Virginia fundamentally sound, but these Cavs ain’t boring

Seemingly every play Tony Bennett has called this season has worked to perfection — a testament to his ability to get every one of his players to buy into his system. (Yeah, it sounds boring, but these guys are anything but.)

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May I submit a name for your consideration?

Tony Bennett, head coach of the 18-0, second-ranked, ACC-leading Virginia Cavaliers, for national coach of the year.

Look, I can hear your groaning already: But Virginia is everything that ails college basketball! They’re no fun, you say. They’re the most boring good team in college basketball, you say. And if the way you rate “fun” is by how many times a team gets up and down the court over the course of a game, you’re right, because Virginia’s tempo ranks 348th out of the 351 teams in college basketball.

Begrudgingly, you may say they are “fundamentally sound,” which is the most backhanded compliment in college hoops.

And sure, the stats where this team ranks highest nationally are the stats that define “boring.” Virginia with its choking pack-line defense allows fewer points than any other team in the nation; after limiting Georgia Tech to only 28 points in a Thursday night blowout, Virginia’s opponents are now averaging fewer than 50 points per game. Only 10.5 percent of Virginia’s shots come in transition, according to Hoop-Math.com, the lowest percentage in the country; but teams shoot a meager 40.5 percent at the rim against Virginia, the top rate in the nation.

And if there was a stat kept for forcing opponents into shot-clock violations, Virginia would lead that category, too.

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But let me take the focus off the boring parts of Virginia — after two seasons of seeing them strangle ACC opponents, it’s become a tired, lazy cliché — and focus on a different part of Virginia.

Do not think of them as boring. Think of Bennett’s young men as a group that brings a slow and subtle beauty to college basketball. There is ugly basketball out there in the college ranks, to be sure, but Virginia is the furthest thing from ugly. Slow, yes, but definitely not ugly. The Cavaliers are the best representation of Coach K’s metaphor for perfectly executed basketball: Five fingers making one fist. Five players who are so perfectly attuned to each other that they’re operating as one.

None of these Virginia players were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school, by the way. Kentucky, the only other still-undefeated team in America, has nine.

“Just a bunch of underrated, hungry guys,” junior small forward Justin Anderson told me when I asked him what makes this team click so well together. “We don’t have any guys coming out who are highly regarded. Nobody who feels like they’re above the team. We’re just a bunch of guys who know that we can’t do it without each other, and we’ve bought into that.”

I have to be honest: Going into this season, I thought Virginia was going to take a step backward. Not a huge step, mind you; I still thought the Cavs would be in the top 25. But I never imagined, after losing Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris, that this team would be even better than last season’s ACC-winning squad.

But they are. It’s a team dominated by juniors, guys who’ve grown accustomed to Bennett’s hard-nosed, play-every-possession-like-it’s-your-last style.

Anderson is this team’s leading scorer at nearly 15 points per game, hitting more than half his 3-point attempts on the season, and he’s the only Cavalier projected as a future NBA first-round pick. But he’s not this team’s star. This team’s star is the system, and a bunch of players who – cliché alert! – buy into team accomplishments over individual accomplishments.

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Virginia’s greatest strength is its pack-line defense that limits points in the paint. It must be said, though, that they’ve yet to face an elite big man like Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, who comes to town on for a titanic matchup the day before the Super Bowl. After Duke, the gauntlet continues: At North Carolina, Louisville at home, then at N.C. State. I’m not quite ready to say the nation’s second-ranked team in late January will be the nation’s second-ranked team in late February. Get through those games unscathed, and get back to me.

But I am ready to say that this team is the perfect representation of basketball’s new obsession with efficiency. On offense and defense, this team makes the most of every possession, ranking fourth nationally in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency.

“It’s just the ability to embrace the possession,” Bennett said. “We’re not going to give in. We’re not going to give them an easy look. Everything’s gotta be contested. Just possession by possession, don’t yield, nothing easy.”

The offensive efficiency of this team — better than Kentucky, better than Duke — might be surprising, since this team is supposedly so boring.

I asked Bennett what makes this group work so well together on offense.

“There’s balance,” he said. “It can be different guys at different times. There’s depth. At times we can go inside with Anthony (Gill), Mike (Tobey) or Darion (Atkins). On the perimeter there’s some completeness with the guards. We’re not the greatest three-point shooting team, but we’re capable.”

“When we’re playing well there’s good balance and depth,” he continued. “A variety of ways to score. You can’t just lock down on one guy and think, ‘Well, we got them.’ When we’re right, we’re sharing the ball and we’re moving the ball and we’re even more effective.”

Words like these — “balance” and “sharing” and “efficient” — are, I suppose, a bit boring. That said, it didn’t feel boring in Charlottesville on Thursday night. Anderson hit his only 3 of the night with a defender absolutely in his mug, and had a monster dunk, as well. The crowd went bonkers for both. Malcolm Brogdon had one of the prettiest up-and-under reverse layups I’ve seen. And Tobey might have the nation’s prettiest hook shot.

It’s obvious this fan base has bought into the Tony Bennett System as much as his players. I swear to you, the loudest this crowd got all night might have been on a handful of shot-clock violations Virginia forced its opponent into. The fans know the biggest strength of this team is just throttling its opponents into submission.

So yes, Bennett and his team could be painted as boring. They can also be painted as patient, and connected, and smart, and tough, and defensively unbreakable, and, yes, even fun.

“As long as you’re winning games, you’re having fun,” Brogdon said when I asked if Virginia-style basketball is fun. “And we’re winning right now. It’s a lot of fun, winning games and doing it together.”

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.