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UVA Basketball Mailbag: Ryan Dunn as a starter, shooting woes, and most intriguing defensive lineups

Answering all the fanbases most pressing questions.

Florida State v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Following a pair of close wins for the Virginia Cavaliers’ men’s basketball team against the Florida State Seminoles on Saturday and the James Madison Dukes on Tuesday, I figured it’d be a good time for another mailbag. So, I took to Twitter and gathered the best questions from the Wahoo fanbase in order to address any and all wonderments you could be having about this team right now.

How concerned are you with the recent shooting slumps?

It’s hard to say for sure. After starting the season on fire shooting the ball, Virginia has definitely come back down to earth of late. In fact, since the Baylor win, the ‘Hoos are only shooting the ball 30% from three-point range. That ain’t pretty. Tack on some mediocre to bad free throw shooting, and making shots has been an issue for the UVA offense after it looked like it was going to be the strength of the team through three games.

Thus, it’s hard to exactly deduce what the norm will be over the 30+ game season. Especially in the two most recent games, a lot of the missed threes looked like good shots, they just bounced off the inside of the rim. Shooting can be very luck dependent, and UVA didn’t seem to have the most fortunate bounces on offense against FSU or JMU.

Additionally, while I’ll go into further detail on him later, Isaac McKneely should improve his shooting and provide another realistic perimeter threat. Meanwhile, the eventual return of Reece Beekman will make everybody else’s life easier as he can both knock down triples (8-17 on the season) but also collapse opposing defenses and get his teammates open by touching the paint and forcing opponents to rotate.

Long story short, this won’t be a 40%+ three-point shooting team. But the recent struggles have probably more so been a combination of bad luck, Beekman’s absence, and tough opponents who exhausted UVA’s shooters by forcing them to hone in extensively on defense rather than a sign of a season-long problem with making threes.

Will Ryan Dunn be a starter by March 1?

Tough one here. Dunn’s emergence as a potentially elite wing defender means his role is only going to grow as the season progresses. It might be a small sample size, but we saw enough against James Madison to confirm that he can be that type of player. Whether he starts this year is an entirely different conversation.

First of all, the biggest test in the extent of his playing time this season probably comes on the offensive side of the ball. If he can establish himself as somewhat of a knockdown outside shooter who can make the occasional play in transition or off the bounce (see his two highlight reel buckets vs the Dukes), then he could be in line for a starting spot.

That being said, with the three stalwarts in the front-court — Vander Plas, Gardner, and Shedrick — soaking up those minutes and neither Kihei Clark or Reece Beekman at risk because of their strengths as creators, Dunn would probably have to take Armaan Franklin’s spot at the three. And, while the former Indiana transfer hasn’t been as scorching hot as he started the season in recent games, he’s still been efficient. Knowing how Tony Bennett prefers to start the guys he trusts most and ride with experience, it would take a lot for Dunn to seize that spot. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t play 20ish minutes per game in conference play, though.

Isaac McNeely has not gotten off to the greatest start shooting the ball. Are the coaches working on his technique or is he just trying to get acclimated to the college competition?

Answer here is a little bit of both. When talking to McKneely at the preseason UVA media day, he mentioned that Bennett and the staff had been working with him to get his shot off quicker while also touching on the difficult adjustment from high school to college and how athletic everyone is at this level.

From what we’ve seen through eight games, there’s definitely room for improvement in his shot motion. He tends to drop the ball to his waist after catching it and then brings it up and across his body in a motion that takes longer than necessary. Unfortunately, that won’t be magically fixed and will probably be an offseason focus.

Fortunately, having an average or perhaps slightly slower than average release time isn’t the end of the world for McKneely. Yet, he still hasn’t shot amazingly this season as he’s 10-26 from deep (38.5%), 1-8 (12.5%) from two-point range, and 3-7 (42.9%) from the free throw line. Additionally, outside of Virginia’s two games against teams beyond the top-300 on Kenpom, he’s 4-16 (25%) from beyond the arc.

So, what does this all mean for McKneely, his opportunities this season, and the team as a whole? For starters, he’s still a good shooter, a very good one actually. That doesn’t just disappear because it hasn’t translated as immediately as would’ve been hoped. It absolutely does take time to get acclimated to playing Division-I basketball and adjusting to the new reality that shots are simply harder to take and make.

Ideally, he’ll see a couple of shots start to fall against tougher competition and will be able to latch onto some important confidence. He’s been more aggressive in taking his shots (nine attempted threes in the last two games) which is a positive. Now they just gotta start falling.

Would you play 75% Reece against Houston or wait until he is 100% before playing him again? And what do you think UVA will do?

If Reece is cleared to play without risk of further injury and he’s willing/wanting to deal with the pain, I’d absolutely play him versus Houston. But it’d have to be with the expectation that he’ll be very limited. Part of what makes him such a dynamic player on either end is his freakish athleticism, quickness, and burst, all of which will be hampered by his hamstring and/or ankle injury.

