A tough road win speaks volumes
Wow wow wow wow wow. That was a tremendous win for Virginia. After being down eleven points at halftime and allowing 45 first half points, the Wahoos burst back into the game, closed it to a two-point contest 4:17 into the second half, and held the Wolverines to only 23 second half points. Despite foul trouble for centers Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro, UVA found a way to limit Hunter Dickinson’s damage and overcome Michigan’s hot first half three-point shooting to take a super gutsy win.
Frankly, this feels like Virginia’s best win so far this season. After Baylor lost by 26 earlier tonight to unranked Marquette, that win looks less impressive and, frankly, this seems to be a very good Michigan team at its best. Throw in how difficult an environment the Crisler Center was, some occasionally iffy refereeing, and Reece Beekman’s ankle injury early in the second half that limited him for the rest of the game, and the Wahoos probably shouldn’t have won this game.
But, they did. And that’s what great teams do. Win when they’re not supposed to. Yeah, there’s still soooo much season left to be played. But this win solely serves as further validation of Virginia as a National Championship contender.
Reece Beekman is Virginia’s best player
It’s becoming clearer and clearer that Reece Beekman is UVA’s best player. He continues to show significant improvement as a scorer, particularly as a driver off pick and rolls and, while that ankle injury definitely limited him, he simply found ways to win this game for the Cavaliers.
Finishing with 18 points (7-10 from the field, 1-1 from three, 3-4 from the line), five assists, four rebounds, and a steal, Beekman was UVA’s leader throughout the night. His go-ahead assist to Jayden Gardner followed by what was essentially a game-winning steal on the following defensive possession point to how he impacts the game in every single possible way.
There are plenty of other Wahoos who deserve tremendous credit for this win, but Reece is becoming exactly the player that all UVA fans have been hoping and dreaming that he would be. And there’s really nothing more significant than that for this team.
UVA continues to find different ways to win
After the first three contests of this season, Virginia’s three-point shooting looked like it was going to be the strength of the offense this season. Yet, since then, the ‘Hoos have only made 14 triples in three games. Instead, Tony Bennett’s squad has found ways to dominate on the interior as they scored 44 point paints against Michigan.
What’s more impressive is that Michigan did all it could to specifically limit Virginia’s ability to score from the outside with their length on the perimeter. In response, Beekman and Kihei Clark carved up the interior of the Wolverine defense while Jayden Gardner, Ben Vander Plas, and Kadin Shedrick all went to work in the post and as finishers.
It’s not only the UVA offense that is multi-faceted, either. The defense, while definitely shaky in the first half against Dickinson and when trying to contain Michigan’s shooting, keeps performing when it matters most. Additionally, UVA’s penchant for causing turnovers and making plays on defense has been repeatedly valuable and was again tonight with Virginia’s seven steals a critical component to keeping the Michigan offense in check. The rotations on the back end will need to continue to be cleaned up, but the UVA defense’s ability to turn it on when it matters keeps coming up clutch.
Virginia’s rotation is essentially limited to six guys
It might be me trying to find a nit to pick from this win, but such a game in such an environment displayed again how UVA’s “depth” doesn’t extend too far beyond Vander Plas as the sixth man. At least, that’s the case for now. None of Francisco Caffaro, Ryan Dunn, or Isaac McKneely had much of a positive impact on this game outside of eating minutes for the top-six guys.
Of course, for the freshman, it’s still early. That said, I’d like to see McKneely hunt his shot a bit more. He doesn’t seem to be trying to create opportunities for himself within the offense as an off-ball cutter and, if he’s not making shots, he doesn’t do a whole lot for the team right now (again, emphasis on right now). Meanwhile, Dunn is more or less just defensive depth for UVA at the moment. His length is great and can be valuable at times, but his offensive output remains very situational. Lastly, Caffaro simply couldn’t hang with Dickinson tonight. He’ll have his moments, but it looks like his opportunities will dwindle more and more as the season progresses.
As those guys struggle a bit, the three lineups that UVA runs with its top-six players proved to be enough tonight even with Shedrick’s foul trouble. The small ball lineup with Vander Plas and Gardner ended up doing just enough as those two provided enough offensive punch and contained Dickinson well enough to make the difference.
With that in mind, it’s not the end of the world that UVA is a bit limited in its rotation six games into the season. As I’ve repeated probably too many times by now, Dunn and McKneely should only get better as the season progresses and, considering how Bennett likes to shorten the rotation late in the year, having an established six guys is a good thing. It’s just important to avoid overworking them throughout a long season.
Kihei Clark is an incredibly important luxury for UVA
With Beekman’s emergence, Kihei Clark has found himself in what I consider to be the perfect role for him, and he’s flourished in it. He’s a great secondary creator on offense and his experience both proved critical against Michigan while his on-ball pressure defensively was huge for the ‘Hoos especially late in the game.
Scoring 16 points (4-9 from the floor, 1-2 from three, 7-8 from the line), with four assists, and a steal in this game, Clark will continue to be instrumental in UVA’s success this season. He can still take over games and the issues he and Beekman had playing together in past years are loooong gone. He may be an underrated asset next to his emerging, younger teammates, but Kihei’s return for his fifth season was and is so important for this group.