The Virginia Cavaliers suffered their first defeat of the season in a 69-61 loss to #5 Houston at John Paul Jones Arena Saturday. It was the biggest non-conference home game in recent Virginia history, and the ‘Hoos leapt out to a 9-0 lead, but as Houston settled in they pulled away thanks to quality shotmaking and never really let Virginia back into the game in the second half.
As a disclaimer, we’re not labeling anybody on here as a “loser,” or anything of the sort. Rather, it’s just a method for analyzing how individuals performed in Saturday’s contest.
Props to the Cougars — this win was no fluke. Considering strength of opponent, it was probably Houston’s best offensive performance of the season as they shot 57% on twos and 38% from three en route to 69 points on 59 possessions. Virginia leapt out to a 9-0 lead and it would’ve been easy for Kelvin Sampson’s squad to stagnate, but they went on an extended 40-21 run to take firm control of the game, and never let momentum-shifting plays like Kihei Clark’s steal rattle them.
Houston will climb back into the top four of the AP poll after this win, and with the AAC looking weak this season, they only have two real challenges left on their schedule against Memphis. The Cougars have the inside track to a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament, and if they play the way they did against the Cavaliers, they might be a good bet to win it.
The veteran guard isn’t this team’s best player or its best NBA prospect. But Kihei Clark is the go-to guy, for better and for worse, and he stepped up in a huge spot against Houston. The Cougars are a really tough matchup for Clark because of their team-wide length, and the downsides of that were definitely felt a few times — Jamal Shead was able to take him into the mid-post area and score a few times.
However, he was exactly the player Virginia needed him to be. From the opening tip, Kihei stayed composed and under control: on the first basket of the game, he caught an inbounds pass with three seconds on the shot clock and had the calm to shot fake and step into an open three instead of rushing up a shot. Down eight late in the second half, he picked Shead’s pocket in the backcourt for a fastbreak layup that sent John Paul Jones Arena into a frenzy and brought the ‘Hoos as close as they would get to a comeback. Clark finished with nine points and eight assists to just two turnovers, one of which came on a dubious travel call that took away an and-one. He showed up in a big spot.
McKneely’s performance in this game bodes very well for his future as a Cavalier. He played 25 minutes in the game, fifth-most on the team, and never once looked out of his element as a freshman against one of the top teams in the country. Virginia continues to run looks specifically for McKneely to create three-pointers — while in previous games it’s been floppy sets out of timeouts, against Houston an elevator-doors double screen sprung McKneely free for a clean look to cut the lead to three late in the game.
Isaac couldn’t knock down the open triple, and Virginia would never be within striking distance that close to Houston again. But the fact that a true freshman had a play called for him on the biggest possession of the game is a victory in and of itself. And even with that miss, McKneely did go 2-for-5 from three and add a nice and-one in pseudo-garbage time. It was a big game for the freshman in a big moment, and looks to be the first of many.
Speaking of freshmen stepping up in big moments, how about Jarace Walker? Lots of players for Houston made big shots in this game, but none as consistently and eye-poppingly as the 19-year-old Cougar. Most notably, his fadeaway — which Tony Bennett compared to Dirk Nowitzki’s in his postgame presser — at the end of the second half put Houston up 11 and essentially iced the game. Walker also hit two big ones at the end of the first half. The true freshman was trusted to play 39 minutes, too! I have a hunch he’ll be in the green room for the NBA Draft this year.
The ‘Hoos were probably due to drop one eventually, as they simply haven’t been the same team with a banged-up Reece Beekman. They’d won their last three games against Michigan, Florida State, and James Madison by a grand total of 12 points — not particularly convincing for the #2 team in the country. They’re still a very good team, but Virginia looked outclassed by Houston in a game that really left little doubt about the better team.
If there is one area you can point to and say “if Virginia does this well, they win this game,” it’s definitely their shooting from beyond the arc. Even with how thoroughly Houston controlled the play after the first few minutes in Charlottesville, the ‘Hoos did continue to generate good looks from three, especially when they went to a three-guard lineup with Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, and Isaac McKneely sharing the floor in the middle of the first half.
