CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett may be a perfectionist when it comes to how his Virginia basketball team runs the pack-line defense, but Bennett also understands the value of a good eraser. Mistakes will happen, Bennett concedes. They don’t have to cost you points.
That’s what the shot-blocking ability of Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff has added to the Cavaliers’ already stifling defense.
“You can run bad offense, bang a fall-away three and it looks good,” Bennett said. “You can run bad defense and someone beats you down the lane, and someone blocks it, then it’s a stop. … I think that has covered up a couple of errors and mistakes.”
UVA (15-6, 7-4 ACC) blocked seven shots in its 51-44 win over Clemson on Wednesday night, with four of those coming from junior forward Jay Huff. On the season, the Cavaliers block 4.4 shots per game, the highest mark for the team since 2012-13, when Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins were each blocking a shot per game themselves.
“When there’s a mistake, if someone gets to the rim, I like to be able to be there,” Huff said. “Mamadi likes to be able to be there to clean it up. That just takes away two points.”
The 7-foot-1 Huff is averaging 1.7 blocks per game and the 6-9 Diakite isn’t far behind at 1.3 going into Saturday’s game at No. 5 Louisville (20-3, 11-1).
“They’ve always been really big around the rim and now they’re blocking more shots,” said Louisville coach Chris Mack. “They’re playing Diakite and Huff more together than they have in years past. They do a great job of staying vertical, just making your looks around the basket difficult.”
On the season, Virginia leads the nation, holding opponents to 50.4 points per game and a 35.6 field goal percentage.
Certainly, a part of that has been the ball pressure, especially from sophomore point guard Kihei Clark, and the ability to recover with help defense. But, when there have been inevitable breakdowns, having Huff and Diakite waiting to reject a shot into the stands has helped, too.
“It covers up a mistake,” Bennett said. “Someone gets beat off the dribble and all of a sudden a big can read it. It makes the guards think twice, maybe they miss or they get it blocked. … You’re going to make some errors. The way guys can attack off the dribble and do stuff, so that is good with Mamadi and Jay in there.”
Clemson coach Brad Brownell said the added element of shot blocking only feeds into the mental hurdle opponents have when they try to score against UVA.
“Then that puts pressure on you,” Brownell said after Wednesday’s loss. “When you do get an open shot, you feel like you have to make it. You don’t get as many as you do against other teams. That builds into why they’re so good.”
Will they be good enough to upset Louisville? Virginia has won the last nine meetings between the two teams, and is 4-1 against the Cardinals at the Yum Center.
The Cavaliers also have some fond memories of playing there in last year’s NCAA tournament. It’s where they beat Oregon in the Sweet 16 and then stunned Purdue in the Elite Eight, getting a memorable buzzer-beater from Diakite to force overtime.
This time around, the first-place Cardinals are the favorite, having won nine games in a row. UVA is fighting just to get back to the NCAA tournament, and has won its last three.
“The ACC, anybody can beat anybody,” Huff said. “I don’t think there’s a game that any of the ACC teams should be (thinking), ‘Oh, we got this one.’ Everybody’s beating everybody this year. Obviously Louisville’s really good, but I think we have a great chance to beat them.”