Night and day...that is the only way to describe the difference in offensive production with this year’s Virginia Cavaliers’ men’s basketball team. UVA went into Vegas and scored 1.40 points per possession (PPP) against Baylor, one of the best defensive teams in the country. This would have been a season high in 2021-22. They followed that up with another quality performance of 1.15 PPP against a tough Illinois team. The Hoos currently rank as the nation's 15th best offensive team according to Bart Torvik, which is even higher than their defensive ranking.
The craziest part is UVA’s starting five is exactly the same as last season. While the new complementary pieces have nothing but upside, returning players are simply developing and performing at a higher level.
Three point shooting has done wonders
It certainly starts with one man in particular: Armaan Franklin. We know he is a bucket because he managed to average over 11 points per game last season when his shot was rarely falling. In these first four games though, Franklin has improved his three-point shooting from 29.6% to 45.5%. He is taking around the same number of attempts per game but, now, they’re going in much more often.
In addition to Franklin, practically the whole team has improved their jump shot. Ben Vander Plas (6-13, 46.2%) and Isaac McKneely (6-12, 50.0%) as lights out shooters off the bench certainly do not hurt the cause. Perhaps most importantly, Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark are able to play to their offensive strengths. They no longer need to force three-pointers in search of any production; they can act as facilitators and slashers and then the wide open shots will present themselves, which they are indeed capable of knocking down.
It’s all essentially a cycle, where everything feeds off itself. The more shooters you have on the floor, the better you can space. The more spacing, the more open shots there are available. And, needless to say, open shots are much more likely to fall. It is no coincidence that UVA’s improvement in three-point shooting efficiency (32.3% to 46.9%) has coincided with an increase in Shot Quality’s spacing rating (12th percentile to 64th percentile) and open three rate (22% to 53%).
Jayden Gardner is no longer the center piece
Last season, when points were hard to come by, UVA would function their offense around feeding Gardner in the post. No, the 6’6 power forward is not the greatest around the rim but he was able to make his living off of the mid-range, an unpopular shot in today’s analytical movement.
While Gardner’s short mid-range and long mid-range shot were in the 97th percentile at 0.86 PPP, the Division I average PPP overall is around 0.95. So, while Gardner was among the best at his craft and perhaps it was the best course of action for the Virginia offense at the time, it goes to show how unproductive the ‘Hoos were.
Fast forward to this season and Gardner is more of a complementary asset. He has taken just 1.3 mid-range attempts per game as opposed to 5.6 last season. This is partially because he has struggled to make shots in general, but the Cavaliers’ offense has been more than fine without him doing that. There will be times when he is tasked with taking games over as a scorer and his strengths in other elements of the game are still valuable for the ‘Hoos. But less of a do-or-die reliance on him has served this team well.
Winning at the Charity Stripe
UVA’s free throw rate (how often you get to the line) has increased from 28.1% to 62.9% from last year to this. The ‘Hoos have only played a small sample of games in 2022-23, so the way games have been officiated may have a heavy influence that as does the fact that Virginia had late leads in all those four contests. However, when the difference is that vast, it cannot be merely a coincidence. Everything goes hand in hand. The way Virginia is shooting and spacing is forcing harder close outs, which means opposing defenses are scrambling more on dribble drive attempts.
Kadin Shedrick has especially benefitted from that trend, having a free throw rate in the 97th percentile of the nation. Shedrick has a Shot Quality rate of 1.43 PPP when driving to the basket and 1.34 when attacking the rim. Beekman and Gardner have shown similar improvement in drawing contact. As a team, the Cavaliers are taking full advantage of this, shooting 73.8% from the line.
The Bottom Line
We can’t assume that the ‘Hoos will be this efficient offensively in every four game stretch throughout the season. Nonetheless, the improvements that have been made are legitimate. Overall, Bennett's squad has the potential to be an elite offensive bunch in 2022-23.