These are the best of times for Virginia. The Cavaliers are 13-1 and ranked in the top 25 -- for a program that's won just one NCAA tournament game over the past 16 years, that qualifies as very good news. So let me state up front that this is without question the best Virginia team we've seen in at least five years. In fact, if you want to split hairs,this group is likely even better than the 2007 UVA team that somehow managed to win a piece of the ACC regular season title despite outscoring conference opponents by just 0.03 points per possession. Cavaliers, rejoice!
To the world outside of Charlottesville, however, there are still a few questions this team needs to answer before they can be classified alongside a certain Big Two in the ACC. For instance remember when I said Virginia's 13-1? The one loss was to TCU, a team that's lost home games to Nebraska and Tulsa. Nor, as we shall see, was that game the only instance of troubling performance from Tony Bennett's team. Nevertheless in the spirit of rightfully enthused Hoo fans, I'm going to start my assessment of Virginia on a positive note. And what a positive note....
Mike Scott's having an amazing and shamefully under-appreciated year.
Scott earned first-team All-ACC honors in the preseason by the skin of his teeth (tying with Duke's Seth Curry for the fifth and final spot), but I trust if a second round of voting were held today he'd be a shoo-in. Just look at what Scott has done. He scores 16 points a game even though he averages less than 30 minutes per outing in a slow-paced offense. He has an outstanding offensive rebound percentage even though he plays in a system that resolutely deemphasizes offensive boards. (Purely as a speculative matter it'd be interesting to see what kind of numbers Scott could put up if he played for a green-light offensive rebounding team like, say, Pittsburgh or Kansas State.) And he gathers in fully 26 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes even though he's listed at just 6-8. I should probably also mention that when Scott attempts a shot, it goes in, period. As Virginia's featured scorer he's hitting 63 percent of his twos, drawing six fouls per 40 minutes, and shooting 80 percent at the line. With apologies to usual suspects like Harrison Barnes and John Henson, this is your ACC Player of the Year (So Far) right here. Hands down.
Almost as amazing as Scott: the Cavalier D.
Bennett was hired in 2008 to do for Virginia what he did at Washington State: make opponents absolutely miserable. It took a while, but this season the coach has succeeded brilliantly in that task. The Cavaliers' defense has allowed just 0.82 points per possession, and even when we restrict our attention to "quality" opponents (those in the nation's top 14 conferences) that number skyrockets all the way up to 0.83. ACC, you are on notice: playing Virginia will be an ordeal, and it will likely stay that way as long as Bennett's in Charlottesville. Good luck.
The pack line scheme's great, but the mere emphasis on D might be equally important.
Throughout his career Bennett's garnered praise for his pack line defense, a scheme originally formulated by his father Dick Bennett. In effect the "line" is an imaginary boundary just inside the three-point stripe -- when the ball crosses that line the "pack" is charged with stopping the penetration then and there. All defenses try to stop the ball, of course, but the pack line scheme elevates this task to the level of a "Thou Shalt Not" prohibition. For instance a Bennett defense is typically much less concerned with ball-denial on perimeter passes, preferring instead to flood the interior with defenders.
Bennett has now proved at two different programs that the pack line philosophy can translate into fantastic defense, but I sometimes wonder if the actual scheme might be less important than the simple fact that a coach has decided to go his own way on D. Much like Jim Boeheim and his zone defense at Syracuse, for example, Bennett has succeeded in sowing doubt in an opponent before the game even tips off. Opposing offenses know this won't be just another vanilla man-to-man they're facing.
On the other hand: Virginia hasn't just won ugly, at times they've won hideous.
Some of the Cavaliers' most worrisome performances have been wins. Granted, if you're a coach that's good news -- you're winning -- but for the rest of us it's tough to form a consensus of awe around a team that beat 0-12 Towson by just seven points at home. And even that probably wasn't UVA's most disturbing victory. Bennett's defense has held every opponent to less than 0.95 points per possession -- every opponent, that is, but one. Seattle, of all teams, lit up the Hoos to the tune of 77 points in 69 possessions on December 21. One simple approach the Redhawks adopted was to pressure Bennett's offense full-court in an attempt to force turnovers. Scoring in transition against Virginia off of live-ball turnovers is a lot less taxing than facing this defense in half-court sets.
Another test awaiting Virginia will be whether they can come from behind against conference opponents. One traditional critique of the pack line scheme is that it's great as long as you're ahead or in a close game. If you're trying to rally from a deficit, however, an opponent with a lead will be perfectly happy to concede the paint and move the ball around the perimeter methodically until late in the shot clock. Anyway that's the stock wisdom -- whether it applies to this particular team is an open question, one that's about to be answered.
If you're one of 10 ACC coaches not named "Williams" or "Krzyzewski," your challenge is trying to keep up with those guys, and two of Virginia's three games against North Carolina and Duke this year will come on the road. In other words Mike Scott and company will have ample opportunity to show they belong on the same stage with the big dogs in their league. I say the fact that the question's even being posed is a tribute to Scott, Bennett, and the new attitude being shown by the resurgent Cavaliers.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.