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The Big Basketball Preview: Providence and Virginia in Legends Classic Final

NCAA Basketball: Legends Classic Semifinal-Virginia at Georgia Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers take on the Providence Friars in tonight’s Legends Classic championship game after both teams handled their respective opponents in the semifinals.

Providence is 5-0 and coming off a win Monday night over a solid Northwestern team, 77-72. They also blew out Wisconsin earlier this season (that game ended 63-58, but Providence led by 11 at halftime and were not seriously threatened).

Unlike last night’s opponent Georgia, the Friars have quite a bit of size. At any given time, they may have four players 6’6” or bigger on the floor. Center Nate Watson leads the team in scoring and is one of the top big men in the nation. He is current averaging 18 and 6 on 72% shooting from the field (and 40% from the FT line). Can Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro keep him in check without getting into foul trouble?

Virginia is struggling on the defensive glass, something I never thought I’d say about a Tony Bennett team. It has not really been due to opposing big men, but rather wings. Wings (roughly defined as 2’s or 3’s) have accounted for the highest concentration of opposing O-boards. This is, at least in part, due to Virginia regularly playing two PGs. With 6’4” Armaan Franklin playing the three, the Hoos are often undersized at both wing spots.

Navy’s Greg Summers is 6’4” 200. Kihei Clark (5’10” 170) is trying to keep him off the glass. Who’s surprised it doesn’t work out? Playing great defense is important, but that doesn’t end until you secure the offensive rebound.

Might Tony begin to stagger the minutes of Kihei and Beekman a bit more, to avoid having two small guys on the floor? It doesn’t seem likely, but it’s worth a shot. A lineup with just one of Clark or Beekman, with 6’8” Kody Stattmann or 6’10” Igor Milicic might help to solve some of these problems. Stattmann and Milicic are also a combined 8-17 from downtown, much higher than the 29% the team has shot (including 23% from Franklin and 9%(!) from Beekman).

For the Friars, it isn’t just Watson hitting the glass. He’s actually third on the team in rebounds. Noah Horchler (6’8”) and Justin Minaya (6’7”) are both very strong on the glass. Minaya is a transfer from South Carolina and scored 12 points in 36 minutes for the Gamecocks against the Wahoos in December 2019. He’s tough inside, but thinks he can shoot. He was 1-5 in that 2019 game, and he’s just 28% for his career on more than three attempts per game.

Minaya is fourth on the team in minutes, but received his first start of the season last night. Whether that continues tonight, we don’t know. But when the three Providence bigs are on the floor along with 6’4” Aljami “Al” Durham, Virginia is going to be at a significant size disadvantage. Head Coach Ed Cooley may also slide Durham to PG with 6’6” AJ Reeves at “two”, which gives him even a bigger advantage.

Horchler is a transfer from North Florida (in his second year with the Friars after sitting a year), and he can shoot. A career 37% shooter, he’s up to 47% so far this season. Look at how he moves without the ball to gain space. Expect Jayden Gardner to be on him most of the game. Gardner’s perimeter defense has been better than expected, even as he continues to pickup some aspects of the Pack Line.

As a team, the Friars shoot 37% from the three point line, a solid clip which ranks 83rd in the nation. They also shot 14-29 against Northwestern’s zone last night, which included 4-5 from Brycen Goodine (a transfer from Syracuse). Goodine had played sparingly prior to last night, and may have just been a zone buster. Removing Goodine and another reserve who have combined to shoot 9-14 in limited action, the Friar are down to around 32%, which matches last season’s numbers. That is a key point in this game. If Virginia can force the outside shots from Durham (29%), Minaya (23%) and Reeves (32%) instead of Horchler and PG Jared Bynum (35%), it’ll go a long way towards stopping the Friar attack. Especially since Virginia’s interior defense has been outstanding, as usual. Except for cleaning the glass of course.

Offensively, the Hoos are a mess right now, and it’s because they can’t shoot. They managed to barely surpass 1 point-per-possession against a bad Georgia team, and it was largely due to some iso buckets for Armaan Franklin.

This is a good look for Franklin, and one he seems to consistently knock down. Since he’ll likely have a bigger guy on him for much of this game, he should try to get to the rack. If he can’t, Tony is going to have to bring in one of the bigger wings to try generating some open shots.

Providence is a better offensive team than a defensive one, and defending the three is one place they can struggle. Wisconsin couldn’t knock down enough shots to win, despite holding the Friars well under 1 ppp. Tony doesn’t want that same result.