How Virginia Won the National Championship

At the bottom of this recap of how they won are links to a breakdown of each game of the NCAA Tournament specifically, with images describing what happened on some key plays.

Virginia accomplished something incredible this year by winning the National Championship, after being the first 1 seed to ever lose to a 16 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Their Head Coach Tony Bennett has a great quote about adversity that sums up the entire season for Virginia. “If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way”. He is an incredible leader for their program, and this is exactly what happened with his team. Just as much as having great players that fit together well on both ends of the court, their ability to handle adversity is what won them a Championship. They never panics in big moments, and made key plays down the stretch in the last 3 games of the year that saved their season. Tony also looks very calm on the sidelines, and I believe this helps the players stay calm. Virginia has always been known as a defensive program, and most people think that is what them the championship, but this year Virginia was actually equally good Offensively and Defensively. They were ranked 9th in the country on both ends according to Synergy’s PPP (Points Per Possession) ratings, which is the true indicator of how efficient a team is. They were probably actually better than this on both ends, because PPP doesn’t take the competition your playing against into account, and obviously playing in the ACC they’re playing against incredible competition. On offense they had 1.009PPP, and on Defense they allowed .81PPP.

Offensively Virginia has historically run Blocker-Mover, which is an offense that has 2 bigs that are “blockers” that constantly set down screens and flare screens for the 3 perimeter players that are called “movers”. After losing in the first round Tony added two other offenses to mix it up. One was a ball screen continuity, which is exactly what it sounds like, just constant ball screens on the wings that have a pattern. The other one I believe is called middle 3rd, and it has a lot of off-ball screens all in the middle third of the floor. This was the least common offense they ran, but it clears the baseline up for drives, and Kyle Guy (their best shooter) comes off a lot of screens in the middle of the floor. They used this a lot in the National Championship game. Blocker-Mover was still definitely their most common offense this year, while Ball Screen Continuity was second. Blocker-Mover works well for them because of how well Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy use off-ball screens. Guy was one of the best, if not the best shooter running off screens in the NCAA, and Jerome not only makes shots off of screens but is very good at curling the down screen which gets him into the lane where he can use his elite vision to hit guys for open layups or shots. Jerome is no doubt their most valuable offensive player, he is just an incredible decision-maker. Any time the defense makes a mistake he will find it and expose it. Whenever they’re in doubt late game they either go to a Jerome ball screen, or a Deandre Hunter elbow iso. Hunter averaged 15 a game for them, and is a matchup nightmare at the College level, because he is too big and strong for guys his speed, too quick for guys his strength, and can score on all 3 levels. Jerome, Guy, and Hunter are an incredible three, and outside of Maybe Duke’s big three, the best big three in College Basketball. No matter what you run the game ultimately comes to simply making shots, and all three of them make a lot of tough ones to bail them out, especially Jerome and Guy. Those two made a lot of tough shots throughout the NCAA tournament at the end of the shot clock when the offense was going nowhere, and most great teams have guys like this. Unlike most very efficient offenses Virginia plays very slow, and rarely scores in transition. This clearly works for them though, so there is no reason to change it. One area they could improve Offensively is they sometimes get into their play too late, which forces them to make a tough play at the end of the clock, but overall the offense worked great this year.

Virginia runs a Packline Defense. This is a defense that helps a lot in the gaps, so they discourage the drive, and force teams to kick the ball out when they drive. Because of how good their gaps are, and then how well they closeout after helping in the gap they force teams into a lot of late clock isolations, which is one of the least efficient ways to score. How well they closeout is huge, and despite having a defense predicated on stopping the drive, they were in the 99th percentile in 3 point Defense. This is because they sprint to the line, close out with high hands, and jump to contest at the perfect timing. Hunter, Diakite, and Key are the only three exceptional athletes on the team, so this comes down to effort and technique more. They have great individual defenders also, and i’m not sure if that’s a credit to Tony for recruiting great defenders, or teaching them to become great defenders. I would guess it is a combination of both. I haven’t seen a team fly around, and put more effort into the Defensive end. It’s a very old and cliche saying that a lot of Defense is effort, but it is also a very true saying, and this is the number one reason they are a great defensive team. They just never give up on a possession. They also have very high Iq’s and have a great understanding that the ball scores first.This comes down to coaching. How you defend ball screens today is huge, because almost every team runs them. There are strengths and weaknesses to every ball screen coverage you could think of, and Virginia uses the old school hard hedge. The strengths of a hard hedge are it makes it very hard for the ball handler to get any momentum going down hill. The weaknesses are they are susceptible to slips, it is temporarily a 4 on 3, so if the ball handler does a good job of getting the ball out of his hands before the big gets back to his man, his teammates are playing with a 4 on 3 power play and have a good chance of getting a layup or open three, which are both very efficient shots. I show examples in the games section of teams missing out on these opportunities verse the hard hedge. No matter what coverage you use it is very important that you pay close attention to detail to executing that coverage correctly, and Virginia does that as well as anyone. Virginia’s personnel works perfectly defensively, because a lot of their role players that are expanding less energy on offense, are good defenders, and they can focus all their energy in that department. Deandre Hunter won the ACC defensive player of the year, but Mamadi Diakite, and Kihei Clark are just as valuable if not more valuable to their defense. Diakite is an elite rim protector, and the shots he doesn’t block he changes. He is also great at defending the Pick and Roll because of how mobile he is. Clark is one of the best on ball defenders in the NCAA, and picks up full court the whole game. Him picking up full court wastes so much time on the shot clock for offense, and he constantly forces great guards into very tough shots. If I coached against Virginia I would actually never have my point guard bring the ball up with Clark guarding him (unless he is an elite level Point Guard that clearly needs the ball in his hands), because I wouldn’t want to deal with having 5-6 seconds less to work with on the shot clock. Braxton Key and Jack Salt are always great defenders off the bench.

Virginia has 8 key rotation players, and the 5 guys that started the majority of the NCAA Tournament games play almost all the minutes. The starters were Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Kihei Clark, Deandre Hunter, and Mamadi Diakite. The reserves that got rotation minutes were Braxton Key, Jack Salt, and Jay Huff. Ty Jerome was no doubt the MVP of the team, his decision making on offense was huge for them, and he is an underrated shot maker. You can tell he is their leader and how much confidence the guys have on him. At the end of the close game they are comfortable with the ball in his hands. Deandre Hunter is a matchup nightmare, that can guard all 5 positions, and a 44% three point shooter. Kyle Guy is an elite shot maker, and by him being an elite shot maker that creates more room for everyone to operate offensively because teams are scared to help off him. Mamadi Diakite is a great shot blocker and offensive rebounder, and a very solid finisher around the rim. Kihei Clark is an elite on ball defender that changes the game with his energy and effort, while also making some big shots throughout the NCAA tournament. Braxton Key is a very versatile player that can guard a lot of positions, and is a good cutter that can hit the open shot. Jack Salt is an excellent screener, physical defender, and clearly a vocal leader and great teammate. He is a fan favorite because of his effort. Jay Huff is a big that can stretch the floor. Those are the 8 rotation players, and they all did their job throughout the season and NCAA Tournament. The guys that were not rotation players had incredible energy on the bench, and that clearly makes any team play better.






Texas Tech

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