Tag Archives: Ralph Sampson

Virginia Basketball – If it Ain’t Broke…

An unusual thing happened last week. Someone actually read one of my articles. It was then generously posted to the very active and opinionated Wahoos247 Forum where an internet food fight ensued over the future of the Virginia basketball program. I thought it was worthwhile commenting the differing opinions on the paths to Virginia success

It is my strongly held opinion that Virginia basketball is on the right track and that facts support my position. Tony Bennett has cracked the code to winning in big time college basketball without sacrificing the values and traditions of The University at the altar of the NCAA tournament gods. Virginia is on an historic trajectory. While Virginia can and should continue to upgrade the overall talent in the program, Coach Bennett’s system and program is not predicated on being a “one & done” NBA farm team. I would contend that most of Virginia’s fan base and donor community does not want Virginia to become another NBA minor league franchise, even if that is the price for an NCAA crown.

Shockingly, not everyone agrees with me. There is a vocal contingent of the Virginia fan base that enthusiastically believes Coach Bennett needs to step up the tempo of his program. Their belief is that top talent is required to win the NCAA tournament and that Virginia will never attract required talent with our current pace of play. They contend that while we don’t need to be a run & gun program, we need to push the fast break and create more secondary break opportunities. This is what top shelf talent wants in their pre-NBA experience and Virginia needs to adjust or stagnate at current levels of success.

Borrowing General McAuliffe’s reply to the German request for surrender in the Battle of the Bulge, I say “Nuts!”

It is important to note that no matter which side of the argument fans fall, everyone speaks of Tony Bennett in glowing terms. The man, the coach, the mentor, Tony Bennett is an exceptional leader. Some just want him to evolve his program from where it exists today into a more recruit-friendly, mainstream-fan friendly pace of play.

Unfortunately for that segment of the Virginia fan base, the facts are the facts. Virginia is on an historic run of success under Coach Bennett. For the first time in Virginia basketball history, Virginia will make the NCAA tournament for the 4th consecutive year. Virginia made the tourney 3 years in a row under both Terry Holland and Jeff Jones, but Tony Bennett will eclipse those marks this year. Depending on how well Virginia does in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, in 2017 Virginia will win the most games in program history over any given four-year period. Additionally, over the past 6 years, including the current incomplete season, Tony Bennett has won more games than any other 6-year period in UVa basketball history. Tony Bennett’s teams win. They win with a unique and consistent brand of basketball against the best teams in the nation that sport the top ranked talent in the nation.

Those clamoring for adjustments to Coach Bennett’s program as well as those like me who feel that we are on the correct path want the same thing. We all want to see Virginia win the NCAA tournament. We just disagree on how we get there.

For the same reasons that I wrote the initial article on Virginia basketball, I remain convinced that Tony Bennett has Virginia on a path to win it all in the near future and that dramatic change to the program would be the least likely path to success.

During the “Sampson Years”, Virginia’s other golden era for basketball, Virginia’s success was tied directly to its talent level. Specifically, Virginia’s success was tied to Ralph Sampson, arguably college basketball’s best player ever. When Ralph graduated, Virginia basketball was still good, but it was no longer in the national conversation and it declined over time as Virginia was not able to attract the talent to contend with college basketball’s blue-bloods. Finishing second for top recruits like JR Reid and Alonzo Mourning, no one was complaining about Virginia’s pace of play back in the day. Virginia was just the perpetual silver medalist for the top players in the country.

By contrast, Virginia’s current success is linked to its system, to its culture, and to its maddening defense and deliberate offense. Winning the Virginia-way requires exceptional attention to detail and basketball acumen. An unassailable 6-year record of success unquestionably suggests, that this is the recipe for Virginia to remain among college basketball’s elite programs. Talent levels for programs like Virginia will spike and recede. Virginia will never, in any scenario, sign a plethora of 5-star, top 25 recruits year in and year out like Kentucky and Duke. Instead, Tony Bennett and his system will weather the fluctuations in program talent and continue to win.

Ralph Sampson playing for Virginia was one of the most exciting times in the history of Virginia athletics. It was also a fluke. It is possible that Virginia could sign a player of Ralph’s talent again and keep him for 4 years…it is also possible that I could win the lottery next week too.

Rather than tie Virginia basketball success to selling our souls for the services of 18-year old, pre-NBA prima donnas for a single season, I would rather follow the path that has led us to the greatest sustained period of success in Virginia basketball history. Continued program success, winning big games against the elites of college basketball, and graduating players like Justin Anderson, Joe Harris, and Malcolm Brogdon to successful careers in the NBA will keep good talent interested in playing at UVa. Will it be top shelf, one & done talent? Nope. Do we need that type of talent to win it all? Nope.

