- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite
Key Losses: Devon Hall, Nigel Johnson, Isaiah Wilkins
Key Newcomers: Braxton Key (Alabama)****
Outlook: The 2017-18 Virginia squad will live in infamy as the first (and maybe only) #1 seed to fall to a #16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Losing to UMBC overshadowed what was otherwise a wildly successful year for the Hoos. After being picked 6th in the preseason ACC media poll (and unranked nationally), UVA stormed to a 31-2 pre-Tourney record (the best mark in school history), ran away with the ACC regular season title, and captured the ACC Tournament championship. Tony Bennett was even named National Coach of the Year by nearly every publication. Virginia proved it didn’t need big name stars to win basketball games (you know, except against UMBC), achieving this monumental success without guys like London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon of years past. The secret is in the system.
UVA is one of the few schools in the country that you can plug in just about any set of decent basketball players and achieve some sort of success. Bennett took over a struggling program in 2010 and slowly implemented his preferred style of play, recruiting guys that would fit his offensive and defensive looks. On offense, the Hoos run a “mover / blocker” system. This is a slow, deliberate half-court focused attack that consists of two or three “blockers” and / or two or three “movers”. Blockers are usually big men and their job is to set screens (blocks) for the Movers (usually guards who can shoot). This system is one of patience – UVA does not push tempo in the open floor and they’ve ranked in the bottom five in the country in pace the last five years. Movers have three options when coming off Blockers’ screens: curl, fade, or pop. Blockers react to what the Mover does: if the Mover curls, he fades to the corner; if the Mover pops, he seals his man in the post; if the Mover fades, he flashes to the ball. When the system works, it’s beautiful to watch:
When it doesn’t work, a team can lose to a 16-seed. Because the offense is so slow, it can be difficult to put a ton of points on the board in a hurry, which is problematic when playing from behind. The good news is UVA rarely gets behind.
UVA’s defense complements its offense. Bennett runs the “pack-line” style of defense, which focuses on walling off the inside of the arc rather than extending pressure. The Hoos usually have long, versatile defenders that make it impossible to breathe inside the three while also providing good closeouts on long-ball attempts. Last season, Virginia notched the best adjusted defense rating, per KenPom, since 2015 Kentucky. Here’s an example of the pack-line defensive positions, notice the “shell drill” spots by each of the Hoo defenders:
Personnel-wise, Virginia still has a roster chock full of talent capable of challenging for the National Title despite losing Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins. All-American Kyle Guy (that’s weird to say) returns along with Ty Jerome to form one of the best shooting tandems in the country. Guy followed up his blistering freshman year 49.5% three-point clip with “just” a 39.5% rate on 100 more attempts. He’s one of the best in the nation at weaving through Blocker screens, running his guy into the likes of Jack Salt, to receive a pass in space. Jerome runs the point and he’s about as steady a ball handler as they come, posting a minimal 15.6% TO rate as a sophomore. At 6’5”, Jerome is able to score off the bounce and shoot over shorter defenders, making him a nice bailout option late in the shot clock. On defense, Jerome ranked #1 in the ACC in steal rate in 2017-18.
De’Andre Hunter looks poised to be the next “star” on Virginia despite the prominent scoring of his backcourt teammates. At 6’7” with a 7’2” wingspan, NBA scouts are drooling over Hunter’s potential as a Kawhi-esque 3-and-D-plus-more guy. Hunter has a wide ranging skillset, able to shoot, drive, and post; his length makes him a beast on the boards and menace defensively, especially in the pack-line. UVA will try to cash in on what’s likely his last season in Charlottesville.
Bennett has a trio of big men that he’ll rotate into the 5-spot and the 4-spot when Hunter plays the 3. Salt is a classic garbage man on the floor: he does the dirty work nobody else wants to do and sets more screens than anyone on Earth. Mamadi Diakite provides rebounding and rim protection while Jay Huff can stretch the floor at 7’1”. The three combine to form an intimidating frontline rotation that rebounds and plays suffocating defense.
The wildcard in the Virginia deck is Alabama transfer Braxton Key. If eligible, he opens up a whole new world for the Hoos and arguably makes them the favorite for the National Title. Key took a slight step back last season after a big freshman year for the Crimson Tide. Key is a versatile wing scorer at 6’8” that can get to the foul line or knock down a three. Defensively, he will be an asset in the pack-line as yet another long, tall defender.
2018-19 should be another successful year for Virginia. Bennett’s system is well ingrained in the experienced rotation that features budding stars in Hunter, Guy, and Jerome. One would think UVA is also on a revenge quest this year after being unceremoniously bounced by the Retrievers in the Dance last season. Expect the Hoos to compete with Duke and UNC for the ACC crown.