The Court Report: This season's Virginia team can be the best defense in modern college basketball history
Division I men’s basketball instituted the shot clock in 1985. Since then, only one school has managed to hold its opponents under 50 points on average for an entire season. Princeton.
It did it twice, in 1990-91 (48.9 ppg allowed) and ’91-92 (48.2). (Here’s what most of its games looked like.) The Tigers were a combined 46-9 those two seasons. Pete Carril used a crafty, imperturbable style of offense that would be eponymously named after his program. Princeton’s games were exclusively low-scoring and in fact the Tigers, in part because they nearly became the first No. 16-over-No. 1 fairy tale in 1989 vs. Georgetown, were viewed as a lovable team with a charming scheme.
Jump ahead nearly three decades and it’s No. 5 Virginia that, instead of being adored, is still chided often for its low-scoring style, even after winning it all. Hand it to Tony Bennett: he found a way to make the reigning national champions more polarizing and cosmetically unpleasant to the layperson than ever before.
And they may well join Princeton’s exclusive club. While 7-0 UVA has been the nation’s leader five of the past six seasons in fewest points per game allowed (2015-16 Wichita State the exception), this year it’s off to a laughably dominant start. The Cavaliers have the No. 1-ranked defense in America, not just in points per game (40.3; absurd), but also lead in fewest fouls per game (10.7) and naturally are tops adjusted defensive efficiency, which is the truest evaluation of a team’s effectiveness.
Virginia is allowing 78.9 points per 100 possessions, adjusted for competition, per KenPom. The next closest team, Ohio State, is about six points behind at 84.8. The distance between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same as the distance between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 38 Gonzaga. Again: ABSURD.
To see this outlandishness in another way, consider this chart, acquired via BartTorvik.com, which is just as informative and valuable a tempo-free analysis site as KenPom.
Look at that Virginia logo suspended in the mesosphere. As a comparison, Virginia projected in the preseason at 89.3 ADJDE in Torvik’s system — still No. 1 in college hoops, but a country mile from where it currently sits.
We’re still not making a big enough deal of this. Let’s compare this year’s Wahoos to recent seasons and where the best defense in the country was rating, per Torvik, on Dec. 3 of that year:
Again, 2019 Virginia is at 78.8/78.9, which is foreign territory.
This can’t be sustainable for the Cavs, not just because of the sample size but because of the competition forthcoming. Even still … could Virginia wind up with the best defense in modern college hoops history? Nearly 25% into its season, that is conceivable. I asked Ken Pomeroy to run a projection on this. He teased it out and said his (admittedly uncomplicated) model assigned UVA an 82.8-per-100-points margin, which would easily elbow away 2018-19 Texas Tech’s KenPom record of 84.1.
“I would take the over,” Pomeroy said.
As would I, but even still, Virginia doing this after losing three NBA talents (and sure, two of those talents were not elite defenders) is startling. We’re talking about a team that just balked Maine to 26 points.
Hear from the one player who thrived vs. UVA
To get a clearer idea of what Virginia does to the guys actually tasked with beating the Wahoos, I went to the best player to face UVA this season: Vermont’s Anthony Lamb. UVM is the only team to crack 50 on Virginia, and Lamb scored 30 of his team’s 55.
“We spent a lot of time prepping to spread them out and make 3s and push the tempo, play our pace and not get stuck playing a slow, monotonous game,” Lamb told me. “When I got out there, the first thing I noticed is they’re super-long. Everyone on the team has super-long arms and are trying to force you into taking terrible shots. On Synergy I watched a lot of their games. I was like, ‘These guys are taking terrible shots. Why are they doing this?’ Then I got out there and realized: this is why they’re doing this. They’re so long and they’re making you take those shots. That’s what they want to do and are living on that.”
Virginia is so well-coached and it’s been a boon to have a freshman like Casey Morsell, who is probably going to be drafted one day, step in and understand how to play with a quickness. Lamb said teams can drive themselves nuts waiting on a better shot — and then get lazy and resort to 24-footers.
“You have to go out there and have confidence to go out and make plays,” Lamb said. “Honestly, because if you’re timid and you try to wait for a better shot you’ll never get it — because they’re not going to give you a better shot. If they mess up a rotation, you better shoot that ball.”
It would be a mild surprise if any player managed this season to duplicate what Lamb did, to reach 30.
This all comes as preamble to the most curious game of Wednesday night: Virginia at 4-3 Purdue. These two teams of course met in the Elite Eight back in March, providing arguably the best game of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. I was there, .
And now, with good-but-bumpy Purdue squaring up against a confusingly elite UVA defense, I can’t want to see what this game offers. Virginia’s offense has its issues, no doubt, and I’ll save that for a future story. There’s also the loss of starter Braxton Key, who injured his wrist Nov. 24 vs. Arizona State and has no timetable of return. Even without him, Virginia looks built to withstand the loss.
For what it’s worth, Pomeroy’s algorithm for UVA prognosticates the Wahoos will give up a measly 1,443 points this season.
That would mean 48.1 points per game allowed — besting Princeton by one-tenth for the modern record.
College hoops might — might — have a scoring problem again
The Athletic published a piece in November, two weeks into the season, that brought some mildly alarming news for college basketball’s aesthetic: abnormally low-scoring games were returning with a frequency that shouldn’t be happening. One obvious reason is the new, extended 3-point line, in addition to some tweaks with officiating.
But as detailed above, we can think to blame Virginia as much as anything else, but it’s deeper than that.
Through first 13 days of the season, college basketball had 13 teams fail to crack 40 points in a game, and through 30 days we’re at 15. Additionally, the first 13 days of the season HAD college basketball at a 73.080 points per game clip. But through Monday’s results that number dropped to 72.226, and given that these figures always slouch as the season goes along, it’s entirely possible the sport winds up averaging somewhere in the 71-point range.
