Virginia has high expectations this year as it looks to bounce back to its typical dominance of the ACC. But as we look back at things that held the Hoos back last year, we see a number of factors contributing to an NIT season. I want to delve into what I think will be a few key indicators for Virginia’s prospects to not only get back to the Dance but battle again with Duke, Carolina, and others for another league crown.

1) Defensive Rebounding

No two ways about it, last year’s defense was a major disappointment by the standards we’ve come to be used to. Virginia finished the year ranked 59th nationally in Defensive Efficiency on KenPom, the worst finish for Bennett since 2011.

In our postseason wrap-up, we put a lot of blame on that on roster turnover. The Pack Line needs a healthy dose of experience to function effectively, and last year we saw system-inexperienced players take over as starters as the 3-5 as well as assume key bench roles. Reece and Kihei being the only proven system vets wasn’t enough. Obviously returning 6 of our top 7 players from last year, a lot of that will hopefully be alleviated.

With that said, I’m being a little cagey proclaiming our defensive dominance will by default return to form. My primary concern is that we don’t have a top wing/forward defender, someone athletic and switchable, to shut down top opposing scorers the way we’ve seen with guys like Akil, Darion, Justin Anderson, Brogdon, Hunter, Key, and Mamadi. Youngsters like Leon Bond and Ryan Dunn have that upside, but at this stage it’s hard to see them cracking the main rotation this season… we’ll see that unleashed next year.

So what I want to see instead this season is a renewed focus on defensive rebounding.

Virginia’s Pack Line demands excellence on the defensive glass. Getting a stop the first shot is great, but it’s meaningless if you give up a second chance look. This is probably where last year’s defense failed the worst. Our defensive rebounding percentage (DR%, the percentage of opponents misses that we get) was the worst of the Bennett era by a long shot. In his previous 14 seasons on the bench, going back to Wazzu, no Bennett team had finished worse than 50th nationally in DR%. Last year’s team finished 209th.

I’m not demanding we get back to Top 10 nationally, but at least Top 50 again. The Pack Line is going to largely do its job most nights and force opponents into bad shots the first time down the floor. But if we aren’t making opponent trips one-and-done around 75% of our defensive possessions, then it’s another year where the defense holds us back.

2) Less Kihei-Reece pairing

There’s no better lightning rod debate among Hoo basketball fans than discussing the starting pairing of Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark, two players who play excellent defense at the point of attack but are otherwise generally undersized to guard wings, and offensively can get into the lane off the dribble at ease and find open players but otherwise provide limited finishing inside or floor spacing outside.

Look, I’m an acolyte of the two-point guard system in many respects. Lots of title-winning teams over the last decade have played two PG-capable starters. Even we did with Kihei and Ty Jerome. But the key is at least one of those players, preferably both, need to be equally capable off the ball as a shooter so that the floor-spacing benefit remains. With Kihei and Reece last year shooting 34.6% and 33.8% respectively from deep, that wasn’t it.

This isn’t a criticism of Tony’s lineup choices last year, by the way. He played the best players he had available. Sitting one of them meant more Kody Stattmann or more Taine Murray or more Carson McCorkle, none of those were really value added propositions, sorry to say (I do think Murray is on the way, it just wasn’t meant to be his first season in the States). Last year they played together by necessity, the roster itself a victim of poor construction. That’s its own 30,000 foot discussion, not for debate this year.

With that said, all reports are that our guard depth is better this year. Even Tony is saying it in press conferences. Isaac McKneely is impressing early and could be this year’s Day-1 ready guard contributor, even if only in targeted roles. Taine Murray is another year in the system, a full year getting up to the speed of the US game. Ben Vander Plas brings a lot of the same things Kody Stattmann did but arguably better (even if I still think BVP’s better deployed as a 4). And we haven’t even touched yet on the potential of Dunn or Bond, who each bring their own offensive weapons to the table.

Which is to say that if Tony wants to go One-PG for stretches, he’s got options, especially options to put more shooting on the floor, all of McKneely, Murray, and BVP having reputations as floor-spacers.

This extends to the defensive end as well. As discussed above, last year Reece and Kihei were the only two experienced Pack Line defenders. The defense was bad enough on the back end that taking either of the two lead guards out was potentially inviting disaster. This year, with experienced defenders at the 3-5 already (Franklin and Gardner both passed the 1,000 minutes played mark last year, the rule of thumb for reaching your potential in the Pack Line; Caffaro and Shedrick aren’t far off), there’s room to work in a couple new faces for extended roles without severely compromising the defense. The general goal is to have about 70% of the overall minutes available for system-experienced guys to keep the Pack Line humming, so there are key reserve roles available for the new faces if Tony is willing to go to them.

To me, the more we see one of Kihei or Reece sitting at any given time, the more it means the new faces are proving themselves worthy. Hopefully it means they’re holding their own defensively and adding floor-spacing value (preferably scoring points, but I’ll settle even for just keeping defenders honest and away from the lane) on offense. And that will help raise the ceiling on a club whose collective poor shooting last year put a hard cap on our prospects.

3) Win the games we’re supposed to win.

184, 227, 71, 128, 105, 78. Those are the KenPom rankings last year for teams UVA lost to that a better Bennett team likely wouldn’t have. Those rankings belong to Navy, JMU, Clemson, NC State, FSU, and St Bonaventure. The first five represent our Quadrant 3 and 4 losses on our NET Scoresheet last season, the nail in the coffin on any NCAA Tournament hopes. Obviously the last one kept us out of the NIT semis.

Looking at our schedule this season, I see three tiers of games.

The first tier is teams I see as bound for the NCAA Tournament this year. It’s got four non-conference headliners plus another seven games against ACC teams that I think should make it (UNC, Duke, Notre Dame, Miami, and VT). There’s a lot of parity at the top of the league and while I do look to UVA to win a number of these games for some nice Q1 wins, we’ll probably lose a few too. Not a knock on this Hoo team but instead a measure of respect and realism for the level of competition.

But the key is to make hay against Tiers 2 and 3 to avoid those bad losses.

Tier 3 is the rest of the non-conference slate, six home buy games. This isn’t to consider any of them as gimme’s. Even our home opener, NCCU, is expected to push for the MEAC crown, with four players on the league’s pre-season all-conference team. There will be some real tests in there, but all the more reason UVA needs to be locked in and defend JPJ to go 6-0 in this slate. UVA’s loss to Navy last year was its first buy-game loss in JPJ since Delaware in 2013. Taking care of business in these types of games is the first step towards reestablishing the level of success that we saw from 2014-2021. Pretty direct correlation.

But if that’s step 1, then step 2 is avoiding missteps against the ACC’s middle and bottom tiers. It’s not to say that road trips to the Carrier Dome or Tallahassee against teams I’m predicting finish in the league’s competitive middle tier won’t be land-mines, but there are some bad teams at the bottom of the league this year. Pitt, Louisville, and Georgia Tech all look rough. NC State, BC, and Clemson are a step above but still have a lot of work to do even just to make the NIT this year. UVA can’t afford the types of slip-ups like we saw at NC State last year, where the Hoos absolutely stunk it up against a team that finished dead last in the ACC.

If Virginia wants to be “back” this year, this is the kind of business we need to see it handle on most if not every night.