As my investment advisor tells me, “past performance is no guarantee of future success”, but for Virginia basketball, it provides a pretty good roadmap of how Virginia can remain in the national conversation for a sustained period of time. Dramatic change to the current course and speed of Virginia basketball would also violate one of life’s most time-tested tenets…if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Could Virginia be Kentucky’s Kryptonite?

As I write this Kentucky and Virginia are two of this season’s six remaining unbeaten college basketball teams. Both are having historically good, statistically great seasons. They won’t play in the regular but an eventual collision in the NCAA Tourney is of course possible. The Wildcats are, with good reason, the talk of college basketball this year. Every other team, including third-ranked Virginia, appears to be a national title afterthought.

Kentucky has lots to celebrate this year.
Kentucky has lots to celebrate this year.

However, as a lark and to pass the time until the day that they get to write about Kentucky’s predestined national championship, sportswriters are entertaining themselves trying to find a team that could perhaps, maybe, possibly, if-everything-in-the-universe-lined-up-correctly, derail Kentucky’s championship express train. Kansas couldn’t do it.  Texas either. Blueblood North Carolina wasn’t up to the challenge and neither was red-blooded Louisville. Could Virginia be one of the very few teams that might give Kentucky more than a brief test?  I graduated from UVA and was a hoops-addled student there during the Jeff Lamp/Ralph Sampson-fueled golden era of Virginia basketball.  I have lived in Lexington, Kentucky for the past 22 years and have been here to witness UK win three of its eight basketball titles. I don’t know him personally but Kentucky head coach John Calipari lives less than a mile from me. I think my perspective on a prospective UK-UVA matchup is unrivaled.

Kentucky, with its eight championships, is basketball royalty.  Virginia historically has been a pauper but for the period when it beat, ironically, Kentucky to win the Ralph Sampson lottery. Sadly, like many who find themselves suddenly rich, Virginia squandered its fortune and spent most of the past twenty years in various states of destitution until last year claiming the ACC regular season and tournament titles, plus a #1 seed in the national tournament. Virginia fans are hoping that the school has this time made a solid long-term investment in the form of head coach Tony Bennett and that it will pay off in regular tournament appearances and a permanent move into basketball’s upper echelon.

Many basketball observers have opined that this Kentucky team could be the greatest ever. Such an accomplishment would place them alongside the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, college basketball’s last undefeated team and, because of the restrictive shorts of that era, a squad that these Wildcats likely would beat by 40. Such hyperbole is not unusual for Calipari’s Kentucky teams.  The combination of his recruiting acumen and Kentucky’s storied history has turned UK into an NBA incubator program.   Like legendary UK coach Adolph Rupp 65 years ago, Calipari’s program has reached the point where it recruits itself.  For any coach in any sport, Calipari’s position is an enviable one.

That this year’s Kentucky team is so loaded is not the result of Calipari’s clever stockpiling of talent but rather of a malfunction on his NBA assembly line. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, and twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison haven’t developed at the speed called for in Calipari’s production schematic. In an era where high profile players must “eat” to burnish their NBA credentials, Calipari found himself dangerously short of food (aka available minutes). To remedy this he came up with a unique platoon system where 10 players (9 now that Poythress is lost for the season) get relatively equal minutes and there is no distinction between what Cal painstakingly refers to as his “first” and “second” platoons. That he has gotten his highly-touted players to accept reduced minutes in pursuit of historical greatness may be his greatest coaching achievement.

If Kentucky is an assemblage of incredible individual talent, what then is Virginia?  It’s not Kentucky, that’s for sure. Kentucky runs talent, Virginia runs a system. That is not to say that Virginia’s players aren’t talented.  They are, but they are less heralded and their professional prospects are far less certain.  Virginia tried for years to land Kentucky-type talent but having to recruit against league heavyweights Duke, North Carolina, and other occasionally-great ACC schools was too difficult for a team seemingly always playing for next year. Six years ago Virginia determined that its best chance for prolonged success lay in the system approach. The Wahoos hired Washington State head coach Tony Bennett, the son of legendary coach Dick Bennett, creator of college basketball’s most perplexing puzzle, the Pack Line defense. Tony Bennett brought the Pack Line to Virginia and the results have been nothing short of astonishing.  Virginia has improved every year under Bennett’s tutelage, culminating in last season’s school-record-tying 30 victories and the program’s first ACC Tournament championship since 1976. Bennett and Virginia have accomplished all of this despite having exactly zero McDonald’s All-Americans and only a few players with NBA talent.  The system is the foundation for Virginia’s success. When executed correctly, the Pack Line and its focus on help defense covers up the shortcomings Virginia’s players may have against taller, faster, and more athletic opponents.

