April 22, 2015

Orange Crush



Here's something a little bit unexpected from me right now: A dose of optimism about the 2015 UVA football team.  Today, I'm focused on the defense.

Coming out of spring practice, here's the [my] projected starting lineup for the base 43:

RDE) Kwontie Moore, Sr.
DT) David Dean, Sr.
DT) Andrew Brown, So.
LDE) Mike Moore, Sr.
WLB) C.J. Stalker, Fr.
MLB) Micah Kiser, So.
SLB) Zach Bradshaw, Jr.
S) Quin Blanding, So.
S) Kelvin Rainey, Jr.
CB) Tra Nicholson, Sr.
CB) Maurice Canady, Sr.

Specialists
Rush End: Trent Corney, Sr.
Nose Tackle: Donte Wilkins, Jr.
4th Defensive Tackle: Andre Miles-Redmond, Jr.
Nickel Linebackers - Pass Rush: Mark Hall, Jr. / Chris Peace, RS Fr.
Nickel Back: Tim Harris, Jr. (In a perfect world, Nicholson slides inside to cover the slot, because that's what he'll need to do in order to become an NFL prospect.)
Dime Back: Divante Walker, Jr.
7th Defensive Back: Wil Wahee, Jr.
8th Defensive Back: Kirk Garner, So.

Note: Virginia runs more nickel than base defense, in general... so you'll see more of guys like Trent Corney, Mark Hall, Chris Peace, and Tim Harris than maybe you'd expect at first blush.


"Plus" Players on the Defense
David Dean
Andrew Brown
Mike Moore
Quin Blanding
Tra Nicholson
Maurice Canady

I like to use The Paul System when I look at a team, and this season's defense stacks up well.




Other Positives
-- Depth in the secondary.  Blanding, Nicholson, Rainey, Canady, Harris, Walker, Wahee, Garner... that's eight guys ready to play this season.  To me, that's a good amount of depth in the secondary; plenty of firepower for special teams.
-- Nice DT rotation.  Dean, Brown, Wilkins (who is really good enough to be a starter), and AMR.  We should be able to play in waves at those spots, keeping everyone fresh and effective.
-- Interior pass rush.  Dean is really good at this, and Andrew Brown figures to be a revelation, finally healthy in his second year.
-- Depth in general.  I count 20 players on the defensive roster whom I would classify as "ready to play."  That's not quite a full two-deep, but honestly, it's better than what we usually have in terms of playable depth.
-- Jon Tenuta.  Specifically, Jon Tenuta's ability to hone pass rush weapons.  Remember, none of us knew anything about Max Valles until he came out and became Max Valles.  We have Vallesian (new term, just coined) bodies in Kwontie Moore, Trent Corney, and a ton of kids recruited in the last two classes.  Tenuta just needs to find his guy(s) and hone those weapons.
-- Star power.  Quin Blanding, Mike Moore, David Dean, Andrew Brown, Mo Canady, and Tra Nicholson should headline not just the defense, but the entire 2015 football team.  I'll be pissed if Blanding, Mike Moore, Dean, and Nicholson aren't on the poster.  (Has the poster been released yet?  Yep, it has.  On the poster: Mike Moore, Greyson Lambert - ugh, Ross Burbank - who?, Canaan Severin - at the prime center location, Maurice Canady, Taquan Mizzell, Tra Nicholson, David Dean.  Where the hell is Quin Blanding?  Freshman All-American last season, and not on the poster... but Greyson Lambert and Ross Burbank make the cut?  Sheesh.)



Question Marks
-- Pass rush.  Specifically from the edge.  Jon Tenuta seems to think Kwontie Moore and Trent Corney are ready to step up.  ("We changed some of the things we do schematically to help them but Trent Corney, the light's gone on for him," Tenuta said.  "Now he can use his athleticism and do the things he needs to do to be productive. That's a big plus for us.")  I have huge faith in Jon Tenuta in this area, but this is a question mark until it becomes an exclamation point.
-- Linebacking.  We lost Henry Coley, Daquan Romero, and Max Valles, and into the void steps relative unknowns Micah Kiser at Mike, Zach Bradshaw at Sam, and C.J. Stalker / Mark Hall / Chris Peace at Will.  Three new starters at LB is a huge concern... which is probably a reason we'll play even more nickel this season.
-- The offense is going to suck, putting the defense in precarious situations.  SSDY, right?  Seriously, my kingdom for a quarterback.
-- Punter.  It looks like James Coleman exits the spring as the unquestioned starter.  Of course, he'll be a first-time starter.  He kicks a high punt with lots of hang time, but often questionable distance.  So between that and the offense hemorrhaging turnovers, the D could be stuck with a short field behind them on a regular basis.
-- The schedule. It is pretty tough.

