Virginia’s championship-level defense won’t matter if Cavaliers can’t score

WEST LAFAYETTE​, Ind. — The Virginia Cavaliers arrived at Mackey Arena with the pedigree of a reigning NCAA champion, the ranking of a top-five team, the defensive reputation of the “Steel Curtain” and a roster that, under the direction of someone other than the sublime Tony Bennett, might have been projected to finish ninth in the ACC.

Let’s be honest about what happened Wednesday night at Mackey. A top-five team scored 40 points and was beaten by 29? Technically, this is true. Practically, it is a reach.

With forward Braxton Key absent because of a wrist injury, the three veteran players who started for UVa in a 69-40 loss to Purdue averaged a combined 16.3 points for the team that won the 2019 NCAA championship. The two top-50 recruits in the backcourt were averaging a combined eight points this season, neither shooting even 15 percent from 3-point range. The players who entered as substitutes either did not play last season or watched nearly all of it from the bench.

Point guard Kihei Clark and power forward Mamadi Diakite were NCAA Tournament heroes last March, which is worth something. Big man Jay Huff averaged about 10 minutes on that team, but nothing like that once the Cavaliers got deep in the NCAAs.

Because he is Tony Bennett, certifiably a wizard, these Cavaliers had been able to surmount their current offensive limitations by imposing greater offensive limitations on their opponents through seven games. The losing side in those games averaged 40.3 points. Only one of those opponents topped the 50 mark.

On this night, it was obvious after Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic nailed his third 3-pointer in the first 187 seconds the Boilermakers would refuse to be silenced. UVa was going to need to score to win.

Which meant, at this stage of the Cavaliers’ development, they weren’t winning.

“We are inexperienced. You have Kihei, who’s a sophomore, in his second year, and Mamadi. And really the rest of the guys haven’t played a lot. Jay played in spot minutes last year, and Braxton’s out for us,” Bennett told reporters. “So we’re playing some walk-ons, we’re playing freshmen. Our inexperience showed in a big way. So you say, all right, try to look in the mirror and try to be thankful for what it teaches you, as painful as it is.”

Had one more Boilers free throw connected in the Elite Eight game between these two last March, Purdue’s Matt Painter would be the defensive genius with the Final Four, and possibly a national title, on his resume.

He concocted an exquisite plan to exacerbate Virginia’s offensive struggles, trapping every ball screen and every exchange in order to prevent ball handlers from getting in position to drive the ball or connect on rolls to the rim. For that purpose, the traps were always presented from the front. That meant it was easy for whomever had the ball to pass out of it, often to an open teammate on the perimeter — Virginia had lots of open 3-pointers available.

It looked risky, but this was exactly as Painter and his staff planned it.

Virginia attempted 22 shots in the first half. Of those, 15 were from 3-point range. Of those, two connected. The Cavs didn’t reach double figures until 3:42 before halftime. This was going to be the end of their 13-game winning streak, their first defeat since March 15.

Virginia is now shooting 23.9 percent on 3-pointers and ranks 120th in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.

“They haven’t shot well from three, across the board,” Painter told reporters. “Diakite … he was 8-for-15 coming into the game. Huff was 3-for-10. But some of those other guys had really struggled shooting the basketball. They had very low percentages. So we just tried to keep the ball out of the paint and then contest when they shot. But if they made one, not overreact until a couple makes, still understand what we’re trying to do here.”

The atmosphere at Mackey was typically oppressive, but there seemed a little extra intent in this one. Purdue had come so close to its first Final Four in a generation, and Virginia took that away. Nothing that occurred in an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game was going to change that, but it might feel better for a while if what was left of the Cavaliers could be made to pay.

Not every opponent is going to have quite the same motivation, but these Cavaliers are going to be reigning NCAA champions until April (at least). Think North Carolina won’t carry in a little extra juice in its ACC game Saturday in Charlottesville? Think there aren’t some in Louisville who aren’t peeking ahead in the schedule, to see when the No. 1 Cardinals get their shot in the ring against the titleholders?

“We definitely have a target on our back this year, but it shouldn’t affect us, how we play,” Clark told Sporting News. “We just have to come out and do what we do, day-in and day-out. Tonight, we didn’t do that.”

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