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Five takeaways from #2 UVA basketball’s tough loss to #5 Houston

Virginia struggles against Houston’s enveloping defense.

NCAA Basketball: Houston at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

As the Virginia Cavaliers suffered their first loss of the season to the #5 Houston Cougars today, 69-61, we’ve got five takeaways from a frustrating game.

Reece Beekman’s limitation is huge

I’ll get to the larger scale takeaways from this game shortly, but it’s impossible to accurately evaluate this result without the significant consideration about how Reece Beekman’s hamstring injury limits the Virginia offense. His technique and fantastic instincts defensively mean that he was still able to shut down Marcus Sasser — Sasser’s three triples came against other defenders. But the Wahoo offense couldn’t afford to both miss the number of shots it did and not have a fully healthy Beekman to score off the dribble — evidenced by his mere four points on just five shots.

What makes Reece such a good offensive player stems not only from his fantastic basketball IQ and feel for the game, but also from his explosion and violent change of speed. We’ve already seen him put opponents in blenders this season, but he hasn’t been the same since hurting his ankle against Michigan and then adding a hamstring injury to the equation versus Florida State.

Beekman is the wind beneath UVA’s offensive wings. The way he threatens opposing defenses in the pick and roll as a guy who can blow by defenders downhill, pull up if they go under ball screens, or pick apart a rotating defense makes Virginia deadly. Without that threat at full force, this team is far worse off. Whether or not he can return to full health soon (or, worst case, at all) will determine UVA’s ceiling.

The result doesn’t mean THAT much

This loss stunk. It did. The game was altogether ugly and Virginia’s offense was pretty stagnant after pulling out to a 9-0 early lead. The shots Houston made in the second half were straight up demoralizing especially after UVA did make a number of runs to try and get back into the game.

That being said, losing to Houston is a perfectly fine result that shouldn’t dramatically alter our perception of this team. They’re built to stop an offense such as UVA’s and the Cougars have enough individual playmakers on offense to beat a Virginia defense that continues to be a bit too sloppy in its rotations.

Houston is now ranked first in both the KenPom and BartTorvik metrics. The Cougars have arguably been the best team in the country, even with their loss to Alabama. So, taking an eight-point loss to such a squad on a bad shooting night and with UVA’s best player struggling with an injury is not a bad result. There are absolutely things that Virginia needs to clean up and straight up be better at moving forward in order to compete on the national stage. But this loss should not be viewed as anything more than a tough loss to a great team on a bad night.

Houston is tough to beat if they make shots

Coming into this contest the keys to beating Houston centered around creating enough offense against a stellar Cougar defense and then limiting Houston’s offense to making jump shots, something they’ve struggled with this season.

Well, in typical fashion against UVA’s Pack-Line, Houston got hot when they needed to most. Five star big man Jarace Walker in particular had his coming out party on the national stage, scoring 17 points on 6-11 shooting from the floor and 2-3 from deep. The jumpers he hit both from deep and from the midrange provided incredibly valuable release valves for the Houston offense and made life easy for the Cougar guards.

Walker’s performance alongside timely shooting from Tramon Mark and Marcus Sasser meant that Virginia defenders were left spinning as they tried to account for the driving threat that the Houston backcourt poses while also having to close out to shooters on the perimeter. If Kelvin Sampson’s squad can reproduce this sort of offensive performance on a game-to-game basis then they’re probably the best team in the country by a bit of a margin.

Three-point shooting is a problem

It’s been a trend since Virginia’s win against Baylor in the third game of the year, but it’s time to officially label UVA’s three-point shooting as a problem. Since that game, UVA is a combined 30-102 (29.4%) from beyond the arc. That’s an issue. Nationally, that 29.4% clip would rank 316th which, frankly, isn’t sustainable for a major conference program. Granted, Beekman’s injury contributes to that as him not being able to burst into the paint and force defenses to rotate him has resulted in fewer open looks.

But, still, Virginia seemingly couldn’t buy a three-point basket versus Houston as the ‘Hoos shot 6-22 (27.3%) on the day. Isaac McKneely (2-5) and Armaan Franklin (2-3) provided nice boosts. But neither was hitting at a high enough volume. Ben Vander Plas in particular struggled against Houston as he shot 0-6 from deep and 0-7 from the field. Then, the backcourt of Clark and Beekman combining to go 2-8 meant that the Wahoos most often failed to capitalize when they had Houston scrambling.

Shooting is a hard thing to magically fix. Yes, Vander Plas won’t go o-fer in many games this year and there were a number of shots that rimmed out, so some better luck should benefit UVA in the future. But guys do simply need to come up a bit more clutch in big games like this one. Without that and Beekman’s scoring punch it’ll be hard for the Wahoos to consistently produce offensively against top-tier defensive teams.

UVA’s versatility is challenged

Largely as a result of such struggles from three, the lineup and schematic offensive versatility that UVA has benefitted so significantly from up until today was severely challenged against Houston. Vander Plas not being an outside threat was a huge factor, as was his inability to pump fake and create separation against such athletic Houston big men. He had lots of open looks when the Cougar defense over-committed to the guard after BVP set ball screens, but going 0-6 from three meant that those opportunities were squandered.

Additionally, while Shedrick (16 points) and Gardner (13) were UVA’s leading scorers on the night, a lot of those points came off of Kihei Clark (nine points, eight assists) feeds and weren’t as much a sign of inside dominance as they were evidence of Houston occasionally getting lost amongst UVA’s screening on offense. Each was still very efficient. But especially without the counter of Vander Plas’ shooting or Beekman’s gravity as a driver, the consistent paint production throughout the game was limited.

Thus, without dominant play from Virginia’s bruisers on the interior, little to no success shooting the ball, and the creation from the guards limited to Kihei Clark, there weren’t enough answers for UVA on offense to match Houston’s shot-making. That’s something we haven’t seen yet this season. Then again, we also haven’t seen Virginia play against a team quite as good as Houston.

There’s plenty of time to adapt, improve, and get healthy before March. And, fortunately, the ACC ain’t exactly a gauntlet this year. But this was a good reset for Tony Bennett and company as they approach conference play for real.