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Three question marks for Virginia basketball this season

With so many unknowns, there’s much to be learned about this team early in the season.

ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament - Syracuse v Virginia Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

With the Virginia Cavaliers’ basketball season nearly upon us, there’s still much to be learned about this squad considering just how new a group it is. To really get a grasp for the challenges this team will face, we’ve gathered the three biggest question marks for the ‘Hoos this season.

Who among the underclassmen breaks onto the scene?

An unfortunate, limiting factor on this program’s recent success has been how underclassmen have largely underperformed. Or, rather, there’s been a disappointing lack of breakout seasons or performances. Really, looking back from that National Championship season onward, only Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman were rotational contributors as underclassmen.

Part of that is due to recruiting misses, part is a result of under-performing top recruits, and part stems from stacked rosters dominated by upperclassmen.

While, last year, circumstances may not have been ideal for the young guys to establish themselves considering that there were 13 scholarship players all vying for minutes, that is absolutely not the case this season. With only ten designated scholarship spots filled, all ten of those guys will have their opportunities to prove themselves worthy of playing time.

In terms of the young guys looking to burst on the scene this season, there are five players who are technically underclassmen. Disregarding potential extra years of eligibility from Covid-19 Reece Beekman, Kadin Shedrick, and Carson McCorkle are all in their second season while Taine Murray and Igor Milicic Jr. join the ‘Hoos for their first season this year.

Each of those five could all “breakout” this year. Beekman and Shedrick in particular are primed to play huge roles on this team as both are penciled in as starters. Beekman could get the keys to the offense while Shedrick will have his opportunity to prove himself as the next NBA-level big in the Virginia program.

The other three will likely determine how deep the Wahoo bench is. With Francisco Caffaro and Kody Stattmann as playable depth in the front court but unlikely to really pop, McCorkle, Milicic Jr., and Murray could provide shooting and spacing off the bench with the potential for playmaking opportunities.

No matter what, this team’s ceiling is likely going to be determined by just how many of the new guys can make an instant impact. And, considering the high potential that each of these five have, their success or lack thereof this season will be telling.

What does the offense look like?

Since the ‘Hoos lost to UMBC back in 2018, Tony Bennett has progressed the program’s offensive schemes to incorporate more modern elements.

Whether in the form of high, spread-floor ball screens, the continuity ball screen offense that was later molded into Bennett’s traditional sides offense, a reversion back to three-man, triangle concepts, or the drastic shift to experimenting with a five-out offense early on last season, the looks that Virginia has thrown at opposing defenses has significantly diversified since 2018.

With that said, the Wahoo coaching staff have still displayed a favoritism for that sides — or mover-blocker — offense, particularly when other, newer concepts fail to yield immediate results.

Last season was a prime example of that as, after the five-out offense proved to not quite fit the team’s personnel and opposing defenses figured out how to stop the triangle offense, the coaching staff relied on mover-blocker (with an emphasis on flaring the bigs out to the perimeter after setting pin down screens to provide spacing) for the majority of the final portion of the season.

As this Virginia team is so different from that one, there will be so much that is different even within each specific set. When using sides, look for far more post duck-ins and touches to Jayden Gardner and Kadin Shedrick in favor of the backdoor pops that worked so well for Sam Hauser and Jay Huff considering how this year’s front court is much more traditional than last season’s.

In general, there should also be more of an emphasis on slashing from the backcourt. Especially in Armaan Franklin and a more comfortable Reece Beekman, Virginia will have more playmaking and shot creating in the backcourt this season than in the 2020-2021 season. That could mean we see some more five-out possessions to see if this team could be better suited for that offense.

It’s hard to tell to what extent this team will favor spread ball screen sets. Jay Huff — who was ridiculously versatile as a screener who was deadly as a popper or roller — leaves massive shoes to fill while there isn’t nearly as much guaranteed shooting and spacing on the perimeter. That, plus the fact that opponents were able to neutralize high ball screens last season by dropping and playing off Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark means that a number of ‘Hoos will have to prove themselves much developed as shooters for this set to be truly effective.

Virginia’s three-man or triangle offense could be utilized to generate additional post touches while also giving Jayden Gardner opportunities to isolate against defenders from near the top of the key — something he did a good amount of at East Carolina. Of course, it will be critical that the two players on each wing — the two not a part of the triangle — are real threats to hit from deep else the entire set will be rendered useless.

Long story short, this team will rely much more heavily on an inside post presence with Jayden Gardner and Kadin Shedrick while looking to the backcourt to be more assertive than it was last season.

Does the defense (have to) change to fit personnel?

Just as there’s been more flexibility with Virginia’s offensive schemes over the last few seasons, new types of personnel have resulted in minor shifts in the pack line defense as well. Most notably last season with Sam Hauser and Jay Huff in the front court, the ‘Hoos were willing to often ditch core principles in order to favor players who fit a different mold of player.

Specifically, Virginia’s ball screen coverage last season was a far cry from the hard hedge and recover staple of the pack line defense as neither Hauser nor Huff was particularly versed or effective in defending that way. Instead, the Wahoos often switched ball screens when Hauser was the defending big and then played drop coverage when Huff was involved.

With the front court personnel UVA has this season, Bennett will likely favor utilizing multiple ball screen coverages once again. Kadin Shedrick ought to be the perfect starting center to revert back to the hard hedge scheme, while Francisco Caffaro has also displayed some comfort with that in the past as well and — hopefully — in his fourth year in the program will only be better. That said, Caffaro is also a candidate to play some drop.

How Bennett will employ Jayden Gardner is where things get interesting. He likely lacks the foot speed and length to hard hedge and recover quickly. That said, playing drop coverage — at least in Bennett’s eyes — is too resigned and should be avoided if possible.

So, Gardner could potentially be switching on the perimeter. With the principle of the pack line defense being that there’s immediate adjacent and backside help for the on ball defender, switching shouldn’t be too daunting for Gardner. He does have good footwork and as long as he doesn’t get blown by, should be able to survive as a switching big.

Granted, these decisions on coverage will also depend on matchups as certain opponents would be able to abuse switches and therefore would make playing drop coverage or experimenting with Gardner as a hedger more favorable.

For wings Igor Milicic Jr. and Kody Stattmann I’d expect switching to be the coverage of choice considering that each of them were traditionally perimeter players who will play some minutes at the four. That said, there’s always the potential when playing against certain perimeter players who Virginia wants to maintain the primary matchup with which would force those two to press out to hedge.

Of course, this is all speculative. But, expect the ‘Hoos to roll out a variety of ball screen coverages and continue tweaking to fit the team’s personnel this season.