The only thing consistent about Oregon basketball this year has been the results: struggle to be competitive against good teams, and barely beat bad ones. The Ducks get one last chance for a statement on Sunday at home against a pretty good Virginia squad, coached by former WSU coach Tony Bennett. To preview this game, I did a little Q&A with our Virginia blog, Streaking the Lawn. You can view my answers to their questions over there.
1. We're very familiar with Tony Bennett from his time at Washington State. While his methodical offense and pack line defense didn't always make for the most entertaining basketball, he reached heights at Washington State that hadn't been reached in a long, long time. How has he worked out in Charlottesville to this point? Does he seem to be "the guy" that can get Virginia basketball back on the map?
Fans love him. Players love him. Donors love him. So far, he’s doing great things in Charlottesville – Joe Lunardi has us up as an early 7 seed in his most recent Bracketology, and a lot of this credit has to go to Tony Bennett, who has done the two things you want most out of a new coach: get your current players to buy in, and hit the recruiting trail hard early on. All signs point to yes, as far as him being the solution to put Virginia back on the map. I've never seen a fan base, from any school, as hopeful after a losing season as Virginia was following Bennett's first season (14-15, 5-11 ACC in the regular season).
2. Virginia was a basketball power in the 80's, but has been almost completely off the map for well over a decade. What happened? Can UVa return to prominence?
Well, Ralph Sampson graduated, which had a pretty big effect. Virginia's been up and down since. I think the 2001-2002 season probably sums it up best, when at one point, we were ranked No. 4 in the country before tumbling downhill and not even making the NCAA Tournament. The institution generally tends to hold on to coaches just a little bit longer than a sane person should (previous head coach Dave Leitao notwithstanding), but the fan base was screaming for heads before Pete Gillen, and before him Jeff Jones, was finally let go. Hopefully Bennett is the one to bring us back. Based on his recruiting so far, which lands us squarely in the top 25 for each of the past few years, Virginia should be a factor very, very soon.
3. The Cavaliers are 8-1 with good wins over Michigan and George Mason at home, but also a puzzling loss to TCU. What are the early returns on this year's team? Are they an NCAA Tournament caliber squad?
Yes. The win over George Mason might not be as big as you think it is -- the team is nowhere near where they've been in years' past, as their NCAA Cinderella role. Still, this team should make the NCAA Tournament, and it's going to be viewed as a disappointment if the Hoos can't get there this year. There's a ton of talent returning -- and producing -- including Mike Scott and Joe Harris. And some of the other guys have improved tremendously, namely Assane Sene and Jontel Evans. This is a good team, though it struggles with turnovers turnovers turnovers, and can have a bit of a hot-and-cold time at the charity stripe.
The next two questions are based on Virginia's Pomeroy stats, and are about the offense and defense, respectively:
4. Judging from the Pomeroy stats, Virginia's offense seems solid, but unspectacular. They shoot fairly well, and get to the line a ton, but also have a tendency to turn the ball over and don't get offensive rebounds (though some of the latter is certainly part system). Can you elaborate on the Virginia offense?
You're absolutely right. It drives me crazy that we don't go for as many offensive boards as we perhaps should, but like you said, a big part of that is that Bennett wants the boys to get back quickly. After all, a solid defensive position is basically the same as getting an offensive board. Mike Scott can create his own shots, and that can make for some entertaining basketball. But aside from that, our guys can at times take a little too long to get a shot off. Our players are of the type that, if they're having a bad night, they're just going to hesitate taking their shot that much more. On the flip side, anyone can get hot on any night -- especially Joe Harris and Sammy Zeglinski, but also any of the underclassmen. If Oregon can keep pressuring the ball and force Virginia to play at an uncomfortable pace, they'll be looking good.
5. Meanwhile, by every metric, the defense has been fantastic. Some of that is certainly pace, and Bennett's teams at Washington State always had long offensive possessions, then packed it in on defense, making for really low scoring games with fewer possessions. Opponents shoot a very low percentage, don't get offensive rebounds, and turn the ball over a lot. What are the thoughts on the defense at this point?
Honestly, I'm not not sure there's any room to complain here. The defense has been exactly what you expect from a Tony Bennett team. It makes for very slow, and barely entertaining, games, but it's also made for a couple extra notches in the W column, and that makes it worth it. You've described the defense spot on in this question. Bub Evans plays some tremendous defense, both on and off the ball, and has a knack for forcing turnovers. The 7'0 senior center Assane Sene is also growing into more of a defensive force, with 1.2 blocked shots per game, more than any Oregon player. Bottom line -- no team has scored more than 60 points on the Hoos, who, just nine games in, have held five opponents to under 50 points, and two of those opponents to under 40.
6. Mike Scott and Joe Harris seem to be the two big guns on the roster offensively. Can you tell us about those two, and other players that Duck fans should be aware of?
Those two have certainly been the backbone of the offensive firepower for the Hoos. But don't sleep on Sammy Zeglinski, who in addition to having a sweet three-point stroke, has a tendency to heat up at clutch moments in a game. Zeglinski is also the heart of this team -- he's on the floor fighting for every possession he can, and if you're not keeping an eye out on him, he'll run circles around your defense off the ball in order to try to create something. He's got the sort of hold on the team where, if he's having a bad night, it could be contagious for everyone else, unfortunately. Also don't sleep on the freshman Malcolm Brogdon, who came up big with 16 points in Virginia's upset of No. 15 Michigan.
Thanks to Streaking the Lawn for answering our questions. For what its worth, I picked a Virginia win over on their blog. Hope I'm wrong, the Ducks really need this one.