“I don’t think it takes a basketball savant to look at this year’s Virginia team and say they’re not what they were,” said Jay Bilas, ESPN’s lead college basketball analyst who has provided color commentary for a handful of Cavaliers games this season.
The recent tumble has left Virginia (15-6, 11-4) in second place in the ACC, two games behind Florida State in the loss column, after the Cavaliers had been on course to claim the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament by winning their first seven conference games.
It also has revealed deficiencies Virginia was able to mask while feasting on schools in the bottom half of the standings, including two games against Notre Dame and one each against Wake Forest and Boston College, which is 1-9 in the ACC and parted ways with former coach Jim Christian.
Virginia is 1-3 against ranked opponents, including a 98-75 drubbing at the hands of No. 1 Gonzaga in Fort Worth. Clemson, then No. 12, is the only ranked opponent Virginia has beaten this season. The Tigers went on to lose three of the next four to fall out of the Associated Press top 25.
“We’ve got to become grittier, sounder, tougher in every way you can, and just little incremental improvements,” Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett said. “I don’t have an exact perfect answer, say, ‘Well, we’ve got to shoot it better.’ I think it comes down to offense comes and goes. We keep working on that, but I think defensively you can’t allow the lapses we have.”
Those breakdowns have been prolonged and especially egregious during the losing streak, with Virginia permitting 49 percent shooting over that time, including 45.5 percent in the most recent loss Wednesday night to North Carolina State, 68-61, in Charlottesville.
The Cavaliers had not lost at John Paul Jones Arena this season, winning their first nine games there, until North Carolina State managed to score 30 points in the paint, overwhelming the pack-line defense that emphasizes preventing opponents from paint touches.
Typically ranked at or near the top nationally in most major defensive categories, Virginia has dropped to 30th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, which provides advanced metrics the NCAA tournament selection committee considers in part when awarding at-large bids.
The Cavaliers are No. 13 overall in kenpom.com and No. 14 in the NCAA’s NET ratings, which the tournament committee also takes into account.
“The universe of teams that can beat Virginia this year is a little bit bigger,” Bilas said. “We’ve seen in past years, in 2019, 2018, Virginia can beat anybody. I don’t think they can beat anybody this year. I think there are a few teams that, the other team would have to play a lesser game for Virginia to beat them.”
The No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament remains mathematically within reach for Virginia, but it would need to beat Miami and Louisville to close the regular season and have the Seminoles lose their final three games. Among Florida State’s final opponents, only North Carolina has a winning record in the conference.
The Cavaliers do have championship pedigree to lean on though with point guard Kihei Clark and center Jay Huff. Both were part of Virginia’s NCAA tournament championship run in 2019, but the rest of the starting lineup comprises newcomers, including freshman guard Reece Beekman.
Two of the Cavaliers’ top three scorers are transfers in forward Sam Hauser (Marquette) and guard Trey Murphy III (Rice). Guard Tomas Woldetensae, another three-point specialist, has missed the last two games because of contact tracing protocols.
Woldetensae’s status is unclear heading into Monday’s senior night game against the Hurricanes.
“Nobody’s going to tell me you’re just insane for picking Virginia to go to the Final Four,” said Luke Hancock, an analyst for the ACC Network. “What you can do is win some of these battles where it’s an ugly game. You’ve got to find ways to knock down shots and manufacture points. That’s how Virginia wants to play, and that’s tournament-style basketball.”