Virginia’s start to the season has, in a sense, been its own big surprise. Who had the ‘Hoos dropping off Baylor and Illinois in Vegas, Michigan in Ann Arbor, and rattling off seven straight wins to begin the season? It’s an exciting time for the Cavaliers.
From the team’s overall encouraging play, a few particular observations have stood out as especially key improvements or leaps. These three surprises have each been major reasons why the Virginia Cavaliers are 7-0 and a top-five team in the country.
Ben Vander Plas’s post play
When he transferred to the Virginia Cavaliers from Ohio this offseason, Ben Vander Plas was touted as a stretch big who could add a new dimension to a lethargic Cavalier offense. So far, he’s certainly added significant value on the offensive end of the floor, but his contributions have been multifaceted in a way that few expected entering the season.
Sure, Vander Plas has been effective on the perimeter. He’s knocked down eight of his 19 threes, including some key shots against Baylor and Michigan. Vander Plas isn’t just a catch-and-shoot guy, either: he drilled a tough jab-step three in the second half against Michigan that no one on the team would’ve attempted, let alone made, in the 2021-22 campaign (and also resulted in an elite celebration from his father Dean).
But where Vander Plas has surprised is in every other aspect of his game. While some stretch fours love to live outside the three-point arc, BVP thrives around the basket, battling for rebounds on both ends of the floor and stealing second-chance points. In recent games, Virginia’s “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” offense when the mover-blocker works are gummed up has been letting Vander Plas go to work in the mid-post.
From that area, BVP has looked good as both a scorer and a playmaker. He has a nifty arsenal of post moves, with some nice finishes going to his right, and can methodically pick on smaller defenders. He also constantly keeps his eyes up, hunting for cross-court passing lanes or defenders falling asleep. Vander Plas ranks third on the team in assists per game, trailing just Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman.
When Virginia’s gone small with Vander Plas and fellow power forward Jayden Gardner on the floor — another dynamic the stretch big adds to UVA’s offense — he’s been able to take advantage of matchups against slower centers. Here, he cooks Hunter Dickinson with a pump-and-go and drops off a smooth assist to his front-court mate.
Ben Vander Plas has always been a fun watch and he's fit in well at UVA pic.twitter.com/y6CDoqjfI9— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) November 30, 2022
Put it all together and you end up with an incredibly valuable super-sub sixth man who’s been crucial to Virginia’s hot offensive start. Vander Plas is shooting a career high from three, and small sample size notwithstanding, it’s easy to credit his arrival for part of Virginia’s leap from 247th to fifth in three-point percentage. And in big games, BVP’s instant offense out of the post is a great tool for the Cavaliers in their scoring toolkit.
Reece Beekman’s three-level scoring
In a way, the Reece Beekman leap this season hasn’t been surprising. But remove some of the context — familiarity with Beekman’s poise and work ethic, or knowledge of his ability to constantly show up in big moments — and the improvement he’s made as a scorer is incredible.
In his third season at Virginia, it isn’t an overstatement to say Beekman’s grown in every single area of his offensive game. Reece is embracing contact at the rim more often, to his benefit: he’s attempting 5.3 free throws per 40 minutes, up from a previous career high of 1.4. He’s knocked down 24 of 28 attempts from the charity stripe, good for a team-best 85.7% clip.
Beekman’s also getting to the basket effectively, attempting a career-high number of field goals from two-point range per 40 minutes. His rim pressure improves even further against elite competition: in contests with Baylor, Illinois, and Michigan, Beekman made 11 of his 16 field goal attempts at the basket (dunks or layups), good for an incredible 68.8% clip. Putrid midrange shooting has tanked Reece’s two-point field goal percentage thus far — he’s shooting a woeful 2-for-15 on midrange attempts — but his ability to get downhill has taken a step forward.
And then there’s the three-point shooting. Beekman has made eight of his 17 attempts from beyond the arc this year, good for an incredible 47.1%. That number may decline, but the strides Reece has made as a shooter are evident. His confidence is visible in the numbers, where his 3.2 three-point attempts per 40 minutes is easily a career high, but it’s also obvious in Beekman’s game when he steps into a three off the dribble after a defender goes under the screen on a pick-and-roll or lets a semi-contested catch-and-shoot look fly.
These improvements have been cherries on top of Reece’s still-elite defense and playmaking, turning a good player into a great one. According to lineup data from EvanMiya.com, Beekman has been Virginia’s most impactful player on both the offensive and defensive end, and he’s been a part of the team’s best two-man, three-man, four-man, and five-man lineups.
Kadin Shedrick improving on both ends
As is tradition for Tony Bennett bigs, Kadin Shedrick is finally coming into his own as a true Virginia Big Man™: relentless around the basket, intense in his pick-and-roll hedges and pack-line recoveries, slightly more foul-prone than you’d like but so defensively valuable that it doesn’t matter.
Shedrick’s playing much more physically at the basket than ever before, and he’s been rewarded by the officials for his intensity: his .969 free-throw rate paces not just the team but the entire ACC. He’s made the most of those newfound attempts at the line, shooting free throws at a career-high 77.4% clip, while also knocking down an unbelievable 29 of his 32 total attempts at the basket — good for an inhuman 90.6% rate.
Perhaps Shedrick’s improved free-throw percentage and touch around the basket are signs of things to come as a jump shooter, too. He’s made three of nine jump shots, including one three-pointer. Shedrick is no Jay Huff (and probably not even a Mamadi Diakite), but your freakishly athletic big man being able to step out and hit a 15-footer on occasion certainly isn’t a bad thing.
On the defensive end, Shedrick has become the best version of himself. His block percentage is down slightly to 8.5% from 11.2%, but he’s more than made up for it by doubling his steals per game total, mostly via active hands when hedging on pick-and-rolls. He’s poked the ball away from guards in some really high-leverage situations. Kadin still jumps a little too frequently at shot attempts, which can lead to some silly fouls or easy put-backs when he’s abandoned the basket, but his hyper-aggressive rim protection is more feature than bug.
Kadin’s made strides on both ends of the floor, with his threat around the basket making things easier for the ‘Hoos on offense and defense. When Virginia has the ball, the attention he warrants as such a strong finisher at the basket opens up driving lanes or clean shots for teammates. When their opponents have the ball, Shedrick’s mere presence in the paint deters drives. Player impact metrics love Shedrick: he’s second on the team in EvanMiya’s BPR and first in BartTorvik’s PRPG. While on the floor, his effect is immense.