The Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team’s two most recent wins over the Florida State Seminoles and the James Madison Dukes weren’t particularly emphatic, especially considering how FSU is 2-9 while JMU is one of UVA’s little brother in-state opponents (cough, Hokies). Thus, it’s reasonable to doubt whether or not we’re starting to see some of that unfortunate inconsistency that plagued the team last year. After huge wins against Illinois, Baylor, and Michigan, there’s been an obvious cooling down over the last pair of contests.
Nevertheless, I’m here to tell you that the hype is still real. A pair of five-point victories against mediocre to middling squads shouldn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, and there are still plenty of reasons for why this team is a national contender.
Reece Beekman is becoming the guy
Recent injuries have meant that Beekman’s value for this team has only been further emphasized, but Reece Beekman’s play through the first 5.5 games of the season when he was fully healthy was evidence of a player who has taken the necessary leap in his development to be the best player on one of the country’s best team. Always a heady offensive playmaker who could create opportunities for his teammates, Beekman has taken that next step as an assertive scorer which was a necessary one for his game to hit that next level. In fact, his 22.4% usage rate is by far the highest of his career (16.8% in 2021-2022 season, 13.6% in 2020-2021).
In Virginia’s three big wins this season, he averaged 15 points, six assists, 1.7 steals, 50% three-point shooting, 50% shooting from the floor, and a 81.3% success rate from the free throw line. And that’s while being hurt for most of the second half against Michigan.
Beekman has emphasized getting downhill and to the rim, particularly when using ball screens. His change of pace and explosion off his back foot has left defenders in the dust, while his still improving three-point shooting (47.1% on the year) has meant that he’s been able to punish defenders for going under ball screens trying to prevent him from getting a step on them.
The 6’2” junior has always been special defensively, but his fantastic instincts, quick hands, underrated athleticism, and near-perfect technique on that end of the floor have been on display more than ever with this group as he’s been able to take additional risks with a better defense behind him. His playmaking as an on and off-ball defender has generated game-winning plays already, and his ability to shut down opponents’ best guards is a luxury which few teams in college basketball can count on so reliably.
Assuming he gets healthy relatively soon and continues on this trajectory, there’s no reason that Beekman can’t be an All-American this season. The NBA Draft talk for him may be (unfortunately for next year’s Wahoos) real, but that’s just a sign of how good he is and how capable he is of leading this team to significant success this season.
The team is versatile
Beyond Beekman, what’s carried the Wahoos to an undefeated record through eight contests has been the fact that this team can win in a variety of ways. The versatility of this group extends in a number of different directions whether that be via differing lineups, alternative styles of play, or varying players stepping at certain times.
Where does that come from? First and foremost, the individual development amongst Virginia’s starting five has been meaningful. With the aforementioned Beekman, Kadin Shedrick is similarly having a career year while Jayden Gardner has become a very good defender and fit into his new role on offense, Kihei Clark continues to thrive as the offense’s secondary creator and even when asked to shoulder more of the load, while Armaan Franklin has established the consistency that was so lacking for him last year.
Of course, the addition of Ben Vander Plas has meant that UVA’s top-six guys make up a solid core with plenty of experience and ability on either end. The Ohio transfer has allowed the Wahoos to spread the floor more, while also adding playmaking and being a surprisingly complete on-ball defender especially in the paint.
That ability to guard down low for Vander Plas has opened up lineup flexibility for Virginia as well. Playing him as a small ball five with Jayden Gardner at power forward with the three starting guards has been UVA’s most effective lineup that has played 20 or more offensive and defensive possessions together. Rotating that combination with the Gardner-Shedrick and Vander Plas-Shedrick front-courts has made life difficult for opponents as the ‘Hoos can mix and match and play different styles depending on what’s working.
With those top-six guys, UVA similarly can count on different players stepping up at different times. In Virginia’s three marquee games so far this year (Baylor, Illinois, Michigan), each of those six guys has scored in double figures in at least two of the three contests. That’s rare and finding individual production from each of them throughout the season will continue to buoy the Wahoos and make life difficult for their opponents, particularly when game planning. Even on defense, the balance between playing Shedrick (who is 22nd in the country in block rate and 47th in steal rate) and going small can completely alter how opposing teams have to play.
Additionally, Virginia can both win with its defense and with its offense. While the defense hasn’t been as relentlessly good in the early season as years past, the team has been able to turn it on for stretches against very good competition. The first ten minutes of the second half against Baylor, the final five minutes versus Illinois, and the first five minutes of the Michigan win were all periods when the Wahoo defense strung together stops and made what turned out to be game-winning runs. Similarly, without Beekman for the majority of the game, UVA was able to rely on getting stops against a high octane James Madison offense to win 55-50.
