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The Big Basketball Preview: Wake Forest at Virginia

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

That was an ugly win for Virginia Cavaliers Basketball on Wednesday over the Hokies, but we’ll take it. Getting a big home win and then a couple days off is a boost for a team that was off a tough loss at the back end of a tough three game road trip. The Hoos get another game at home followed by a little break will be great, because after that Virginia has three games in five days.

Virginia’s opponent this game is Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons are in their second year under head coach Steve Forbes, and they seem to be on a very nice trajectory. After a 6-16 season last year that did not include a single good win, they’re currently 13-4 with wins over Syracuse, FSU and Virginia Tech (on the road). Their losses are LSU on a neutral floor, plus Louisville and Miami on the road and Duke at home on Wednesday night. Really not a bad loss in there.

The improvement isn’t just coaching. It was a roster overhaul. The Deacons returned just 40% of their minutes from last season and about the same on points. Their top two scorers this season are Alondes Williams (transfer from Oklahoma) and Jake LaRavia (transfer from Indiana State). Two other transfers, Dallas Walton (Colorado) and Khadim Sy (Mississippi) are also contributing. Sy began his career at Virginia Tech and started twice against the Hoos in 2019, scoring 10 points on 4/6 shooting (all of which came in the second matchup).

Williams is a 6’5” wing who is tremendous off the dribble and in transition, but shoots too many threes (about four per game at just 33%). Williams is one of the most ball dominant players in the nation (42nd in usage rate, per KenPom), and he leads the team in points, rebounds and assists. Although he is really a wing, especially defensively, Williams is the nominal PG much of the time, and often leads the break.

That pretty much describes Wake Forest’s game. They run when they can, get a lot of easy buckets off transition but in the half court, they shoot too many threes for how good they are off the bounce. Against Duke, on Wednesday, the Deacons shot just 2/16 from downtown. But they sure did get some easy buckets.

This one starts with the block from LaRavia and ends up with a ferocious jam from Williams.

This is Williams in the half court. The defender on him is a 6’8” reserve power forward. He is outmatched.

LaRavia is a 6’8” 235 post player who also shoots nearly 40% from three. He is one of the most efficient players in the nation with a true shooting percentage of 67.6% (true shooting percentage takes into account threes and FTs). He is just fourth on the team in FGA, despite being second in scoring. Perhaps he should shoot more.

Good move and good finish. He probably won’t get by Jayden Gardner as easily as this. But he can step out and shoot the jumper, and he’s also got some height on Gardner.

Virginia has a size problem in this game. Wake Forest starts three players 6’8” or greater. Virginia starts one. If Armaan Franklin is guarding Williams (6’5” 210) and Jayden Gardner is on Jake LaRavia, the who is guarding 6’8” 205 lb Isaiah Mucius. Mucius is actually the Deacon’s best outside shooter, and has taken 80% of his shots from downtown this season. He was 4/14 from downtown in the win over Syracuse.

Check out the distance on this one from Mucius. He has scored 14 and 16 points (11/21 from the field, 4/8 from three) in the last two contests between these teams (both UVA wins).

Most likely, Reece Beekman is on Williams at the outset, with Franklin guarding Mucius. Beekman will have to battle to shut down the bigger Williams, who can play in the post as well.

The Deacons also have Walton up front, a seven-footer with inside/outside skills. He’s playing more than he ever did at Colorado, and he’s shooting too many threes. He shot 9/19 last season at Colorado, but he’s already attempted 28 this season (making just six). Wake has too many good perimeter players to have their seven footer shooting outside shots. Walton is an elite shot blocker, and has a little bit of a post game as well.

So far, I haven’t mentioned last year’s leading scorer, Daivien Williamson. He is third in scoring this year, but the reduced usage has made him more efficient, particularly from the FT line. He has increased his FT rate, and is making 90% of his free throws. In the loss to LSU, he scored 20 points despite shooting 0/5 from downtown. He repeatedly got to the rim and drew contact. (Most of that damage was done late in the game, when the outcome was not in doubt.)

Wake Forest are a very good offensive team. Though they aren’t great at shooting the three, their core players can all knock down an outside shot. And they can all score in other ways as well. Mostly, this isn’t a great defensive team, but they do have size. Virginia is not a big team, running three guards most of the time. But they should have some quickness advantages. If Reece Beekman is struggling to guard Williams on one end, then Beekman needs to make Williams work on the other end. We are seeing Beekman turn the corner offensively, and coming up big in this game would go a long way towards a win.

Virginia managed a win last time out without much impact from Gardner, due in large part to Caffaro’s career game. Whether it’s Gardner, Caffaro, or Shedrick, Virginia is going to need somebody in the frontcourt to step up and confront Wake’s size advantage. Virginia’s backcourt can hold their own in this one, so the frontcourt matchup is the key.