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How a blend of small ball and triangle offense has reinvigorated UVA basketball’s offensive production

Taking an in-depth look at what has been working for ‘Hoos on offense of late and why that is.

Virginia Tech v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

If you’re at all familiar with the Virginia Cavaliers’ men’s basketball team’s offensive schemes, you know that the traditional mover-blocker (or sides) offense that Dick and Tony Bennett have popularized is Virginia’s go-to look. While caveats and counters have been added to the offense over time with more ball-screens incorporated particularly since the National Championship season, the set is fairly simplistic with the continuous pin down and flare screens for curling guards characterizing it.

But, another look that UVA has used during Bennett’s rein — to a lesser extent — is the triangle or “three-man” offensive look with three players screening for and cutting around each other in the middle of the half-court set and two players on the perimeter as ball handlers, playmakers, and floor spacers. In fact, the triangle set was what the Wahoos won the National Championship with back in 2019.

Over the last two years there hasn’t been much usage of the triangle look. It was prominent for a stretch run for the Sam Hauser, Trey Murphy, Jay Huff front-court in the 2020-2021 season, but hasn’t been since. Over the last month or so, though, Virginia’s gone back to it in bulk in order to generate open looks, paint touches, and to limit the stagnation that can occur in sides without the guards being sufficiently aggressive. Pairing that schematic shift with the recent tendency to play small-ball with Ben Vander Plas dominating minutes at the center position has reinvigorated the Wahoo offense and has undoubtedly suited the personnel better.

“They’ve been doing a good job,” commented Tony Bennett after the Virginia Tech win on Wednesday night. “You know, you’re always looking for things, adjustments that can feed into [the players’] strengths. We’ve used [the triangle offense] with past teams and in past years, but for these guys I think it fits them well.”

Continuing, Bennett noted how the offense “is good because it gives you a variety of looks. I think for Armaan [Franklin], it’s freed him up a bit. He’s been more aggressive and Ben [Vander Plas] has got very good feel so he’s handy in that because of his passing. Now he’s stretching it a bit with the three ball and if Jayden [Gardner] keeps getting comfortable... there’s some good things and we can put different guys [in the triangle].”

Bennett’s point on the variety the team has in its combination of players within the triangle is important as switching between trios alters how defenses are forced to guard them. Kihei Clark emphasized his appreciation of the offense as “the movement with Reece [Beekman], Armaan [Franklin], and Ben [Vander Plas], when they’re inside just screening and cutting, it’s something hard for defenses to play against.”

Specifically, while Clark made this comment following the Virginia Tech win, that lineup he was referencing was used heavily in the second half comeback against North Carolina. That was the game that UVA pulled out the super small lineup and the triangle offense and had great success with it. Clark also mentioned the importance of “me on the side and [Isaac McKneely] on the other side just being ready to shoot,” while also pointing to the availability of “baseline drives when you’re on the wings.” Altogether, he concluded that this set is “just kind of something that suits our playing style right now.”

So, while Virginia hasn’t diverted the entirety of its offensive possessions to playing the three-man set and both sides and the team’s high ball screen looks continue to be incorporated as well, the successful trend of blending small ball lineups with this offense is notable for the remainder of this season. With that in mind, I’ve decided to do a film deep dive and evaluate both how the personnel fit this scheme and how the scheme fits them so well.

What Triangle provides the UVA offense

Baseline drives from the wing

Starting with perhaps the simplest element of the triangle look, the baseline drives from the two wing players have come thick and fast, particularly from one particularly nifty 5’9” point guard. As evidenced by the two plays below, when Clark catches the ball the three nearest help defenders (those guarding Virginia’s three guys within the triangle) are all otherwise occupied with navigating the interior screening actions. Thus, without any baseline help or potential shot-blockers in his way, Clark skirts to the basket and finishes before the late help arrives.

Considering that Clark is on the smaller side and can, at times, struggle to finish amongst the trees in the paint, clearing out a side so dramatically for him is beautiful to see. Heck, the two closest help defenders on this play have their backs turned when Kihei starts to drive the baseline! He deserves way more respect than that, but the motion on the inside and the threat that those players pose is enough to create a wide open lane to the basket.

While Clark has been the main beneficiary of this particular element of the scheme, it’s not limited to him. Against North Carolina, Isaac McKneely did something similar, although slightly different. Likely considered less of a driving threat than Clark, McKneely draws his defender into the air with a pump fake, dribbles past and — because of the action on the inside — frees up enough space to hit a nice floater off the backboard before the help arrives. It wasn’t quite as easy as Kihei’s buckets, but the concept is the same.