Now that Kentucky has dispatched all the teams on its nonconference schedule Virginia and Duke are about the only teams writers have left to offer up as possible spoilers. Could Virginia’s system neutralize Kentucky’s talent advantage? The easy answer is no. Players make plays and the Wildcats have more players than anyone. Kentucky’s guys would blow holes in Virginia’s D while locking down the Cavaliers defensively because it is the Wildcats’ defense that is terrifying and terrorizing opponents this year. Superior talent wins the day, right? Well, over the past year Virginia has posted a 33-3 record and throttled teams with far more talent,  but could they beat what is being touted as one of college basketball’s greatest-ever lineups? The matchup is more interesting than you might think.

Ken Pomeroy calculates pace-adjusted stats that give interested parties the means to compare teams across different playing styles. Applying Pomeroy’s methodology to the stats shows that Virginia and Kentucky have remarkably similar defensive and offensive profiles. Kentucky is harder to score on than Virginia, but not by much. The statistics bear this out. UK and UVA rank first and second nationally in scoring defense, allowing 47.8 and 48.2 points per game respectively. They also rank first and second in field goal percentage defense. UK’s opponents make just 29.7 % of their field goal attempts, Virginia’s opponents make just 32.6%. UVA ranks third in the nation in rebound margin at +14.4, UK ranks ninth at +10.5.  Kentucky allows opponents to score 82.1 points per 100 possessions and Virginia allows 84.2. That’s first and third nationally. Louisville is second.

Virginia’s Pack Line D is designed to deny the opposition close-in baskets and second-chance points. The way to beat Virginia is shoot over it. A team that makes its three-point shots will always give Virginia trouble because that’s the shot Virginia concedes in order to defend the paint. That doesn’t mean that Virginia is soft against the three, though. The Cavaliers’ 3-point field goal defense allows opponents a conversion percentage of just 29.2%.  With its interior size, Kentucky has not had to lean on the three-pointer this year. The Wildcats rank 182nd (of 345) in three-point field goal attempts per game and 228th in three-point field goal percentage at 32.1 %. Kentucky does have capable shooters in Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Booker has made 49% of his 50 attempts and Ulis has made 52% of his small sample size 23 attempts. Aaron Harrison is Kentucky’s most prolific three-point bomber and despite a knack for making the big shot he has been statistically terrible this season, converting just 18 of his 66 attempts (27%). His twin Andrew has attempted a far more modest 28 treys but has found nylon only on 9 of them. Booker appears to be the shooter Virginia would need to be most concerned about.

Virginia likes shots like this one by Justin Anderson.

What about at the other end? Could Virginia overcome UK’s length? On offense, Kentucky ranks fifth at 115.4 points per 100 possessions.  Virginia averages 114.8 points per 100 possessions, slotting them right behind Kentucky at 6th. By contrast Louisville, Kentucky’s last opponent and formerly the rest of America’s best spoiler hope, ranks 55th at 106.2 points per 100. Virginia is a better offensive team than Louisville and it’s really not even close, as will become obvious in a minute. Virginia has the backcourt size to match up with Kentucky, running 6’2″, 6’5″, and 6’6″ at the guard spots. There is no team in America that can match Kentucky’s frontcourt size and that would be an issue for Virginia because the Hoos prefer layups to three-pointers. Virginia ranks just 322nd in three-point attempts per game and would need to shoot a ton of them against Kentucky because the Wildcats will not let teams score at the rim. The teams that have tried (Kansas, Texas) have gotten obliterated. Virginia is a marginally better overall shooting team than Kentucky, making 49.3 % of its attempts (20th nationally) to Kentucky’s 47.2 % (51st nationally), and a much better shooting team than Louisville (43.1%, 197th nationally). Virginia guard Justin Anderson, one of the few Virginia players with an NBA future, is torching the nets this season and has hit 61% of his 48 three-point attempts.

Kentucky likes shots like this one by Willie Cauley-Stein.
Kentucky likes shots like this one by Willie Cauley-Stein.

Would Kentucky’s height allow its skyscrapers to pass out of the post traps Virginia uses to deny opposing big men easy looks at the hoop? Given that Kentucky normally has at least two guys taller than 6’9″ on the floor at the same time, Virginia won’t be able to double all of Kentucky’s bigs. If the doubled man can pass out of the trap Kentucky’s other big man should have an easy look at the hoop. Virginia will have no answer if the post trap breaks down or if Kentucky’s guards can extend the floor by hitting the three and that’s why I think that Kentucky’s interior height and superior talent ultimately would prove too much for the Wahoos to overcome on a neutral court.

SCACCHoops, a simulation service, ran a simulated game between Kentucky and Virginia 300 times. Kentucky won 167 times and Virginia won 133 times. The average score was Kentucky 60.8, Virginia 59.7. Fewer than five points decided 101 of the games and 12 of the games went into overtime.   While these results lend credence to Virginia fans’ belief that the Cavs could hang with the Cats, simulations are just that.  I think fans of both schools would love to have the issue settled on Monday night, April 6 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.