos.
UVA loves Tony Bennett. Tony Bennett is totally our bishie. This is a guy who knows how to build a program, he's got UVA hoops fans truly excited about the direction of the team, and if you asked me which coach in the country most resembled John Beilein, I'd tell you Tony Bennett. Both have unorthodox defensive systems that are excellent at throwing off the opponent; both do an excellent job of recruiting while refusing to associate with the shady side of it, both have a long-term substance-based view of building a real foundation instead of flash-and-dashing their way to the top. Very much your classy, salt-of-the-earth type of coaches, instead of a huckster like Calipari or a class clown like Bruce Pearl. Bennett is younger and a little more reserved than Beilein on the sidelines, is the only ACC coach to have played in the League, and is still the best three-point shooter on the team. In fact, he's still the best three-point shooter that college basketball has ever seen; less prolific than J.J. Redick, but his .497 three-point shooting percentage is tops all time. Bennett was also the national COY in 2007 for making Washington State a successful team. He is a Wisconsin native and the son of former Wiscy coach Dick Bennett.
(Only going to deal with the top 8 rotation players. If you see someone else, UVA is probably in foul trouble. This is in order of PPG.)
- Mike Scott (#23)
Mike Scott is the heart and soul of our team, and one of only two non-Dookies-or-Tar-Heels to be named to the six-man (because of a tie) preseason all-ACC team. He is that good. Scott is a 6'9ish power forward who is averaging a double-double, and is a fifth-year senior thanks to a medical redshirt last year for an ankle injury. He plays with a strong emotional streak and has a terrific array of post moves. He can go up-and-under, and he loves to post then face up and hit a jumper, Sheed Wallace style. Scott is a ferocious rebounder and has been since freshman year, and he's an excellent free-throw shooter so hack-a-Shaq does not work here. Michigan will need to get picture-perfect man defense from Jordan Morgan; I think he's the only U-M big man with the strength to match up on Scott. Even then, Scott will get his points, and U-M would be better served to work on shutting down UVA's younger guards than by trying to stop the veteran Scott, because they won't be able to do it consistently.
- Joe Harris (#12)
"Joey Hoops", as some have begun calling him, is really the key to UVA's offensive attack. Harris is a 6'6" small forward/shooting guard who can do a little bit of everything. His best thing last year as a freshman was a crack 3-point shot, and his handle is surprisingly good. He's also a solid rebounder, and he'll never be a point guard but he can create some as well. Harris is essentially that white guy that good teams have that drives opponents up the wall and back down. He is Zack Novak if Novak were simply a really good white guy and not GRITTY MCGRITBOMB. (Not that Harris lacks toughness, but nobody is Zack Novak. And Harris is only a sophomore.) If Harris is hitting his outside shot, that is when UVA's offense is really moving.
- KT Harrell (#24)
No periods. Just KT. Keyion Tobias Harrell is another sophomore whose big thing is his mid-range jumper. He is getting better and better at developing the jab-step needed to clear the space for it, and his handle and creation skills are improving too, albeit at times inconsistently. Harrell is also a bulldog defender and very quick for his 6'4" size. Harrell is a quieter, not-very-talky player who prefers to bury that mid-range and hustle back on defense. He can be turnover-prone at times if he gets too careless on the dribble. Harrell will likely be tasked with guarding THJ, and that will be a good matchup that both players will get the better of at times.
- Assane Sene (#5)
You won't need the number to identify him. He'll be the huge Senegalese beanpole standing near the basket. Two years ago the scouting report on Sene would've been the hoops equivalent of "good field no hit I mean seriously couldn't fucking hit to save his life even off a tee." Tony Bennett and his staff have fixed that, and Sene's hands of rock have disappeared. He's now quite good with the left-hand layin especially, and being seven feet tall, is a prolific shotblocker and rebounder. Horford and Blake McLimans may see a little more burn than usual. I wouldn't have said that two years ago, but Sene is now a legit offensive threat, and of course, an excellent defender.
- Jontel Evans (#1)
Bub Evans is another bulldog defender and a former running back as well. A tough player. Evans is a point guard who sees his job as mainly distributing. He's got a good shot but doesn't trust it enough; I actually wish he would shoot more, either outside, driving to the rim, or both. He is the team's best on-ball defender and Trey Burke will find it hard to go around him, but Evans still has work to do off the ball.
- Malcolm Brogdon (#22)
The only true freshman in the rotation, Brogdon has a good shot and the ability to play either point or shooting guard. Early in the season he was our backup point guard while Sammy Zeglinski recuperating from an injury; now things are shuffling a little bit and Brogdon and Zeglinski are still working on meshing into their roles.
- Sammy Zeglinski (#13)
Usually the backup point guard. Sammy is a fifth-year senior, also thanks to injuries; he and Mike Scott are the teams grandpas. He's always been sort of an average player, but not a bad one either. There are ways to defend him, but the way not to defend him is to make him take a wild shot with the shot clock at 1; it seems his best basketball skill is to hit a three-pointer while flying sideways into the opposing bench or backwards across the midcourt line with nothing on the shot clock. Seriously. He does this. But otherwise he is sort of a replacement-level ACC player. As mentioned above, UVA is still working on fitting him back into the lineup after what must be his twentieth injury, and the offense is still finding its way around the newish rotation.
- Akil Mitchell (#25)
An outstanding defender with occasional SUPRIZE offensive moves. Mitchell is possibly the team's best athlete, and in terms of rebounds-per-40, is second only to Mike Scott on the team, even edging out 7-footer Sene.
- James Johnson (#34)
High future hopes for Johnson, who is a redshirt freshman, but as of now, six games into his college career, is basically a replacement-level big guy. Has yet to hit his first college field goal, but a serviceable defender and good rebounder.