Of course, while UVA isn’t necessarily a game-to-game three-point shooting juggernaut, the ‘Hoos can also win games by getting hot from deep. Going 9-14 from three against Baylor was no joke and, as the team has relied on getting downhill and dominating the paint in most of the games since then, there are a variety of players who can keep defenses honest. Armaan Franklin can be a high volume shooter with Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Isaac McKneely, and Ben Vander Plas all also providing a reasonable perimeter threat.
With the strength in the post of Gardner and Vander Plas, Shedrick’s rim-running and finishing abilities, Beekman and Clark’s strengths as creators who can touch the paint and get to the rim, and Franklin’s knock-down shooting, UVA has many wells from which to draw from offensively. That makes the Wahoo offense hard to stop when fully healthy. Pairing that with a defense that can be elite at times and Virginia can win in so many different ways. That’s an indicator of a very good team and, in particular, one that can win in a tournament setting when, as UVA fans are well aware, fluky things can happen so being able to rely on varying styles and players at different times is incredibly valuable.
There’s still room for growth
Perhaps the biggest remaining question for UVA’s ceiling this year revolves around the contributions and growth from freshmen Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn. While each has had their moments and Dunn especially flashed on the defensive end against JMU, their production on offense has been pretty minimal in meaningful games this season.
Obviously, they’re only eight games into their college careers, so piling too much criticism on their shoulders at this time would be unfair. Frankly, the fact that they’ve played 45% (McKneely) and 27.5% (Dunn) of available minutes so far is a good sign and indicates that Tony Bennett trusts them to hold their own, a rare feat for first years in the Bennett program. But, considering each of their individual potential, the two of them blossoming into 15-20 minutes per game contributors in conference play would be huge for this team.
For Dunn, his role will be as a shutdown wing defender on the perimeter who can add some occasional playmaking and shotmaking on offense. We got a look at that on both ends of the floor against James Madison as he put his extreme athleticism on full display with a SportsCenter #1 Highlight dunk and a baseline drive to put the ‘Hoos up four in the final minute of play. His 11.8% usage rate (lowest on the team) and -27.4 offensive split per EvanMiya (meaning UVA has been 24.1 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor offensively than off it) point to how limited his impact has been on that end outside of a few highlight reel worthy plays.
On defense, though, the script is flipped. Versus JMU, he consistently bothered whomever Bennett matched him up with and showed he can effectively maneuver screens, shuffle his feet, drop step, and contest shots with his length. His +16.7 per 100 possessions defensive split is best on the team by a wide margin. At his ceiling come March, he can be a really solid, low usage “three and D” guy for the Wahoos, probably at the three spot with Clark and Beekman in the backcourt.
For McKneely, he straight up needs to hit shots. He’s perfectly fine defensively — he won’t be an outstanding plus for Virginia on that end this season but he doesn’t make mistakes and knows what he’s doing. Where he can make a notable difference and a noticeable improvement is on offense. Considering that his shooting is what makes him valuable for UVA, his usage rate needs to be higher than 15.7% (only Dunn’s is lower).
Additionally, because he’s been occasionally hesitant to take shots, hasn’t hit at a tremendous clip (38.5% from deep, 32.3% from the field), and is yet to expand his offensive game much beyond being an outside shooter, McKneely’s -27.4 points per 100 offensive possessions on/off split is the worst on the team.
THAT BEING SAID, it feels like the Poca native is on the precipice. The dip in his shot motion is a slight concern that should be fixed over time. But, other than that, there’s no reason not to expect him to come around as the season progresses. It’d be more surprising if he’d easily transitioned from playing in the middle of West Virginia to meaningfully performing against the Baylors and Michigans of the world.
McKneely’s almost always been the most athletic kid on the court. Now, he’s not and is understandably adjusting and learning how to be effective otherwise. Assuming he does by February or March and can provide a shooting lift and some easy offense off the bench, all of a sudden UVA’s rotation is legitimately eight or nine guys deep against serious competition.
McKneely and Dunn’s likely and, honestly, eventual adjustment to the college game will only add to UVA’s versatility and potential. Each could provide something that the Wahoos need, especially off the bench, so tracking their performances over the next few months will be critical.
One final point on how Virginia can improve: the defense can still be sounder. UVA’s been a hair too slow and a tad too sloppy in its defensive rotations and closeouts this season and has often produced too many easy looks for opponents. That said, I don’t need to do a deep dive on this one to highlight the fact that improvement in this area should be expected.
Yeah, Dunn’s continued development is important to have length on the backend while Kadin Shedrick needs to be more disciplined and various guys need to be more reserved when rotating onto the perimeter. But these are the things that Bennett and his staff specialize in. If there’s one thing you can bank on UVA teams improving throughout the course of a season, it’s the minutiae of the Pack-Line defense.
Assuming they do and the team continues on the trajectory it’s on right now, there’s no reason why Virginia can’t hoist its second National Championship trophy come April 3rd, 2023.