Scattershooting: Is Virginia basketball putting it together? Wahoos No. 4 in our ACC Power Poll

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo by Jon Golden

Scattershooting around the ACC, while thinking Virginia just might be getting itself together for the final month of the regular season …

The Cavaliers are on a two-game winning streak and host Clemson on Wednesday night before traveling to fifth-ranked Louisville on Saturday, where the going will get a little tougher. UVA has some challenging games remaining, including the home-and-home against Louisville, currently the best team in the league in my opinion.

Also remaining is a home game with Duke. Certainly the Cavaliers could lose all three, but you really can’t count them out of any of those games either if they play as well as they did against then-No. 5 Florida State a week ago when UVA ended the Seminoles’ 10-game winning streak.

The rest of the games could be a dogfight, including Wednesday night’s home game against the Tigers, a home game on Feb. 11 vs. Notre Dame, at UNC on the 15th, then a home game against BC, a team the Cavaliers lost to on the road when the Eagles’ top two scorers didn’t play.

Then UVA has back-to-back road games at Pitt and rival Virginia Tech, and neither will be easy. Then it’s Duke in Charlottesville, a road trip to Miami, and the regular-season finale at home against Louisville.

Should the Cavaliers continue to build momentum against Clemson this week, it could also build confidence in a relatively young team that is showing hints of improvement. They dominated the boards against FSU and the shooting improved in all three areas — the field, behind the arc, and at the free-throw line.

ACC Power Poll

Make sure you check out our “Riverside Lunch ACC Power Poll” below. Our poll is sponsored by our good friend Lee Shifflett of Riverside Lunch downtown, the best burgers in Charlottesville.

(Rankings, W-L records as of games played through Feb. 4)

Our pollsters are yours truly, also Scott Ratcliffe, along with Chris Graham and Scott German of the Augusta Free Press.

Hold that Tiger

Perhaps the Cavaliers can build some momentum if they can win a third straight when Clemson comes to town and gain some measure of revenge against the Tigers’ football team, which blew out UVA in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte.

It won’t be easy for Clemson, which has lost nine in a row to the Wahoos on the hardwood. The Tigers are coming off a loss at Wake Forest in a game where Clemson was woeful on offense.

When a team is struggling to shoot and score, going up against UVA is not recommended.

“We didn’t play very well offensively at Wake and the remedy for that is to go to Charlottesville, which doesn’t seem like a very good idea, but that’s what’s scheduled,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell. “When you play against Virginia’s defense, you’ve got to move the ball. If you play too deep into the shot clock, unless you have players that can create their own shots, it becomes even more difficult.”

Wahoos: A light-bulb moment?

We sense that Virginia is getting better. The Cavaliers have won three of their last four (at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest and against No. 5 FSU). They shouldn’t have lost a rare home game against visiting NC State.

Even Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts knew he stole one, and was so giddy over the feat that his team dropped in at Ben & Jerry’s near John Paul Jones Arena after the game to celebrate.

Asked about leadership, Tony Bennett said he believed everyone on the team was improving in that area, noting that it’s a process.

This is the third week this season that Virginia has essentially had at least a week-long break without a game, something that Bennett said has been helpful in some areas, giving extra time to work on various shortcomings, yet allowing for the players to get some rest and/or to recover from injury.

Virginia should be fresh for the upcoming games, and because the team is beginning to shoot a little better, that could come in handy.

UVA is ranked No. 327 in field-goal percentage (out of 353 teams) at 40.3, and No. 345 in 3-point shooting (27.2). However, the Cavaliers shot better against Florida State and were an impressive 20 of 23 from the free-throw line.

Virginia is at the bottom of the ACC in free throws attempted.

“You always want to get to the line and get those extra points,” Bennett said. “It was extremely important against Florida State.”

Still playing defense

While Virginia is improving, but struggling with its shooting, one thing hasn’t changed.

Defense.

