The Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team dropped its second consecutive game with the 66-64 loss to the #22 Miami Hurricanes putting Tony Bennett’s team’s record at 8-2 so far this season. With the loss, we’ve got five takeaways.
This is the team’s floor
Last season we got a pretty extensive look into how up and down a college basketball team can be. The win at eventual Final Four team Duke and another pair of victories against the Elite Eight-reaching Miami Hurricanes were evidence of a team that could arguably beat anybody in the country. Losses to Navy, James Madison, NC State, and Florida State were evidence of the exact opposite.
This season, we’ve seen evidence of UVA’s ceiling in wins over Baylor, Illinois, and Michigan while the Cavaliers’ floor has been amidst Reece Beekman’s injuries and, before the Houston game, came in ugly wins rather than close losses. While the defeat to Houston was probably more a result of a very good opponent playing to their ceiling, this loss is different. For arguably the first time this season, Virginia playing poorly lost them a game.
The poor shooting — 6-23 (26.1%) from three, 22-60 (36.7%) — throughout the game was a killer while the team defense in the first half was especially bad as Miami seemingly canned shot after shot after shot. Granted, each team’s shooting regressed to the mean a bit in the second half as UVA adjusted its personnel in order to try to win defensively while Ben Vander Plas nailed four triples to get the Wahoo offense going.
But, still, the issues this team has with an often stagnant offense that tries to rely on unreliable shooting and a defense that continues to be a step or two late in its rotations can be significant. The poor first halves (Virginia has been trailing at half in six of its ten games) and slow starts continue to bite the Wahoos as the halftime adjustments haven’t garnered sufficient differences to pull out victories in the last two outings. So, now we know; this is the bad version of the 2022-2023 team. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be on par with last year’s floor. But UVA is by no means perfect and still has a healthy amount of improvement to be made.
UVA’s late push comes up just short
Despite a 15-point deficit with 14:45 remaining and then a 10-point deficit with 1:03 left, the Wahoos still managed to be one successful Reece Beekman drive and score in the final seconds away from sending this game to overtime. Both the early second half run to keep things competitive and then the last minute skirmish to pull within one point were inspiring bursts of production in an otherwise incredibly frustrating game.
Ben Vander Plas (20 points on 4-9 shooting from deep and 7-13 from the field), Kihei Clark (13 points on a poor 2-10 from the floor but 8-9 from the line to go with three steals), and Reece Beekman (10 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists on 5-9 shooting) were the primary catalysts as each had their moments of greatness in this game. Their performances as cagey veterans who found a way to produce on a night where things weren’t going UVA’s way shouldn’t be brushed aside. That’s how this group can win games despite the odds being stacked against them, and that’s a critical component for a team that wants to make a tournament run.
Ryan Dunn and Isaac McKneely are plusses defensively
Dunn and McKneely combined for five points on 1-11 shooting tonight. Pretty bad performances, right? Not so fast friend-o. While both struggled to make a difference offensively — McKneely went 1-7 from deep and 1-9 from the floor while Dunn missed his two shots — they’re objectively good defenders and their presence on that end of the floor was a big factor in UVA’s comeback. McKneely’s +21 in 31 minutes led the team despite his poor shooting while Dunn, who didn’t play in the first half, was still +13 in his 16 second half minutes.
Granted, +/- is a very flawed statistic. But, in this case, it’s a sign of how Tony Bennett rightfully prioritized McKneely and Dunn’s presence on the floor, particularly defensively, to that of Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner. Sure, Miami being a small team means that going small with Dunn at the four was a better matchup. But the freshmen’s proclivity for impressive play in the PackLine as individual and team defenders is really impressive considering this is only game ten of each of their respective careers. While Dunn continues to show flashes of being an elite wing defender, McKneely is similarly technically and mentally sound while only lacking some of the physical eliteness.
Yes, more scoring production is absolutely going to be required of Dunn and McKneely as their careers progress. But it’s valuable to have a pair of true freshmen so capable defensively so early on. Being able to focus on being more impactful offensively is a luxury so few young guys in the Bennett program can afford.
Referees call a questionable game
I typically try to avoid writing about how games are called by the referees. It’s kinda tacky, obviously very subjective, and doesn’t have much if any impact beyond the individual game that was played. Referees also aren’t perfect and I know I would do a worse job than them were I to be in their shoes.
With that disclaimer out of the way, man oh man did it feel like Miami was on the fortuitous side of a vast majority of the calls made tonight. As I tweeted during the game in so many words, if Tony Bennett is mad at the refs, they’re probably wrong. The inconsistency of calls particularly regarding contact on layups was hard to watch from a Virginia perspective. Each team had 17 fouls, so the difference such calls made probably wasn’t too egregious and there are plenty of things that could have been done differently and shots that could’ve been made which would’ve resulted in a UVA win outside of the officiating.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think back to the first half when Kadin Shedrick was pummeled in the ribs while the refs let play continue and wonder what could’ve been.
Virginia lacks a substantive identity
Maybe this is just a blogger’s way of saying that UVA isn’t elite at any one thing, but through ten games it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly you’d consider the team’s identity to be. Sure, they play the PackLine defense, are methodical in finding the best shot, and emphasize taking care of the ball and limiting second chance opportunities. But all Bennett teams do that. What makes this team special?
Heading into the Houston game I would’ve (and did) tell you that the identity laid in the Wahoos’ versatility of personnel and style. The balance between winning in the paint with the Shedrick-Gardner-Vander Plas trio, Beekman and Clark penetrating defenses and then working from there, the perimeter threats of Franklin, Vander Plas, McKneely, and the two point guards, and a good defense that can turn it on for stretches all pointed to a team that can win against very good teams in a healthy number of ways.
Alas, the last two losses have indicated that none of those strengths is quite strong enough to make this group a top-five or so team in the country. I still believe UVA’s ceiling is up there with the best in the country. But, to reach that point, further solidifying a decent defense, establishing more consistent shooting, finding ways to generate reliable post touches, and getting Beekman fully healthy are all elements of the game that Virginia needs to focus and/or improve on before March.