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The Big Preview: UVA Basketball Tips Off Versus #5 Houston

The heavyweight battle tips off at 2:00 PM tomorrow in JPJ.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Following the exam break, the Virginia Cavaliers get right back to it with a very tough matchup against the Houston Cougars, who were ranked #1 last week. They fell a bit following their loss to Alabama last Saturday, but this is still a very good Houston team. Maybe you recall last year’s matchup, which was a mismatch in Houston’s favor. The Cougars won by 20, although the game didn’t even feel that close.

Virginia really needed the exam break. The last two games have not looked good, at least not offensively. Some of that is Reece Beekman being injured. But open shots which were falling in the first month of the season have not been falling enough.

At this point, it’s clear that Reece is Virginia’s best and most indispensable player. Statistically, that may not seem like the case. Reece averages 10 points (fourth on the team), 4.5 assists (second) and 1.5 steals (second) per game. He’s just slightly behind Kihei in assists and Shedrick in steals. But Beekman is also shooting 47% from three and 85% from the line.

Of course, Reece also guards the opposition’s best perimeter scorer. For this matchup, that is Marcus Sasser. Sasser leads the Cougars in scoring at 16 per game. He has taken over 20% of the team’s shots. He has been one of the best players in the nation thus far, especially impressive since he has not been knocking down the three. He made 44% from downtown last year, but he’s under 30% through 10 games this year.

Sasser led all scorers in last year’s game with 19 points on 6/14 shooting from the field. He also led all players in assists, with four. This was a particularly sick shot.

Last year, Sasser saw mostly Kihei Clark. Beekman was on the bigger Kyler Edwards. Sasser just needed the smallest bit of space to rise up and shoot over Clark. Edwards and Sasser combined to shoot 9/13 (69%) from downtown. That’s all you need to know about that game. Edwards is gone now, meaning Beekman should be on Sasser. Meanwhile, Clark will get Jamal Shead.

Shead is a true point guard, and averages almost six assists per game (Houston plays nearly as slow as Virginia, so six dimes is a lot), but does not shoot much. He is an outstanding defender, and here he gets the strip, the steal and the layup on the other end.

The Hoos were led by Armaan Franklin’s 11 points in last year’s outing in Houston. The problem was that all 11 of Franklin’s points came in the second half when the game was out of reach. In the first half, when Virginia was falling behind early, Franklin did not attempt a shot.

Remember when Franklin came out of the gate this year gunning? He attempted 8 free throws against NC Central in the opener, took 10 against Baylor, but has attempted only four in five games since then, making just one. Virginia needs the aggressive Franklin, the gunner. As fans, we love seeing Ryan Dunn and Isaac McKneely getting more run. Those guys are going to be good. But Franklin is the present and he can do things that Dunn and McNeekly can’t. Not yet, anyway.

Again, it’s too-little-too-late, but this is a great drive and finish. Great screen from Caffaro too. Especially if Beekman is still less than 100%, Virginia needs somebody else who can get to the rack and finish. Franklin is that guy.

Here he is against FSU in the Wahoos’ last game. This was the one time he took the ball aggressively to the rack. He took just seven shots and went 1/2 from the stripe. Far too passive, especially with Beekman hobbled. Virginia simply needs more from the former Indiana transfer. If he isn’t going to provide that aggressive play on offense, he’s going to continue losing minutes to Dunn.

Speaking of Dunn, what a move! This was the clincher against JMU, avoiding an upset. Dunn is going to be really good. But he probably isn’t going to get a lane to the hoop like this against Houston.

Clark doesn’t need a lane. He is so quick, he creates his own space. But he’s just too small to finish inside against bigs. JMU doesn’t have shot blockers. Houston does.

Houston’s bigs are J’Wan Roberts and freshman Jerace Walker. Roberts had two points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench last year. Walker was a top-10 recruit this year and is second on the team in both scoring and rebounding. Both are capable interior defenders who can block shots from the weak side. Both are also strong on the offensive glass, a real strength for the Cougars and seemingly a weakness for the Wahoos.

Neither, though, are big. At 6’8” 240, Walker is the biggest on the roster. That is roughly the same size as Jayden Gardner, but Kadin Shedrick has several inches on those guys. He should have some chances to score inside in this game.

None of Virginia’s bigs did much in last year’s game. Gardner and Shedrick had four points each and Caffaro had three. Virginia will need far more than 11 from their bigs in this game to knock off a very good Houston team. Ideally, Ben Vander Plas can help on that front.

This game is all about Reece Beekman. If he’s less than 100%, or if he doesn’t play, Virginia probably can’t win. But if Reece is healthy and able to do the things we’ve become accustomed to him doing, then this becomes a very good battle of heavyweights this season. And, playing at home, Virginia has a pretty good chance at some revenge from last year’s game.