Logic wouldn’t necessarily suggest a team that already had one of the most efficient defenses in the nation could get significantly better at protecting the rim. This is especially the case in a season when it must replace an NBA-bound 7-foot center.
Yet Virginia may be a significantly better shot blocking team in 2016-’17 thanks to a new crop of post players who could change the look of coach Tony Bennett’s vaunted Pack Line Defense. Mike Tobey won’t be there to patrol the middle and perimeter defensive stopper Malcolm Brogdon will join him in this year’s NBA rookie class, but Memphis transfer Austin Nichols leads a trio of newcomers who could keep the Cavaliers among the most feared defensive teams in the nation.
In what is becoming an annual occurrence, Virginia led the ACC in scoring defense last season. Yet, even with veteran post players such as Tobey and power forward Anthony Gill, the Cavaliers ranked 14th in the ACC in blocked shots with just 3.2 per game.
To put that in perspective, the 6-9 Nichols averaged 3.4 blocks per game as a sophomore at Memphis. Nichols could play in the paint alongside 6-11 freshman Jay Huff, who needs to add weight to his 190-pound frame, but is known for a soft shooting touch and accurate timing when it comes to blocking shots. Another freshman, Mamadi Diakite, sat out last season, but was by some accounts the Cavaliers’ best shot blocker in practice.
Last season’s leading shot blocker with 31, Isaiah Wilkins, also returns and could gain an increased role.
There’s been plenty of focus on how Nichols, who averaged 13.3 points per game two years ago, can make up the scoring difference for the Cavs with the graduation of Brogdon and Gill, but you can bet the defense-minded Bennett is intrigued by how Nichols and the rest of the Charlottesville SWAT Team can shut down the opposition.
The Pack Line relies on intense pressure around the perimeter with players constantly sliding into help position and forcing ball-handlers into double teams. Brogdon, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year as well as the league MVP, was a master of the system and remarkably skilled at keeping his man in front of him.
This season, Virginia’s undisputed leader in the backcourt will be senior point guard London Perrantes. He and junior swingman Marial Shayok are both solid defenders. Shayok brings the same length that benefited Brogdon, but it’s asking a lot to expect either to have the ability to shut down the other team’s best perimeter scorer the way Brogdon so often did.
While Brogdon was often able to force shooters farther and farther away from the basket, this season the Cavaliers may have to rely more on funneling the ball to certain parts of the floor where Nichols, Huff, Diakite and Wilkins can disrupt any attempt to score.
It might be too much to expect Nichols to match his shot blocking numbers from Memphis, given the fact Virginia tends to allow fewer field goal attempts than almost any team in the nation. However, even if the Cavaliers don’t have an individual who averages more than a couple of blocks per game, just the threat of having multiple players with the ability to protect the rim adds yet another reason for Virginia’s defensive scheme to keep ACC coaches up at night.