Compare that to recent seasons:
- 2018: 72.711
- 2017: 73.773
- 2016: 73.387
It might not seem like much, but in the macro these are not insignificant trends. In the macro, college basketball’s slog and offensive ineptitude is what prompted the sport a series of crises in the mid 2010s. So this will be interesting to track and see if it winds up being a one-year aberration. Remember, college basketball’s powers-that-be have made nearly a dozen changes in the past five years with the specific intent of making the viewing experience more palatable and modern.
Bobby Hurley willing to do the rare: mid-major road games
On Tuesday night, Arizona State won 71-67 at San Francisco, giving the Sun Devils back-to-back Ws vs. mid-major teams. (The previous was vs. Princeton.) The only other team from a Major Seven conference to schedule consecutive roadies vs. mids: SMU, and even that is not true if you don’t consider UNLV a mid-major, which many don’t.
Hurley told me he hasn’t swayed from his promise when he took the ASU job in 2015.
“If we are ever in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament, we’re not going to not get in because of who we scheduled,” he said.
He’s right. ASU’s average nonconference SOS across his five seasons, per KenPom, is 112th. That’s respectable enough for a big-league school. This season is on pace to be his second-toughest, only behind his first year. Hurley’s scheduled six top-10 noncon teams in five seasons, which is crazy tough — and consider that ASU had ONE such opponent the previous 17 seasons before Hurley got there.
He’s changed the mindset and approach of the program. As a result, Arizona State is as interesting and arguably relevant as it’s been for most of the past 40 years.
Hurley’s willing to risk it by playing in mid-major environments and he’s willing to risk it by going up against teams projected to the 3 line or better. What’s more, Arizona State was 8-22 in its previous 30 non-league tilts before Hurley got there.
And given that last season’s scheduled game at USF was nixed because of life-threatening wild fires, Hurley could have backed out of the series at no cost to his university due to natural-disaster stipulations. But he kept it and it’s paying off. Those wins will reflect well in the NET rankings and look good comparably to other teams fighting for the bubble, if indeed the Sun Devils are near the cut line a third straight season.
ASU should be 7-2 when Georgia comes to Tempe on Dec. 14. And the only reason that game is happening is because Hurley was insistent on playing back-to-back road games a season ago in mid-December. How many power-conference coaches are scheduling back-to-back roadies vs. mids and high-majors? You might not need both hands to count them all.
Have a question, curiosity or complaint? Do @ me. Lob your question my way on Twitter.
I don’t suspect UConn’s making the NCAA Tournament but I do think the emergence of freshman James Bouknight makes the Huskies a viable bubble team. We can have the NCAA convo realistically if UConn’s a victor next Tuesday against Indiana in the Garden. I expect the Huskies to easily be a single-digit seed in the NCAAs in 2021.
Buying the Pac-12 this season in regard to its improvement from last season’s ultimate nadir. Arizona can make the Final Four, while Oregon, Washington and Colorado are all second-weekend-type NCAA tourney teams. Arizona State also is a bucket of fun, and Stanford’s the quietest 8-1 team in the sport. It’s a nice bounce-back for the Pac-12, which nonetheless could use a few more strong out-of-league Ws to get more respect nationwide.
- On my note about Arizona State above, I’ll serve credit to Alabama (Rhode Island and Samford), California (San Francisco and Santa Clara), Washington State (Santa Clara and Idaho) and Utah (Nevada and Coastal Carolina) for being the other Major Seven schools willing to play twice against mids this season. ECU in fact has three games, but despite its conference affiliation, ECU is undeniably a mid-major itself.
- Through 30 days, there are 18 undefeated teams standing and six squads yet to snag a win.
- Couple of dangerous mid-majors setting school records: Liberty is 10-0 for the first time in its history and the Blue Hens of Delaware are 9-0 for the first time in their history.
- Mike Krzyzewski is now one of two coaches in NCAA history with at least 1,100 wins. The other: legendary Philly coach/Naismith Hall of Famer Herb Magee recently cracked the barrier. That man has a terrific life story.
- Quietly announced last week: Preston Murphy left Creighton’s program as an assistant coach to pursue other opportunities in basketball. Murphy had been on administrative leave since March in relation to actions he made while under surveillance from the FBI in its sting on college hoops recruiting. Murphy was never charged in the case.
- Credit to ESPN’s John Gasaway for mining through the results of the past decade to discover that, 85% of the time, if a team wins a November tournament, it goes on to make the NCAA Tournament. Good news for fans of: Baylor, Florida, Western Kentucky, Liberty, Colorado, George Mason, Oklahoma State, Pitt, Auburn, Butler, West Virginia, Maryland, Arizona and San Diego State, among some other obvious teams coming off tourney wins the past 3-10 days.
- Per Torvik, Stanford, Oklahoma State and Temple had the biggest boost to their NCAA tourney dossiers in the past week. Providence, Wisconsin and Cincinnati took the biggest hits.
- Biggest turnaround in college hoops this season is probably going to be Tulane. The Green Wave won four games last season — and they’re off to a 6-1 start with a road game against Southern Miss on Wednesday. Shouts to Ron Hunter!
- One of the 15 best players in college basketball through the first month is Nathan Knight of William & Mary. Coming off a week averaging 29.0 points and 11.0 rebounds. Averaging 21 and 10 for the 5-3 Tribe.
- This month’s Democratic National Debate at Loyola Marymount is kicking LMU out of its own gym for its scheduled game the same night. The Lions will play host to Portland State at USC’s Galen Center, 17 miles from LMU’s Gersten Pavilion.
- Lastly, check this awesome evolving bar graph of college basketball’s history with the AP Top 25. Story of the sport in six minutes.