Straightforward threes at the top of the key

Of course, such space on the wing would be hard to come by if the players in the middle of the floor weren’t threats to exploit any space given up. Arguably most notable, Ben Vander Plas playing as the five in this offense has been a critical component to its success. The action on this play is evidence of just that as the pin down he sets for Armaan Franklin pulls BVP’s defender down into the paint while he flares to the top of the key and splashes home the triple.

In the triangle offense versus VT, Vander Plas pops after setting a screen for Beekman and (due to the point guard’s gravity as a shooter or driver), he is left fairly open and is only contested by the Hokies’ point guard Pedulla. These are the threes which Vander Plas is most comfortable shooting.

Since UVA went small against UNC and has been more heavily using the triangle look, Vander Plas is 7-16 (43.8%) from deep. It may only be a 2.5 game sample size, but he seems to be much better at hitting shots off a pick and pop or by drifting up top than after setting a pin down and fading to the corner in the sides offense.

While playing as the four against FSU, he displayed how his range can be an important release valve for the offense. There’s nothing much going here other than him popping to the perimeter out of the middle triangle and firing away when his defender drops his hands. That’s confidence, recognition, and ability all in one shot.

Armaan Franklin going to work inside and being more comfortable shooting

As dramatically better as BVP has been in the triangle/small ball offense, Armaan Franklin has been just as good. Both as a shooter and as a slasher/banger on the inside, he’s been tremendous of late.

Starting with his surprising inside game, Franklin has relished opportunities in the paint as he’s embraced contact. Here against UNC, he posts up a la Jayden Gardner and hits a sweet turn around jumper over his smaller defender.

Driving off the BVP slipped screen here, he finishes the play similarly as he uses his body to create space and once again displays his great touch around the basket.

That’s been especially impressive for him of late. In Franklin’s last three games he’s 58.3% around the rim (43.3% in the other 14 games) and 62.5% from the midrange (compared to 33.3% in the other 14 contests).

He’s also been crazy good from deep over this stretch. He’s clearly benefited from being able to set his feet a bit more rather than always curling off the pin-down and flare screens of the sides offense. The former Indiana transfer is a ridiculous 12-16 (75%) from beyond the arc since halftime against North Carolina. In this clip from the FSU game, he hits a pretty routine corner three after Beekman creates space on the interior and brings Franklin’s defender too far in the paint.

In a similar action to Vander Plas, Franklin hits a triple here against VT after fading back to the top of the key. Following a pass to Beekman on the wing, he starts to cut towards the Jayden Gardner screen, promptly loses his defender who tries to backdoor the screen, and he fires away confidently. The feel he has for the game is better suited for the triangle offense as he appears more confidently aggressive.

Reece still finds ways to get downhill

Of course, Virginia’s best closer and best closing offensive priority has been Reece Beekman and his ability to get downhill and attack defenses off the dribble. In the triangle and with UVA’s smaller lineups especially, Beekman’s done well taking advantage of the spacing provided by shooters around him. Here, he uses the BVP slipped screen to get a step, uses his deadly acceleration, and is already in flight by the time any off-ball defenders reach the paint.

Earlier in the game, Beekman took his defender straight up off the dribble while Franklin and Vander Plas were otherwise occupied. While he didn’t finish, by drawing UNC’s big to him BVP got the easy second chance dunk. The way Beekman can separate so effortlessly and get a step on his defenders is so, so valuable and is optimized with the lanes created within the triangle offense.

This offense also complicates opposing defense’s help packages and simplifies the decisions Virginia players need to make. Once more involved in a ball screen action with Vander Plas, Beekman drives right and pulls Franklin’s defender to him which results in the fairly easy and-one basket.

While this North Carolina team isn’t renowned for its team defense, the key here is how there was no good place to help from. If Carolina had helped adjacently off of Kihei Clark, then Beekman would hit him for an easy corner three. If the Tar Heels had helped off of Vander Plas, the read is easy there as well. Even if Isaac McKneely’s defender had quickly stepped down to prevent the easy dump off to Franklin, it’s reasonable to expect that Beekman would find McKneely or Vander Plas for a kick-out look.

Gardner and company can easily establish post positioning

It also doesn’t hurt that, when UVA doesn’t play five shooters on the floor, the Cavaliers can generate post touches for a guy like Jayden Gardner. See how he uses the slight Franklin screen to catch the ball almost inside of the restricted area? That means his shot over the taller Justyn Mutts isn’t too tough, and he cans the short jumper.

In a similar action that happens off screen, Gardner comes off the Franklin screen and, while he gets the ball a bit late from Clark, FSU gets confused on the backend and he barrels his way in for two. Gardner’s been slower to adapt to the triangle look and, while the super small lineup with Franklin at the four was so effective against UNC, it will be important for his more physical brand of basketball to be further incorporated into this offense as the season progresses.

