Virginia’s improbable offensive transformation

The Virginia Cavaliers had a slow start to the season, but Tony Bennett’s squad has looked like a top 5-10 team lately (less so in its recent loss to Virginia Tech). The Cavaliers (7-1 in ACC play) are only two seasons removed from a national title, but given some of the challenges the team had last season, the team’s resurgence is impressive nevertheless.

Virginia would have more than likely been a 6-7 seed had last year’s tournament not been canceled but would be expected to earn roughly a 3 seed if the season ended today. The Cavaliers entered the season ranked #4 in the preseason AP Poll, so it’s not as if a bounceback season was not anticipated. Still, few could have projected just how dynamic the team’s offense would look.

Offensively, the Cavaliers have undergone quite the transformation. After posting the #2 offense in 2018-19 (the year they won the national title), this fell all the way to #234 last season (the prior worst in the Bennett era was 159th). Statistically, things got worse in every area, with the team’s slow pace of play being the only connecting thread. 

Offensive Transformation

*2020-21: 11th in offensive efficiency, 5th in turnover %, 14th in 3PT%, 66th in 3PT attempt %, 4th in FT%

2019-20: 234th in offensive efficiency, 257th in turnover %, 311th in 3PT%, 188th in 3PT attempt %, 151st in FT%

2018-19: 2nd in offensive efficiency, 12th in turnover %, 8th in 3PT%, 149th in 3PT attempt %, 54th in FT%

Given the team lost De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy, some of this drop-off was to be anticipated — just not quite to the level Virginia experienced. With some organic improvement from their remaining players and the additions of three new starters in Sam Hauser (Marquette transfer), Trey Murphy (Rice transfer), and Reece Beekman (freshman), the Cavaliers’ offense has returned to a top-15 level so far this season.

Interestingly, the offense looks rather similar statistically to 2018-19, particularly when it comes to protecting the basketball and 3-point shooting. Virginia ranks 5th in turnover percentage at 14.0% compared to 12th (14.7%) in 2018-19. The Cavaliers are also posting a 3-point percentage and 3-point attempts rate of 39.3% and 42.0% respectively (39.5% and 39.5% in 2018-19).

42.0% would mark the highest 3-point attempt rate in the Bennett era — followed by the 39.5% in 2018-19 and 37.0% last season. The 39.3% 3-point percentage would be the 3rd-best — slightly trailing the 39.5% in 2018-19 and the 40.2% in 2015-16 (worth noting that Virginia only attempted threes at a 28.4% rate that season).

* 2020-21: 3-point percentage 39.3%, 3-point attempt rate 42.0%

Virginia’s offense is knocking on the door of the “40-40 Club”, reserved for teams that finish the season 1) shooting at least 40% from three AND 2) attempting at least 40% of their shots from downtown. Partially due to the extended 3-point line prior to last season, no team is currently at both these marks; only BYU (41.9%, 41.3%) gained membership in 2019-20. For reference, two teams — Wofford and South Dakota St. — met the threshold in 2018-19, and six — William & Mary, Purdue, Toledo, Wofford, Kansas, and Villanova — did so in 2017-18.

The Cavaliers have had six games this season in which they’ve made at least 10 threes (40+% from downtown 5/6). Since 2010-11, Virginia has made at least 14 threes on seven occasions, and three of them have come this season (Coppin State, Clemson, and Syracuse). The team’s elite 3-point shooting has been driven by Jay Huff (50.0%), Sam Hauser (42.0%), and Trey Murphy (48.5%).

Not only has Virginia been elite from 3-point range, but the offense has been incredibly efficient from 2-point range and the free-throw line as well. In fact, if the season ended today, the Cavaliers would be only the 10th team since 2001-02 to finish in the top 15 in 3pt%, 2pt%, AND FT%.

*2020-21: Virginia (14th in 3PT%, 13th in 2PT%, 4th in FT%)

2018-19: South Dakota St (3rd, 11th, 11th)

2017-18: Villanova (11th, 3rd, 11th)

2012-13: Creighton (1st, 3rd, 12th)

2011-12: Denver (9th, 3rd, 15th)

2011-12: Missouri (10th, 1st, 11th)

2007-08: IUPUI (1st, 11th, 3rd)

2007-08: Utah St (8th, 3rd, 2nd)

2003-04: Michigan St (8th, 15th, 3rd)

2003-04: Gonzaga (10th, 6th, 12th)

If Virginia manages to reach another Final Four or even wins “back to back” championships, its offense — perhaps more so than its defense — will be the primary reason why.

(Credit to KenPom and sports-reference for statistics)

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