The shots just wouldn’t fall, a trend that’s becoming more and more worrisome as the season proceeds. Entering the game, Houston had held opponents to just 23.8% from three, the second-lowest clip in the country, but it didn’t really feel like their lockdown defense suppressed a lot of Virginia’s attempts. The length of their defenders probably helps in contesting shots, but by and large it felt like the ‘Hoos just missing quality looks.
The Cavaliers have shot 29.4% from three in their last five games after knocking down 46.9% of their triples over their first four. That “hot” number would lead the NCAA, and that “cold” number would rank 321st. I’m inclined to believe that in the aggregate the Cavaliers are still a good jump shooting team — after all, they’re still at 38% on the season, good for 39th in the NCAA — but it would be nice if they could give us a reminder of that by, you know, making some threes one of these days.
Ben Vander Plas
In a game of rough shooting performances, no one struggled more than Ben Vander Plas. He put together his worst game as a Cavalier, failing to score in 17 minutes of game time despite seven shots including six three-point attempts. Vander Plas made six of his first 10 threes as a Cavalier, and has since made just two of his last 18. His season-long rate of 28.6% would mark a career low.
The undefeated season
The dream is once again dead, not that anyone really believed these Cavaliers would go undefeated. At least they made it longer than last season, where the ‘Hoos had their undefeated hopes dashed on opening night by Navy.
Fans of basketball teams that don’t lose games should turn their attention to UConn, who KenPom currently gives a 6.2% chance of finishing the regular season without a loss. Or, even better, they can turn their attention to Coach Mox’s Cavaliers, who are out to a 12-0 start after a 84-28 curbstomping of Morgan State. It’s the team’s first 12-0 start since 1991, and their first 12-game winning streak since 1995.
Being a freshman basketball player at Virginia is hard. Dunn looked tremendous against JMU and essentially won the ‘Hoos the game with a late score followed by a great stop. His reward? Not entering the game until late in the first half, where he drew the Marcus Sasser defensive assignment and immediately got beat for an open three (honestly, it’s not that fair to expect Dunn to stick with Sasser through Houston’s bevy of off-ball screens), and then not receiving any meaningful minutes in the second. Dunn saw just three minutes of action overall. He’s still a bright spot and key piece moving forward, but this wasn’t his game.
Isaac McKneely’s bump in playing time came at the expense of Franklin, who saw just 24 minutes of action, less than the freshman. I don’t even think Franklin played all that poorly. He knocked down two of three attempts from beyond the arc (though one of those came in definite garbage time) and rebounded the ball well. However, Franklin’s in the Losers column because he’s been consistently the player pulled at the end of close games for a replacement. It’s a three-game trend now: Virginia went offense-defense at times with Dunn and Franklin against FSU, opted for Dunn against JMU, and had Isaac McKneely in over Franklin in crunch time against Houston.
I don’t knows
Watching the game, it looked like Gardner struggled: his midrange jumper wasn’t falling, particularly in the second half, and Jarace Walker got the better of him one too many times on “good defense, better offense” plays. However, Gardner did finish with 13 points on eight field goal attempts, altogether a fairly efficient outing. He also snagged six rebounds and made five of his six free throw attempts, a positive development after the JMU game.
Shedrick falls in a similar category to Gardner. He led the ‘Hoos with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, a very pretty number. But he visibly had a rough go of it — especially on the defensive glass, where he snagged just one defensive rebound in 29 minutes of game action and got burned by Houston’s crashing guards too many times.
Beekman gets the biggest “I don’t know” of all, mostly because no one really knows how healthy Virginia’s most important player is right now. Tony Bennett said after the game that Beekman played at about 80 percent and spent most of the 11-day layoff rehabbing from his hamstring injury instead of practicing with the team. He doesn’t seem to have his pre-injury burst back yet, as he attempted just one shot at the basket in 34 minutes against Houston and made just one shot total in five attempts. However, he’s still crucial to this team’s offensive fluidity and absolutely locked up Marcus Sasser all game long.
Speaking of Sasser — it was a weird game for Houston’s top scorer. The flashes were absolutely there: whenever he managed to get away from Reece Beekman, it felt like an automatic bucket for Sasser. However, with Beekman on him, Sasser could do absolutely nothing offensively. Reece stonewalled the star guard on multiple occasions and never allowed a basket to Sasser.