As the Virginia Cavaliers have lost three of their last five games, we thought it’d be appropriate to do another staff roundtable to debate what’s the team’s biggest problem right now. So, with that question posed, here’s the (slightly edited down) conversation from our Slack channel yesterday.
It’s fairly simple in my mind, the defense has not been up to its standard, not only this year but the previous two seasons as well. From 2014 to 2020, UVA’s average defensive efficiency rank was 3.8. From 2021 to 2023 it’s been 39.7. That’s just not sustainable for this program.
I think they’re still looking for consistency across the board - what do the best players on the team do the best? They’ve yet to see consistent scoring performance, consistent defensive performance, consistent rebounding, consistent 3pt shooting, etc...from the different players relied upon in those roles. Each game seems to be a learning-on-the-fly what will work to win that night — and, even then, a collapse happens when it stops working (in some recent games). Sure, most of this is just ... basketball ... and also heavily impacted by the team UVA is playing that night (matchups!), but the star players could be a lot more consistent (of course, Reece’s injury has plenty to do with that as well...).
Tiki (Paul Guttman)
Like Daniel said, it’s the defense. Pitt scored 45 points in the second half. It was too easy. They need a perimeter stopper, but they also need a big man who can play the Pack Line the right way, staying in position and being able to hedge and recover (see Mitchell, Akil). Lunging for blocks every time down causes more buckets than it erases.
At the risk of committing the high blasphemy of dOuBtInG tOnY bEnNeTt, the guys who he seems to trust the most don’t seem to be the guys most capable of making shots to win games. Jayden Gardner is having a vicious regression to the mean on his go-to shot—the midrange two—shooting only 38 percent this year on two-point attempts away from the rim after knocking those down at a 45 percent clip last season; but he’s taken twice as many of those shots compared to anyone else on the team. Ben Vander Plas is having his worst three-point shooting year since he was a sophomore, a frigid 28 percent, yet he’s third on the team in three-point attempts. And both players are logging more than 55 percent of the available minutes.
The Bennett offense is designed to create and take open shots (as opposed to creating and exploiting matchups) but right now it’s creating types of shots that the chosen shooters aren’t capable of making. As a result, the Hoos’ effective field goal percentage is worse than 60th nationally. Missed jumpers are effectively live-ball turnovers, creating opportunities for opponents and straining even Virginia’s strong transition defense. Either “Tony’s guys” need to start converting the opportunities the game plan is creating for them — or some other guys need to get a chance.
I get that ACC play is still starting, but Virginia is 21st in offensive efficiency. That is good enough to win if the defense holds up its end of the bargain.
The problem is that the offense is getting worse, while the defense is actually improving. Both of the charts below are from Bart Torvik; they show UVA’s opponent-adjusted offensive and defensive ratings over the season’s first 14 games. On both charts, up is better. And the defense is creeping up toward better, but the offense is nose-diving to worse.
At the beginning of the season, it felt like Virginia was finally making the leap from good to great thanks to their red-hot three-point shooting against marquee opponents Baylor and Illinois. With their three-point scoring falling back down to Earth since then, the team remains plagued by the same problem this core has always had: it isn’t great at anything. What can this Virginia team hang its hat on?
Tony Bennett would tell you “defense” — but as Pitt and Houston so starkly exposed, Virginia just doesn’t have enough talent on that end of the floor. Reece Beekman is the only major rotation player without some defensive weakness — size, foot speed, athleticism — that opponents can pick on (no, Ryan Dunn inexplicably still doesn’t count as a major rotation player). Frankly, the team defense is good, but it’s not good enough for a starting five with nearly a year and a half of basketball together under their belts. Without an elite defense to fall back on and with their hot offensive start looking more and more like a statistical fluke than a good omen, Virginia’s lack of any elite skill is a sobering reminder that the ceiling for this iteration of the ’Hoos is closer to second weekend than Final Four.
I’ll piggy back on what Ben said, but, in my opinion, this team was always constructed to be a team that would struggle to even get to the second weekend. Vander Plas doesn’t really move the needle and, with his shooting cratering, he’s almost a detriment. Gardner doesn’t seem relaxed to me and he’s pressing. I have no idea, but it almost seems as if he’s feeling Vander Plas breathing down his neck for playing time. He is playing eight minutes fewer a game this year than last. His free throw rate conversion has been poor, and I was about to say the same and say so is his shooting percentage, but he’s actually converting at the highest rate in his five-year career. He’s just not taking enough shots.
The team idea this year was predicated on Beekman and Shedrick continuing their progressions and, while they have gotten better, it hasn’t been enough. Can Kadin shoot a jump shot? As Paul said, the offense is designed to get players open shots, and it seems that Kadin has passed up what should be very convertible mid-range shots. Beekman’s been banged up and has looked elite when healthy, so time will probably be the biggest test on that front.
Dunn’s minutes look like a yo-yo, which Bennett does do to freshmen, but it is hard to know what to expect from him going forward. McNeely’s minutes have been consistent, so that’s a least a plus. This is a team very much at the margins and it was were bouyed by small-sample-size outliers in our three-point shooting and the same with foul-shooting. A lot has to go “right” for the ‘Hoos to win.