There you are, Quin Blanding!


Add it up, and I'm actually feeling a little bit froggy about the 2015 defense.  Too bad the offense and head coach are going to fuck it all up (more on that later, maybe), but I think this D might just be able to hold its own.

A rare little ray of sunshine from your feel-bad blog, Hoofans!  Enjoy it!



April 20, 2015

The Paul System

Sometime in April, 2004...

Paul: "So K-Man, how good is UVA football going to be this season?"

Kendall: "I don't know man, pretty good.  Right?  Preseason top 25, we should be a contender in the ACC.  New Year's type bowl game.  Darkhorse top-5 team?  Dare I dream national championship?  Lundy and Pearman in the backfield.  Biscuit at QB, and he can run, so it adds an extra dimension that Schaub never had.  Of course, Big Money at tight end.  Maybe a bit thin at receiver, but I like Mike McGrew playing his senior season.  The o-line should be good.  Big Elton Brown and D'Brickashaw Ferguson.  D will always be good under Al Groh... Ahmad Brooks, man!  Blackstock!  And don't forget a senior-season Chris Canty, he'll be a beast.  Paulie, I think we are going to be really good!"



Paul: "Sounds good!  How many future NFL players are on this team?  That's what I try to look at."

Kendall: "Well, let's see.  Guys who'll go in the next two NFL drafts...  Heath Miller, Darryl Blackstock, Chris Canty, Elton Brown.  D'Brickashaw Ferguson, whenever he goes pro.  I think Marques Hagans might have a chance as a wide receiver, not as a QB.  Lundy and Pearman in the late rounds.  That's probably about it."

Paul: "We'll go 9-3 or 8-4, tops.  Gotta have NFL talent to win in college football, I think.  If you're not filling the next two drafts with players, then you aren't going to win big.  I'll say 8-4 for this season."



Kendall: "You're crazy.  This is our best chance to get 10+ wins since 1995."

Paul: "I hope you're right, K."


Turns out, I was not right.  Paul took me to school.  We went 8-4 in 2004.

Ever since that hard lesson, I've tried to use the Paul System for setting my preseason expectations.  So let's apply it to the upcoming 2015 squad.  How much immediate pro potential is present on this season's team?

Quarterback
Nope, sorry.

Running Back
Not unless Smoke Mizzell pulls his shit together in a very real, comprehensive way.  I think it's an extremely safe bet that we don't have a 2016/2017 NFL draft pick in our offensive backfield.

Wide Receiver
I could honestly see Canaan Severin making it into the NFL, given his size and work ethic.  I'm not sure about T.J. Thorpe... seems like he would have made the jump if he were an NFL prospect, instead of coming to UVA to play his 5th year season.  Andre Levrone, Keeon Johnson, and Jamil Kamara have a lot of football in front of them, but none of them are on a certain NFL track.  At the end of the day, I'd say we have zero (or maybe one very marginal) NFL prospect at WR.



Tight End
Nope.  I guess we'll see about Evan Butts, but he's not a 2016 or 2017 draftee.

Fullback
This one is interesting.  I think we're about to see a gradual re-emergence of the blocking fullback in the NFL, and that coincides with two development and excellent spring practice of two UVA fullbacks -- converted defensive lineman Vincent Croce and true fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves.  Croce is a senior and CWR is a junior.  I think either/both might be on the trajectory to be NFL camp invites.  It would be a miracle if either were draft picks, but you never know.

Offensive Line
I don't think Jay Whitmire is an NFL draft prospect, especially when you consider his injury history.  He's a 2016 camp invite (if he's healthy).  Beyond Whitmire, I don't think there is an NFL player among the upperclassmen on our OL.  Sadiq Olanrewaju and Eric Smith have a chance to play their way onto NFL radars... but they aren't anywhere close to being there yet.  They still have two full seasons to emerge.



Defensive Tackle
I'm bullish on David Dean as a middle rounder in the 2016 NFL Draft.  I also think Andrew Brown is going to play his way into a position where he has the option to go pro early after his junior season, in the 2017 draft.  Meanwhile, Donte Wilkins has a similar chance to make a name for himself during the next two seasons.  We have some pro potential at the DT position.

