CHARLOTTESVILLE—Breaking news: defense ranks right up there with death and taxes when it comes to Virginia’s basketball team. Saturday’s 65–39 demolition of visiting Virginia Tech was surgical, even by the 19th-ranked Cavaliers’ lofty standards, as the Hokies managed their lowest point total in nearly 53 years.
If Virginia is to become even a reasonable facsimile of last year’s national championship edition, though, the questions come on the other end of the floor. Inconsistent shooting and uncharacteristic sloppiness have made the Cavaliers the Atlantic Coast Conference’s lowest-scoring team (55.2) by a whopping 10 points per game.
Two developments from Saturday’s surprisingly easy victory had to encourage Tony Bennett, though.
The first was the continued rehab of senior forward Braxton Key, who missed three games following wrist surgery. After shedding the cast he had worn for three games in favor of a splint, he enjoyed his best outing of the season with 18 points, 10 rebounds—and a shutdown second-half defensive effort on the Hokies’ star freshman, Landers Nolley.
Key’s impressive follow dunk against Navy a week ago (with his right hand) lit up the internet, but Saturday’s all-around performance officially announced his return.
“I felt really comfortable today,” said Key, the Cavaliers’ most versatile player. “[The splint] was a lot lighter. I had more access to my palm, so shooting felt a lot lighter.”
Equally auspicious was the play of sophomore guard Kihei Clark, who had struggled with his increased ball-handling duties after Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy left for the NBA a year early.
In 38 games last season (20 as a a starter), Key committed just 39 turnovers. He has 41 in 13 games this season, including four on Saturday.
Many of those giveaways have come when he drives into the lane and, at 5-foot-9, has no good options against much taller defenders. On Saturday, Clark looked for his shot more often and broke his career high with 18 points (twice his season average of 9.1).
“There were a lot of self-inflicted turnovers [in recent games], not being ball-strong, and that’s on me,” Clark said. “Today, I took what the defense gave me. Mamade [Diakite] and Braxton did a good job of screening their guys.”
It helped that the Hokies don’t have a rim protector; Nolley is the tallest player in their rotation at 6–7, and he hovers around the perimeter. Still, Clark’s aggressiveness will give future opponents a second thought when they play him exclusively to pass.
“Clark is very, very good,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said. “He’s the engine for them. … He carved us up today.”
Few rival coaches have said that about Clark, whose pass to Diakite for the overtime-forcing basket against Purdue in last year’s South Region final has to be the most iconic play in Virginia’s illustrious history.
But this is a new season, and a relatively new cast of lead actors. Diakite has raised his level of production, but Clark has had his issues as the focal point of opponents’ game plans, and Key was unavailable for last month’s rematch with Purdue (a lopsided loss) and a key game with North Carolina.
Having Key at even close to full strength is, well, key for the Cavaliers. After Nolley scored 15 of the Hokies’ 17 first-half points, Key guarded him for most of the final 20 minutes and held him to one inconsequential 3-pointer in six shot attempts.
“He’s a really good player, needless to say,” Young said. “ … His versatility aids them greatly.”
Like every other team in this wide-open season, the Cavaliers (11–2, 3–0) are still searching for their identity.
Defense will always be in their DNA, but if they can get consistent efforts from players like Key and Clark on the offensive end, the dropoff that everyone expects may not be as precipitous.