Good cutting actions produce easy points

There also can simply be a lot of easy baskets scored out of the triangle offense with well designed screens and cuts as defenses will be punished if they aren’t constantly tuned in. Reece Beekman’s hard, directional cutting around the BVP screen produced one of those buckets versus UNC.

The ‘Hoos have a number of adept passers on this roster, so any space garnered from off-ball cuts is typically immediately exploited. For instance, before the offense is even really set, Franklin slips off a smart little Gardner screen and Beekman finds him under the basket for two. It really can be as easy as that.

Why small ball + triangle is the answer

So, as I’ve detailed, there is a LOT that UVA’s triangle set allows the offense to do. As Kihei said, for such a relatively simple offense, it puts the defense in a lot of tough spots when the pieces fit together. But, obviously, the right pieces are necessary, which is where these small ball lineups come in.

BVP as the center provides spacing

I’ve already touched on it extensively, but the value of Vander Plas at the five can’t be understated within this offense. Everybody has to be a threat in this offense and the gravity he provides at the top of the key is huge. Him being better as a shooter in that spot/in those actions is a bonus.

By punishing defenders who play off him and forcing bigs onto the perimeter, there’s so much more the offense can do. Whether that is the baseline drives, post touches for Gardner or even Franklin, Beekman attacking off the dribble, or even simple off-ball screens and cuts, his perimeter threat means there’s more space everywhere and that everything is that much easier.

Shedrick and Caffaro don’t provide enough of a threat

One of the main reasons the triangle set worked at all in the 2020-2021 season was because of Jay Huff’s unique offensive skill-set. With Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro unfortunately limited as individual playmakers or shot-makers on offense, that only furthers BVP’s case for the majority of the minutes at the five. Especially since neither Shedrick or Caffaro has a midrange shot or boasts a consistent back to the basket game, their only real value within this offense is as a screener. And, as evidenced by Vander Plas and Gardner’s contributions, their additional size as screeners isn’t enough to push the envelope on offense.

Of course, there’s an extended discussion to be had about what small ball means for the defensive side of the ball and how Shedrick’s absence hurts on that end. But his inconsistency on defense, notably in struggles with foul trouble and over aggressiveness, has put that topic to bed while Vander Plas has survived against this string of (admittedly weaker) front-court opponents. There will be times that Virginia can’t live in its small ball lineups for entire games, but opponents will have to adapt to them as well so the lack of contribution from the Cavaliers’ true centers isn’t debilitating.

Shooting shooting shooting

The main way teams combatted UVA playing the triangle offense in 2020-2021 was to play off of Clark and Beekman considering those two weren’t threats to hit shots on the perimeter. It allowed teams to divert more resources to defending Murphy, Hauser, and Huff and left Tony Bennett in a pickle. But, with the pair’s dramatic improvement as shooters since then and the additional pieces (such as Vander Plas, Franklin, and McKneely) that help make up for the absence of Murphy, Hauser, and Huff, the offense is more sustainable.

This play against Florida State is a perfect example. First up, the FSU defender (rightfully so because of Beekman’s improvement from deep) feels the need to go over the ball screen when Reece Beekman comes off of it. That gives Beekman a step which he then maximizes by crossing over the help defender and driving to the baseline. He then finds Clark (playing the wing spot) in the corner who similarly utilizes his far improved shooting to get his defender in the air with a pump fake before further collapsing the defense and then kicking out to a wide open Vander Plas at the top of the key.

For those who paid detailed attention to that 2020-2021 team, this play alone could very well bring a tear to your eye. Shooting cures all diseases offensively and this small ball lineup has plenty of it.

With that in mind, these sorts of plays are pretty nice to have in your back pocket. Screw the x’s and o’s, this is UVA winning with the Jimmys and the Joes.

UVA’s 135.0 PPP adjusted offensive efficiency (per Bart Torvik) against Virginia Tech was the team’s best of the season. That’s significant! Bennett and company have absolutely found something that works, and they should stick with it. The indecisiveness and stagnation this team displayed in mover-blocker is gone and almost every single player has been better suited on offense in these sets and with these smaller lineups.

Time will tell if Virginia either gets burned for these lineups defensively or if opponents find ways to limit the offense. Bennett closed his comments on the triangle offense and small ball lineup combo by saying that “I’m sure teams will guard it in different ways and we’ll have to adjust.”

Adjust. That’s what UVA’s done here and that’s what this staff is renowned for doing down the stretch of conference play. This is when Bennett’s teams tend to go on that big run and seize control of the conference. This very adjustment has made that possible and, knowing this staff and their penchant for finding answers to personnel or schematic problems, there’s no reason not to trust them to properly adjust again if and when the situation calls for it.