They’re a disciplined, well-coached ACC team who uses an impenetrable defense and a surprisingly efficient offense to consistently stay among the nation’s elite. They’ve never had a one-and-done player, instead opting to develop players as a path to success.
Guess who! Virginia, right?
Actually, that paragraph is vague enough to describe both Virginia and Louisville, two ACC powers whose biggest difference may be the ethical standards of their respective coaches. They’ve both finished in KenPom’s top 20 each of the last 3 years (only the Cardinals’ 17th-place finish in 2015 prevents that from saying top 10), and both sit in the top 10 this year (Louisville 5th, Virginia 7th). Each boasts a top-5 defense based on adjusted efficiency, easily good enough on that end to win a national title.
Right now, the biggest differentiator (other than recruiting visit entertainment) is the direction of their offenses: Virginia has trended alarmingly downward, while the emergence of Donovan Mitchell as an ACC POY candidate has boosted the Cards’ O to new heights. Just look at how their ranks have moved in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per KenPom:
I got curious as to why this trend is happening, so I dove headfirst into the numbers and film:
One of the most shocking contrasts between these two squads is in the transition game. When you think about the Cavs, the easy thought is plodding, slow-down basketball. And while that is true, they’re absolutely devastating when they decide to push, scoring at an elite 1.282 points per possession per Synergy – good for 4th in the entire country. On the other hand, Louisville has the perception of great open-court athletes and getting easy baskets from their extended defensive pressure, yet they only score 0.913ppp in transition, placing them a dismal 320th in the country. Perhaps there’s something to be said for picking your spots:
The evidence seems to show that Virginia could jumpstart its offense by getting out in transition a little more (Tony Bennett just gave a good-looking-guy sarcastic chuckle); Louisville needs to stop punting the ball into the stands while so dead-set on playing in the open court.
These two squads both have extremely different methods of attacking in the half-court, as well. Louisville’s offense is much more spread out; they run a lot of slash-and-kick with Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell, and Deng Adel/VJ King taking turns probing the defense while the other two spot up. The Cardinals also run a lot of ball screen action, and part of their transformation into a bona fide force in the half-court has been the emergence of Mitchell into a beast, both in the pick-and-roll and simply in shooting the basketball. He’s now at 38% from deep on the year on a very high volume, boosted by a sizzling 42% in conference play, and is a near sure-fire All-ACC first-teamer and a stealth conference POY candidate.
One quirk to the Louisville ball screen system is that they always have two true big men on the floor. Traditionally, this mucks up spacing – the opponent guarding the uninvolved big can clog the lane and diffuse any drives or rolls. Pitino has cleverly worked around this by having the other big post up underneath the PnR action, though. This forces the help defender to be engaged with his man, rather than roaming to help. Mitchell doesn’t see it on this particular play, but look how open Ray Spalding (yellow arrow) is on the roll while Isaiah Hicks is occupied with the posting Anas Mahmoud (green circle):
When it does work, it’s awfully pretty (despite Mathiang barely posting up):
Plus, if the defender is not awake, Louisville is happy to score off of a quick post entry:
Mitchell has been the biggest key to Louisville’s emergence, but an increased focus on taking care of the ball along with the Cardinals usual onslaught on the offensive glass has also been pivotal. Winning the turnover and rebound margin has allowed them to take 164 more shots than their opponents this season. More shots = more points...isn’t arithmetic awesome? Should probably just add in more Mitchell as well, to be safe.
Virginia, on the other hand, has a ton of structure to its mover/blocker motion offense, pioneered by Tony Bennett’s father, Dick. The base of the scheme is that two players are “blockers,” or screeners (think Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, and Isaiah Wilkins), while the other three are “movers,” racing around those screens and attempting to find driving gaps or open perimeter shots. Movers have a ton of freedom to use screens appropriately, basing a lot of their movement around the way their defender guards them. London Perrantes, Kyle Guy, Marial Shayok, Ty Jerome, Darius Thompson, and Devon Hall all fill this role at times, with varying degrees of success.
The approach is extremely deliberate, as evidenced by the Cavaliers’ long possessions (average length 21.3 seconds, longest in the nation by a relatively huge margin of 0.6 seconds), and the ability to not panic as the shot clock ticks down towards zero is crucial. The most common action for Virginia is the down screen and curl, which can give the mover a driving lane to the rim (Perrantes here):
Other options often become available if the defense focuses too much on the curl recipient, though, such as the screener rolling to the basket (finish strong Mr. Salt!):
My favorite option, though is a quick pitch right back to the passer for an open three (great subtle screen by Jarred Reuter here too):
This offense sometimes struggles with spacing, though, especially if the movers aren’t effective shooters (defenders will opt to clog the lane instead of chasing). That is why Kyle Guy is such a crucial piece for Virginia this year – his 51% three-point shooting (!!!) creates a red alert for opponents any time he’s open, so even if he’s not scoring, his presence diverts attention from the other players on the court (look no further than the Salt lay-up above - two Heels race at him). Virginia’s offensive lull coincided with Guy falling out of the rotation: he played 15 combined minutes against UNC and Miami, and Virginia scored 0.67 and 0.81 points per possession in those games (that’s bad!). In their most recent two games, though, Guy has played 67 combined minutes, and the Cavs have scored 1.13 and 0.96ppp (that’s a lot better!). It’s not THAT simple, but he needs to play and play well for the Cavs to reach their offensive ceiling.
On the strength of their defenses, both the Cavs and Cards are good enough to make a Final Four run. Actually getting there, though, will come down to the other side of the court. Can Mitchell and Louisville continue to play at a near-elite level? And can Virginia re-find its groove behind Guy’s man bun and shooting? Thankfully, March is here to reveal the answer.