As we edge closer and closer to the Virginia Cavaliers’ season opening contest on Monday, we’re continuing to plug out analysis about this 2022-2023 squad. Today we’re taking a look at the lineup versatility which is available to this roster particularly as a result of the arrival of new personnel.
While it’s a less talked about element of Bennett-ball, a diversity of possible lineups to play on the floor has been something which has been incredibly valuable for the Virginia program over the past decade.
Past successes and struggles
Look no further than the 2019 National Championship run when the ‘Hoos were capable of playing big with Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy in the backcourt, De’Andre Hunter at small forward, and Mamadi Diakite and Jack Salt in the front-court or go smaller and play with Clark on the floor and Hunter bumped down to the four. Heck, in the National Championship game the ‘Hoos often went with a no-center lineup as Braxton Key and De’Andre Hunter were the two filling the front court spots.
Compare that to recent years, and the ability to play big or small with a variety of different types of players in those spots this season should bring with it real success for the Wahoos.
In the 2019-2020 season, UVA was at its best with Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, and Jay Huff all on the floor, but that forced Clark to do too much of the playmaking as those three were all best suited in the front court. Unfortunately, there weren’t the guards to play alongside Clark in the backcourt to make other lineups genuinely effective.
In 2020-2021, the same was typically true with Trey Murphy, Sam Hauser, and Jay Huff. While Reece Beekman filled that second guard spot and added depth to the backcourt which also included sniper Tomas Woldetensae, it was hard to justify taking Hauser or Murphy off the court and Huff really couldn’t because of the lack of playable depth at center.
In 2021-2022, UVA essentially only had three front court players worth real minutes with Gardner, Shedrick, and Caffaro. Stattmann and Murray would occasionally slide down to play small four, but those times were few and far between which left Gardner as the typical four who couldn’t really spread the floor along with two fairly old-school centers in Shedrick and Caffaro. Throw in essentially zero guard depth beyond the starting three and last year’s team generally couldn’t match when other teams went small (or big, frankly), much less force opponents to adjust to them.
What’s different this season
Tony Bennett echoed those sentiments regarding last season’s team in his preseason presser yesterday. “I was pretty locked in,” he said of his options with lineups last season. But, Bennett noted that, with this roster, “I think [we] could have flexibility. We could go big, we could go small. You can shift some guys around and do that, so I think that’s real. There’s going to be different guys at different times and I think that’s something we didn’t have last year. So I like the ability to do that.”
He also mentioned that “I started the same lineup the first two scrimmages [this fall] and we’ll see heading into [the season opener]. But I think it’s the case that, depending on the team we’re playing, we could use different guys at different times.”
Kadin Shedrick added to what Bennett said, emphasizing that “a lot of basketball is about situations and, if the matchups are better one game for one of us than another, then we have options to be able to counter that.” He mentioned how “having two guys coming in in the front-court who can shoot the ball really well, that’s huge.”
Specifically, Shedrick was referring to freshman Isaac Traudt and Ohio transfer Ben Vander Plas.
What Vander Plas and Traudt bring to the table
Starting with Vander Plas, he’s the biggest key here. But, how exactly he fits into the rotation from a positional standpoint is a bit of a question mark. With how Bennett has favored rim protection defensively and the offensive output the team gets from Gardner, neither the former ECU transfer nor Shedrick are in line to lose out on significant minutes to Vander Plas.
But, with that said, the 6’8” transfer acknowledged what his game and the assortment of skill-sets this roster has in the front-court could do for the ‘Hoos. He emphasized the importance of “just finding those mismatches, whoever has a little bit of an advantage, taking advantage of that,” as he added that “the versatility is a big thing for us with a lot of guys being able to do different things. It’s going to be exciting.”
So, can he play the three? It was something the team experimented with in Italy. Vander Plas probably has the skills to play as a mover in the sides offense. His handling may be a bit tested, but that’s one option. He’d also need to survive against a quicker guard/wing on defense who, ideally, would primarily be an off-ball player. Otherwise, he could very well struggle on that end.
For what it’s worth, he did mention how he’s grown more comfortable in the defense throughout the offseason, adding that “[Strength and Conditioning] Coach Curtis has helped me a ton with my foot speed,” so he feels like he’s “doing alright,” in the Packline.
What about at the four alongside Gardner in a small ball lineup? There’d be no rim protection with that lineup, but it could be dangerous offensively and spread the floor well, thereby forcing opposing teams to take out their pure big(s) to match UVA’s high ball screen, spread offense. Gardner and Vander Plas would absolutely need to be effective enough offensively to force opponents to adapt to them, though, considering the defensive concerns.
“There’s definitely spaces where we can both be on the court and we’ve done it in scrimmages and in practices,” said Vander Plas yesterday. In terms of how that works defensively, particularly with matchups, he noted that “I don’t really think it matters,” as he pointed to how “JG is a really strong guy, I’m pretty big too. So I think we both have capabilities of being able to guard the four and the five.”
Then, how about Vander Plas with Shedrick in the front court? That lineup would provide more spacing than the starting group with Gardner at the four and, with BVP as a guy who could play on the perimeter as a playmaker, could utilize four-out offense far more and force opposing teams to match up accordingly.
All of these are options which, when combined, should mean that Vander Plas plays 20-25 minutes per game in conference play. The good news, beyond the diverse type of play he brings to the table, is that he sounds prepared for whatever role he fits into.
“It sounds cliche, but I’m down to do whatever it takes for this team to win games,” said the Wisconsin native. “[I’ll] be the energy guy if I need to, if I need to play extra minutes, I’ll do that. I’m just looking forward to being on the court with these guys in a Virginia jersey.”
Perhaps to a lesser immediate effect, Isaac Traudt has similar potential. He’s probably more of a small ball five type for this team and could still provide some size on the interior while also stretching the floor to an extreme extent. He might actually be a more pure shooter than Vander Plas is, while the veteran is more of a playmaker and can score and create in a variety of ways.
But the bottom line is that if Vander Plas and potentially Traudt are effective in creating different looks for Virginia offensively, that can fundamentally change this team’s potential. I’m currently working on a film analysis for UVA’s offense this season which will go more in-depth, but forcing defense’s to adjust to the ‘Hoos and play various UVA lineups differently makes this team multiple. It means that when one group or scheme is struggling it’s easy to shift to another and try something else rather than continuing to trying to shove a square peg into a round hole like Virginia had to all of last year.