Defensive End
Mike Moore... maybe?

Linebacker
Given the youth prevalent at these positions, none of these dudes are earmarked for the 2016/2017 NFL Drafts.

Safety
Quin Blanding.

Cornerback
I like the idea of Tra Nicholson covering the slot at the next level, but NFL teams don't usually use draft picks on 5-foot-9 cornerbacks.  So I'm not counting him as a certain pro.  Maurice Canady seems like a camp body at the NFL level, ditto Tim Harris.




Paul said the 2004 team (with 8 future pros) would go 8-4.  What would he say about the 2015 team, with three, maybe four or five, future pros?  How good can David Dean, Andrew Brown, and Quin Blanding be?  Can Severin, Nicholson, Whitmire, and Canady fight their way into the 2016 NFL draft discussion?

The point is, we are lacking top-end talent.  Like, severely lacking.

Is there any reason to be anything but pessimistic about 2015 Virginia Football?


April 15, 2015

Lost & Found

Virginia Basketball has been doing a lot of losing in 2015.



Lost to Duke.

Lost Justin Anderson to the pinky injury.

Lost Justin Anderson AGAIN, to a stupid appendectomy.

Lost to Louisville.

Lost to Kerlina in the ACC Tournament.

Lost out on a 1-seed... one that went to Duke, giving them a ridiculously soft cakewalk to a national championship.

Lost to Michigan State in the Round of 32.

Lost B.J. Stith to a transfer to ODU.

Lost Ritchie McKay (and Brad Soucie) to Liberty.

Lost Justin Anderson to the NBA Draft.


That's a lot of losing.


I'll try to bite my tongue on Justin Anderson going pro.  Ultimately, it's a good thing for the program to be putting players into the Association... even if those players are leaving behind unfinished business, can't go right, and will be drafted as a D & 3 wing even though they have a highly questionable (and certainly not long-term proven) 3-point stroke.  Ooops, so much for biting my tongue.



Yeah, okay, I admit, I'm a little bit salty about Justin Anderson going pro.  Probably because I care more about the program's success than him chasing his individual dream.  And also because I now have to re-write my narrative of lofty expectations for the 2015-16 campaign.  (Yep, I jinxed everything on February 4, 2014.)

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely wish Justin the best of luck!  I'm just butthurt right now.  Someday, Virginia will catch a break.

But look, even though there's a lot of losing, frustration, and disappointment around Virginia Basketball right now, the arrow is still pointing up.  It might be hard to see the forest for the trees, but for all we've lost, there are a lot of things we found!  Check it out...


Found exactly what we need to add to this roster in order to be able to advance deeper into the NCAA Tournament.  (Shot-takers and shot-makers.  In a word: shooters.)

Found that Tony Bennett is at Virginia to stay.  (You do know that he turned down Texas before they went after Shaka Smart, right?  Sorry Ramfans.  Tough reality check for the VCU fans who bandwagoned the Final Four run.)



Found not one, but TWO scholarships to play around with.  I'm not sure what Tony is going to do (I hope he brings in an instant-impact 5th year senior transfer, a JUCO, and/or a class of 2015 kid who can shoot the ball from the wing.)  This is going to sound really hardcore and cold, but if B.J. Stith was never going to crack the rotation - and he was on the trajectory to be recruited over in 2016 - then I'm glad we have the open scholarship instead of having it tied up for another three seasons.

Found the chance to promote Jason Williford to the lead assistant role, which should aid in the retention of a highly-skilled and talented member of the coaching staff.



Found the opportunity to backfill the coaching staff with someone who might be able to add a dose of offensive dynamism and/or recruiting firepower to the mix.  I don't have any names that Tony is exploring, but it's clear to me that he's going to bring in a fresh voice equipped with interesting ideas to help rejuvenate the operation.

Found a clear path toward major playing time for Darius Thompson, coming off his transfer redshirt in 2015-16.  Odds are good that DT will step right into JA's vacated minutes... and DT is a long, lean, dribble-drive athlete, the likes of which we have yet to see function in the Bennettball system at UVA.  Offensive catalyst.  Plus, he's a very good defender.



Found the possibility to come into next season not ranked in the preseason top-5.  Under the radar with a chip on our shoulders... that's where Virginia is at its most dangerous.



