The Virginia men’s basketball team scored just 48 points and allowed a 19-0 run to Arizona State on Sunday. Despite its shortcomings, the Cavaliers (6-0, 1-0 ACC) beat the Sun Devils 48-45 to win the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off championship and remain unbeaten.
Through six games, we’re seeing a similar game script for the Cavaliers. Virginia plays suffocating defense, struggles to shoot the ball and makes enough plays to win.
“The way we’re going to win, we know our way, it’s got to be sound with the ball, get the right shots, make free throws and then be tough as nails defensively,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said after beating Vermont on Nov. 19.
The Cavaliers have their blueprint for winning games, and it requires everyone’s help.
Against Arizona State, freshman guard Casey Morsell stepped up. He attacked the rim in the first half and made key jumpers, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the second half, en route to a career-high 19 points. He played exceptionally well for the Cavaliers after shooting poorly to open his collegiate career.
Leading up to the game, Bennett stressed that he wasn’t worried about Morsell’s shooting. He wanted his young star to play well defensively and trust that the shots would eventually drop.
“I told him, yesterday or the other day, I said ‘First of all, I recruited you because you’re a heck of a person that represents what we believe in,” Bennett said after the Vermont win. “And you’re a heck of a player, but let’s start defensively.’ I said, ‘Be a defensive warrior for us.’ I said, ‘Be a defensive maniac. Play wild, get on the floor, grab some rebounds, spread out. Find your identity in that, and offensively, you just be sound, take the shots when they’re there and don’t stress about it too much.’”
The advice paid off for Morsell, who was a big reason why the Cavaliers beat the Sun Devils.
In the 58-46 win over UMass the game prior, Braxton Key led the team in scoring with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Kihei Clark added 14 points in the victory.
It’s been a team effort to improve to 6-0 with numerous players making key contributions at important moments. It’s becoming clear that the Cavaliers won’t rely solely on one star like Mamadi Diakite, but rather a collection of solid offensive threats and superb team defense.
That strategy has proven effective through six games, although the Cavaliers need to improve as ACC play approaches. A road bout at Purdue looms on Dec. 4, and a game against North Carolina follows on Dec. 8. The Cavaliers will soon face two challenging teams, and they’ll need improved offensive consistency.
Luckily for Virginia, the Cavaliers have a chance to continue working through the kinks Wednesday when Maine (2-3) visits Charlottesville. The Black Bears are 0-3 on the road with a 19-point loss to Washington and a 21-point loss to Harvard. Those two teams are expected to compete for NCAA Tournament berths.
Quite honestly, Maine doesn’t pose a stiff test. The Black Bears were picked to finish eighth out of nine America East teams in the preseason, and they’ve yet to show any reason to believe otherwise. Wednesday acts as an opportunity for Virginia to continue tinkering with its lineup in hopes of finding consistent offensive rhythm.
The Cavaliers could use a few backcourt players to find a groove against Maine. Morsell played well against the Sun Devils, and another solid offensive outing could go a long way toward boosting his confidence. Tomas Woldetensae scored his UVa-high of nine points in the win over UMass, and he’s a player Virginia could use on the offensive end. Clark shot 5-for-20 and 0-for-4 from 3-point range in the two games over the weekend, and the Cavaliers need more consistency from the sophomore.
Sophomore Kody Stattmann missed both games over the weekend, and he missed the game against Vermont with an illness. Getting Stattmann back could prove critical to finding more offensive rhythm, especially from beyond the arc.
Bennett said after the Vermont game the Cavaliers wanted Stattmann to rest after feeling ill in the days leading up to playing the Catamounts.
With or without Stattmann, Wednesday gives Virginia a chance to find an offensive rhythm against a subpar team.
Playing suffocating defense will keep the Cavaliers in every game this season, but it’s offensive efficiency that will cement UVa as an ACC title contender.