Heading into the week, UVA was ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (50.7), and also in field-goal percentage defense (35.8), while sitting at No. 3 in fewest fouls (268), fourth in personal fouls per game (13.4), and 26th in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (29.4).

“Why is Virginia’s defense so good?” Brownell said. “They’re athletic, competitive players. Those guys are as good as athletes as there are in the league. They can move their feet, they’re tough, they’re tough-minded and they’re athletic. And they are coached in great detail. They’re outstanding defensively again.”

Free Throws

…A lot of the ACC’s coaches believe that Notre Dame is the best offensive squad in the conference. The Irish are led by John Mooney and T.J. Gibbs. Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner said that Notre Dame’s offense is as good as Virginia is on defense.

Pitt’s Jeff Capel added: “Defending [Notre Dame] is difficult because they have a lot of experience. It’s a confident team.”

Capel also likes the coaching of veteran Mike Brey: “I’ve felt he’s one of the better coaches in college basketball for a while.”

…Don’t look now but Louisville is 6-0 in ACC road games. So how does Coach Chris Mack do it?

“A few of those games were right down to the wire,” Mack said. “When you can make plays down the stretch and make your free throws, you lean on your experience. We have a lot of guys that are in their fifth year of college basketball and have played on the road. You have to understand that teams are going to make a run in their own building and you can’t get frazzled when a couple of things don’t go your way.”

The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back road wins over Boston College and NC State.

…If you think UVA’s Jay Huff has improved defensively, give yourself a slap on the back. Huff was particularly effective in hedging against FSU last week.

“He has definitely gotten better at [hedging defensively],” Bennett commented. “There has been games where if that’s what we’re doing, he’s bounced guys out because he’s so long and agile. He has really improved in that area and other areas.”

Huff leads the team with 31 blocked shots (Diakite has 25) heading into the Clemson game. Huff had 25 blocks last season and Diakite had 63. Each have recorded 14 swats in ACC competition.

…Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone hasn’t been quite as effective as normal and the Hall of Fame coach blames that on size.

“We’re not getting the defensive play to keep guys from scoring down there. Most of it is physicality,” Boeheim said, pointing out that his inside guys just aren’t as big as many opponents and get bulled around. “We’re trying to help more with the forwards in those situations.”

Kihei’s heart

After Virginia beat FSU last week, Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton commented that while the 5-foot-9 Clark might have been small in stature, he believed the UVA point guard had the biggest heart in the ACC.

Because the visiting coach always meets with media after Bennett at UVA home games, media didn’t get a chance for Bennett’s reaction about that comment until this week’s coaches’ teleconference. Asked when he noticed Kihei’s heart, it was a no-brainer response by the Cavaliers’ coach.

“It was the quality that drew me to him along as other things,” Bennett said. “He’s not real tall but he’s a warrior and I saw that right away and never doubted it.”

Bennett said he learned about size and heart by playing behind Muggsy Bogues while with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets for three years.

“He was relentless,” Bennett said of Bogues. “That big-heart mentality that Leonard Hamilton mentioned, that makes an impression. I’m not afraid to take a chance on a guy that might not have the physical tangibles. When you see guys that have those things, it’s not as signficant as the main attributes.”

Mamadi from long distance

In that same big win over FSU, fifth-year forward Mamadi Diakite banged back-to-back 3-pointers at a crucial part of the game.

Diakite has connected on 16 of 40 shots from behind the arc this season (6 of 15 in ACC play), dang near 50 percent. Coming into this season, he had only made 8 of 28 for his career.

“He’s worked really hard at it,” Bennett said about his senior forward, who is known more for his leaping ability and blocked shots than his 3-pointers. “He has made some free throws, so he has some touch. He’s capable.

“Of course, he has to get on the glass and score intermediately and closer in. As long as he’s taking the right shots, it has been a positive for us. Sometimes you have to take the best shot that presents itself.”

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