April 7, 2015

*sigh*

(This is going to sound a bit petty and bitter.  I don't care.)

Congratulations to Duke - a team who couldn't win its own conference regular season or tournament title - for advancing through the most pillow-soft six game stretch I've ever seen for a national champion.

Mike Krzyzewski assembled a team of one-year mercenary rent-a-players and scumbags (that's you, Justise Winslow) while doing his best to cover up a rape scandal (that's you, Rasheed Sulaimon), and is today celebrated as a great champion.  He needs to thank Wisconsin for doing his dirty work and knocking off Kentucky, he needs to thank the Selection Committee for setting up the cakewalk (including a clearly hungover Wisky team in the final game), and he needs to thank the amateur status of the utterly incompetent officiating throughout the Tournament.

For the last 25 years of my life, I have viewed the NCAA Tournament as the best sporting event on the planet.  Today, I am questioning that belief.

To me, this year's Duke basketball team embodies all that is truly wrong with college basketball... yet it's Virginia's system and style of play that was vilified and eventually crucified by the media.  It's frustrating.  Very frustrating.

*sigh*


April 1, 2015

Bennettball in the NCAA Tournament

The 2014-15 edition of Virginia Basketball [far] exceeded initial expectations, and rose all the way to the #2 ranking and "top challenger to Kentucky" status.  Expectations were adjusted, and most Hoofans (myself included) settled on a run to the Elite Eight as the baseline for a successful postseason.  Around that time, Justin Anderson got hurt, and the cracks in the foundation began to show.  Lack of offense eventually caught up with the Hoos, who lost 3 of their last 5, and bowed out of the Big Dance in the round of 32.  A bitterly disappointing end to a season that held so much promise through its first three quarters.



In the week and a half since that sour loss to Michigan State, I think we've all been doing a lot of soul searching.  Why did we lose that game?  We were clearly outclassed and out-toughed, beaten at our own game by a Michigan State team that walks with a swagger born of consistent Tournament success... right?  Or was it as simple as a woeful 2-for-17 (.118) day from the perimeter dooming our offense in a 6-point loss?  Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes had tired legs after carrying the team in Justin Anderson's absence, and it was clear to see as all of their misses were short off the front of the rim -- no legs!  Right?  It was a bad draw given to us by the Committee, who is always out to screw us, right?  We should have been a 1, and Michigan State should have been something higher than a 7; we never should have met that team so early in the Tournament, right?  Or was it that we were simply too soft, and Michigan State wanted it more?  Clearly?  Which one was it?  Or was it all of the above?

I don't have the answer.  Really, the answer doesn't even matter.  We lost, and the hows and whys, well, that's for the coaching staff to figure out.



Instead, I've been directing my attention toward the bigger picture.  That being, Bennett's system, and its history of success (or failure) in the NCAA Tournament.

We already know about Tony's run here at Virginia.  A quick recap:

2010 -- 15-16, no postseason

2011 -- 16-15, no postseason

2012 -- 22-10, 10-seed, brutal destruction at the hands of 7-seed Florida in the 1st round, 71-45

2013 -- 23-12, NIT

2014 -- 30-7, 1-seed, squeaked past 16-seed Coastal Carolina, hammered 8-seed Memphis, lost in the Sweet Sixteen to 4-seed Michigan State, 61-59

2015 -- 30-4, 2-seed, uninspiring win over 15-seed Belmont, loss to 7-seed Michigan State, 60-54

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Before Virginia, there was a three-year stint at Washington State, after he took over for his dad:

2007 -- 26-8, 3-seed, solid win over 14-seed Oral Roberts, double-overtime upset loss in the round of 32 against 6-seed Vanderbilt, 78-74

2008 -- 26-9, 4-seed, 31-point win over 13-seed Winthrop, solid 20-point win over 5-seed Notre Dame, 21-point trouncing under the heels of 1-seed North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen

2009 -- 17-16, NIT

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I know the chronology of this is all whacked-out, but bear with me.  Before Tony became head coach at Wazzu, he was his old man's lead assistant.  Running the pack line and blocker/mover systems (the combination of which I call "Bennettball"), here's what Dick did at Washington State:

2004 -- 13-16, no postseason

2005 -- 12-16, no postseason

2006 -- 11-17, no postseason



Okay, so no trips to the Dance while Dick was the big whistle at Wazzu, but don't ding him for that --- Washington State Basketball was a completely moribund program prior to the Bennetts stepping in and breathing a little life into those lungs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dick gained his notoriety at Wisconsin, of course.  It surprised me to discover that he only coached there for five seasons!  Here's how the Buzzcuts fared while running Bennettball:

1996 -- 17-15, NIT

1997 -- 18-10, 7-seed, 1st round upset loss to 10-seed Texas, 71-58

1998 -- 12-19, no postseason

1999 -- 22-10, 5-seed, 1st round upset loss to 12-seed SW Missouri State, 43-32 (yep, 43-32 was the final score of the game... yikes)

2000 -- 22-14, 8-seed, 66-56 win over 9-seed Fresno State, 66-59 win over 1-seed Arizona in an enormous upset, 61-48 win over 4-seed LSU in the Sweet Sixteen, 64-60 win over 6-seed Purdue in the Elite Eight, 53-41 loss to 1-seed (and eventual national champion) Michigan State in the Final Four.  DAMMIT SPARTY!



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I won't go all the way back to Bennett's days at Wisconsin-Green Bay, because I think he was still in the process of developing Bennettball, and results at a low-tier mid-major are pretty irrelevant to my point.  (Know that Bennett made three NCAA Tournament appearances while at Green Bay, scoring one 1st round upset as a 12-seed over 5-seed Cal in 1994.)


So break it all the way down.  Bennettball is now 10-8 across eight NCAA Tournament appearances (in 17 total seasons).  Takeaways:

  • Bennettball gets teams to the Big Dance at roughly a 50% clip.
  • Not including obvious building/rebuilding situations, Bennettball goes dancing at about a 75% clip.  (8 out of 11 seasons.)  This is pretty impressive.
  • Average seed: 5.0
  • Once in the Tournament, Bennettball suffers seeded upsets 62.5% of the time (5 out of 8 appearances).
  • The upset losses in reverse chronological order: 7 over 2 (2015), 4 over 1 (2014), 6 over 3 (2007), 12 over 5 (1999), 10 over 7 (1997)
  • Outside of the obvious outlier of 2000's miracle Final Four run, Bennettball bumps - hard - into a glass ceiling at the 2nd round / Sweet Sixteen level.
  • Average seed defeated by Bennettball: 9.1
  • Average seed that defeats Bennettball: 6.0



The bottom line for me, is this:

Bennettball lays the foundation for ordinary talent to coalesce into winning teams.  At its core, it helps players to come together as a unit and overachieve... in the regular season.  But once in the NCAA Tournament setting, that lack of talent has been more or less exposed.  Bennettball earns high seeds, but then fails to live up to those high seeds.  It can't beat good teams in the Tournament.

Reason for concern, right?

Not so fast, my friend!

Recruiting class rankings across the last 12 true seasons of Bennettball at the high-major level:
  • 2004 Wazzu -- average stars: 0.5 (no shit)
  • 2005 Wazzu -- average stars: 1.0
  • 2006 Wazzu -- average stars: 1.3
  • 2007 Wazzu -- average stars: 2.0
  • 2008 Wazzu -- average stars: 3.16
  • 2010 UVA -- average stars: 3.16
  • 2011 UVA -- average stars: 3.33
  • 2012 UVA -- average stars: 3.6
  • 2013 UVA -- average stars: 3.0
  • 2014 UVA -- average stars: 3.5
  • 2015 UVA -- average stars: 3.0 (just one recruit, Jarred Reuter)
  • 2016 UVA -- average stars: 4.0 (and counting...)



So...

Bennettball gets us into the Tournament, but it falls on the talent level of the team to help us win once we're there.  The system itself is not enough, barring a lightning strike like in 2000.

The good news is that Virginia Basketball is now a relevant brand.  Back-to-back 30-win seasons and the national coach of the year award opens doors for Tony Bennett that were once closed to him, his system, and this school.  He'll bring in upgraded talent, like he's doing in the 2016 class, and Virginia will shatter that glass ceiling that blocks us from advancing past the Sweet Sixteen.

2015-16 is a huge season in the grand scheme of things.  Even without Justin Anderson, the team will be loaded with experienced, seasoned talent.  It will be driven by the sour taste left in their mouths by the 2015 Tournament no-show.  It will be our best hope for a Final Four and validation for the program Bennett has been building.

If we crash and burn in the 2016 Tournament, I think some concern will be warranted.

I can't wait to see how it plays out.

GO HOOS!