As for what I think UVA will do, I’m positive that Bennett and Ethan Saliba wouldn’t risk any serious injury by playing him. If he does play without being fully healed it would have to be with the confidence that he wouldn’t be at risk of additional injury. Yeah, it could be a #1 vs #2 game, but it’s still a non-conference tilt in mid-December. This team has goals far beyond that, and Beekman is probably the most important component of those plans. I’d rather lose to Houston by 30 with Beekman on the bench than beat the Cougars and lose him for an extended period of time. And I’m confident UVA feels the same way.

Do you think we see a #1 ranking this year for the Wahoos?

Eh, maybe? If they beat Houston (probably independent of whether or not the Cougars handle Alabama this weekend), the ‘Hoos would jump to #1 and, with a fully healthy Reece Beekman, I think I’d pick Virginia in this game. It’s in JPJ, so that’s a big plus. And I feel like UVA is built to beat Houston at its own game.

We’ll have more preview content coming on Kelvin Sampson’s squad, but they’ve been playing even slower this season while living on the defensive side of the ball and relying on Marcus Sasser to carry an offense that doesn’t have a ton going for it otherwise. If Beekman is at full strength, his battle with Sasser will be incredible to watch and could maybe scratch the surface of the Sampson-Ewing battle oh so many years ago.

If Virginia loses to Houston in a dogfight, then the ‘Hoos could still find themselves ranked #1 later on if they cruise through ACC play and Houston and other top teams stumble. Obviously, polls don’t mean jack, especially in early December. But they’re still fun to talk and write about and they can provide some national perspective and insight into future NCAA Tournament seeding.

What are the leading reasons for poor defensive rebounding so far? To my naked eye it seems to be both a lack of focus/effort as well as poor spacing.

Not sure I’d call the defensive rebounding poor, or at least it hasn’t been disastrous as of yet. Sure, being 212th in the country in opposing offensive rebound rate isn’t great. But it’s not too, too far below the average for Wahoo teams under Bennett. With that in mind, the 13 offensive rebounds for JMU on Friday followed a trend of UVA selling out to block shots too often and therefore leaving big men unblocked.

The main culprit here? Kadin Shedrick. While Shedrick is a prolific shot blocker and does so much to help this defense, he can sometimes get too block-happy which can produce unearned opportunities for opponents as his eagerness to leave his man on the backside and fly over to help defend a driving guard results in a high risk, high reward situation. He had four blocks against James Madison, but his over-help significantly contributed to the Dukes bringing down 32.5% of their misses.

Interestingly, after Shedrick played 18 first half minutes and James Madison recorded nine offensive boards, he only played seven minutes in the second period while the Dukes only had four second half offensive rebounds. He may have been dealing with yet another unfortunate hit to the head, but UVA did actually benefit on the defensive boards by not having him on the floor trying to make extra plays.

For the game, JMU only scored seven points off those 13 offensive rebounds, so the struggles on the defensive boards didn’t end up punishing UVA badly. But it’s definitely something to keep an eye on moving forward, particularly when Shedrick is on the floor.

Caffaro didn’t get any minutes against JMU. Thoughts on that and his future on getting minutes?

Similar to how Shedrick was getting a bit exploited by JMU being a smaller team, Caffaro simply didn’t match up against the Dukes. Considering how he’s less mobile than his younger teammate, it made sense that he didn’t get any action on Tuesday.

Of course, this is another indicator of Caffaro’s lessening role with this team. The continued rise of Shedrick as the guy at the center spot and the emergence of Ben Vander Plas as a very capable small ball five means that there aren’t really minutes available for Caffaro on a game-to-game basis. That’s not to say he won’t have his moments or that he won’t shine at times throughout that season. It’s simply that those opportunities will be fewer and further between because of the construction of this roster and the strengths it has in the front-court.

What lineup option would you like to see more of during conference play?

I touched on Dunn in the first question and how his path to minutes and maybe a starting spot is on the perimeter as the team’s third wing. Yet, I’d love to see him get some run as the team’s small ball four, either with Shedrick at center or Vander Plas/Gardner in a true small ball lineup, in which UVA could switch ball screens where he’s guarding the big. Frankly, I’m really intrigued by the defensive versatility which Dunn brings to the table. A lineup with Dunn in for Kihei Clark (say, Beekman, Franklin, Dunn, Gardner, Shedrick) could be fascinating as it could allow the team to switch 1-4 or maybe even 1-5.

I’m probably getting ahead of myself a bit here while nerding out a bit on defensive scheming. But Dunn can do so much for lineup versatility and can give Bennett and his staff options to play with, especially defensively. So I’d love to see more of that to try and determine this team’s defensive ceiling.