By Steve Roney
Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery. Sometimes, it’s the easiest way to achieve your goals.
Coming off last year’s NCAA Tournament appearance, and at 10-3 on the eve of their conference-opening tilt with North Carolina, the University of Virginia men’s basketball squad is in a familiar spot in the upper half of the ACC.
The road to this point wasn’t always smooth – unlike last season, when the Cavaliers breezed through their nonconference schedule to a 12-1 record. A two-point slip-up against TCU represented the only blemish on their resumé.
Injuries to Jontel Evans and Malcolm Brogdon and a suspension of Teven Jones left fourth-year coach Tony Bennett without a true point guard to start the season.
With leading-scorer Joe Harris playing out of position to run the offense, the Cavs dropped their opening game to George Mason. Less than a week later, they lost again to Delaware.
Enter Jones, the redshirt freshman who has stepped in to fill the Jontel Evans-sized hole in UVa’s lineup.
Nevermind that the two guards are essentially the same size, and play with a style that reflects their shared background as high school football stars.
Jones has restored a measure of normalcy to Virginia’s offense, facilitating possessions and ably running Bennett’s scheme. Though he boasts just 2.5 assists per game, Virginia’s offense often takes the ball out of the hands of the point guard as the shot clock is running down, yielding generally low assist numbers across the board.
Still, Jones has the Cavs humming to the tune of 67.8 points per game since that 1-2 start – up from 57.7 through those first three contests. With Harris leading the team in scoring thanks to his dead-eye shooting, and a pair of athletic big men in Akil Mitchell and Landon School product Darion Atkins manning the front court, UVa shows signs of recreating the formula for much of last year’s success.
One aspect from last year that Virginia hopes to keep in the past? A season sweep at the hands of North Carolina. Beginning with their 18-point loss to the Tar Heels on February 11, UVa limped to a 3-6 record to end the season, finally bowing out to Florida in a 26-point rout in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Exiting with such a whimper this season simply won’t get it done. To reach the NCAAs, the Cavaliers likely need to get through their conference slate with a 10-6 or 9-7 record – either of which would likely be good for fourth or fifth place in a not-terribly-deep ACC.
Doing so, however, means trading punches with the likes of UNC and Maryland – and Virginia gets the chance right out of the gate at home against the Tar Heels.
With a measuring stick game so early on in the conference schedule, Bennett and Cavs fans should know soon enough what sort of team they have – and whether this group is capable of producing a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.