-- UVA's style
Tony Bennett comes with a reputation of slowwwwwing down the game, and it's not undeserved. He hates early shots and prefers the team use most of the shot clock, so you will see UVA pass up the occasional open shot. He is also one of those coaches that eschews the offensive rebound; upon launching a three, UVA's players will immediately head downcourt and set up the defense. When Brian talks, as he has in the past, about ignoring RPG numbers and focusing on defensive rebound percentages, he could not hardly be talking more about UVA if he tried; the Hoos are excellent on the defensive glass and don't care much about the offensive side of that. UVA doesn't pass up fast-break opportunities if they're there, but the players are instructed to default to setting up the halfcourt offense if there is any doubt.
-- UVA's offense
Here is where I admit my knowledge is limited. Bennett openly admitted in his first year that he wasn't fully installing his blocker-mover offense so that he could focus on installing his complicated defense, so I don't really know where the old offense ended and the new one began. UVA does like the three-point shot, and will make use of the elevator screen and other tricky screening methods to set it up. This year, because of Scott and of Sene's offensive metamorphosis, they will go inside much more frequently than they have in the past.
Based on the season's results so far, there's a lot of work to be done on this end. Shots aren't falling like they should and the team still needs to gel on the offensive end; you could see that in their very first game against SC State and it didn't help that the rotation got a shakeup three games in. The TCU and Drexel games were offensive ugliness defined. On Friday against UWGB the team started returning to form a little, so things are on the upswing, but there's a ways to go, I think, before the offense is ready for the nightly February grind of ACC ball.
-- UVA's defense
Fortunately, the defense is fantastic. KenPom currently has it ranked 9th in the country, with opponents being held to 37% EFG%. UVA employs what is known as a pack-line defense, and this isn't Beilein's 1-3-1 where it's brought out in fits and starts to confound and piss off the offense. This is an every-possession philosophy.
The pack-line is one of the most complex defenses employed in college basketball, and it's taken these two-plus years to get it working. I don't know every facet of it and neither does anyone but some of the real gurus, but the basic concept is simple. Imagine a line the shape of the three-point line and about four feet closer to the basket - that is the "pack line." Defenders are instructed to guard the ball closely when their man has it and sag inside the pack line when he doesn't. In this way it is a man-to-man defense that takes on several aspects of a zone. It is very difficult to drive against. Post defenders will front their man and deny the entry pass; because of this, there is no baseline help and Bennett has drilled it into his players' heads never to allow the baseline. From the very first practice players admitted that Bennett would "lose his mind" when his guards would allow a baseline drive, in that sheepish smiley way that says "we've all been chewed out for that."
In the past, the three-point shot has been the bane of the UVA defense under Bennett, but as players get more instinctive and mentally quicker, they've greatly improved their ability to step out and defend that shot. Bennett has also allowed more freedom outside the pack line as the players get experience in the system. You'll often see UVA's players step out for a quick harassment double-team of a player on the wing before retreating to cover their man again, and there is more denial of wing-to-wing or key-to-wing passes than in the past.
That's basically a five-minute rundown; the pack-line involves a lot more than that, and many facets of it require an incoming freshman to unlearn all he once knew about man-to-man defense, and do the opposite. But the results so far this year have paid off in spades. Opponent quality notwithstanding, UVA has yet to allow 60 points in a game this year, and has held two opponents under 40. I'm really looking forward to seeing how this defense looks against a tournament-level team.
-- The arena
John Paul Jones Arena is not named after the admiral, no, but there is a portrait of him in the lobby if I'm not mistaken. It's a very new building, just five years old, and admittedly oversized. (Designed as a concert venue as well, hence the 2,500 seats that we probably don't need for hoops.) Hopefully the opponent will draw a crowd. The student section is L-shaped and somewhat larger than at Crisler; it is behind the benches and wraps around behind the end of the court that has the columns. U-M will shoot at that end in the second half; it can be a tricky shooting background for opponents because of the student section and the indoor pergola behind.
-- The town
Many of you who might be going to the game have probably already been to Charlottesville, and it's not like this is a football weekend, so I won't go crazy here. In fact this section only exists because I like to tell people that if they visit Charlottesville and don't eat at Littlejohn's if given the chance, they're doing it wrong. It's on the Corner, on University Ave about a couple hundred yards from the Rotunda. Go. Eat amazing sandwiches.
-- The game
This is UVA's first test against a tournament-level team, maybe even an NIT-level one. On the flipside, I will venture to say that U-M has not yet faced a defense like UVA's. I'm no bookie, but I will guess that the line will be set at about seven points in favor of Michigan. The best individual matchups will be Evans against Burke, Harrell against Hardaway, and Scott against Morgan. Scott will get his points, and I think UVA is stronger on the interior than U-M is. But Michigan has an explosion of guards that should eventually overwhelm the Hoos, if both are playing up to their best. I expect a low-scoring game, perhaps something along the lines of 67-60, Michigan.
As for me, I've always said that if ever UVA and U-M met on the court, or the field, I would probably end up pulling for the team that needed the win more. That would be Virginia in this case. Michigan just got two very tournamenty-looking neutral-site wins. UVA dropped a bad one to TCU and needs a win over a quality team to make up for it, and Michigan is the best team we'll play in the OOC schedule. This would be a very good road win for Michigan - because I expect UVA to end up with a solid ACC record - and could be worth half a seed, so I won't exactly be all sad if Michigan wins. But I think and I hope UVA is a tournament team this year, and is certainly a bubble team no matter how you slice it, and UVA needs a feather somewhere; this is a good opportunity.