In thrilling fashion, the Virginia Cavaliers beat the Florida Gators 73-70 behind clutch late game defense. The ‘Hoos advance to 2-0 on the young season with a major victory against their first legit competition. With the win, we have five takeaways for UVA coming out of a game that tells us plenty about this squad for the remainder of the season.
Blake Buchanan is UVA’s starting center
Blake Buchanan was the difference in this game.
Blake Buchanan in his 2nd career CBB game:— Zach Carey (@Zach_Carey_) November 11, 2023
18 points (led team)
THE PRINCE WHO WAS PROMISED: pic.twitter.com/77IsOXv4ro
Through 5:02 of play in the first half, Florida led this game 14-7. All 14 of the Gators’ points had come in the paint. Then Blake Buchanan came in the game for Jake Groves, and the script flipped.
Florida only scored four more points in the paint in the first half, and the ‘Hoos rattled off an 11-0 run as a result. Buchanan’s length, strength, mobility, and general physicality defensively made a major difference for UVA in the paint.
But it wasn’t just his effort defensively that helped carry Virginia to the W. After scoring one measly point in his career debut, Buchanan put up 18 (!!!!) to lead the team against the Gators. He was dominant off the short roll all night long, and while his free throw shooting (10-16, 62.5%) was nothing pretty, it got the job done. He shot 4-7 from the floor, and five of his seven rebounds came on the offensive glass, helping the ‘Hoos score 11 second chance points. Buchanan even fouled Micah Handlogten out of the game in the final minutes, taking away the Gators’ biggest offensive advantage.
Starting center Jake Groves wasn’t altogether bad in this game — heck he was UVA’s third leading scorer with 12 points and a pair of threes. But Buchanan is so markedly better defensively than Groves and clearly can produce on the other end, so he should be the guy for Virginia moving forward.
After watching that performance, saying Buchanan should be the starter probably isn’t the boldest take. But the mere fact that that’s the case through two games is incredible when grading on the Tony Bennett big man curve. There is no other UVA true big who has had this sort of early impact in their true freshman season, and that bodes incredibly well for Buchanan’s future.
Defensive rebounding and free throw shooting could be issues
For as good as Blake Buchanan was in this game, even he and Ryan Dunn couldn’t limit the damage on the defensive boards against the Gators and Micah Handlogten. Florida racked up 21 offensive rebounds and 19 second chance points in this one with Handlogten grabbing eight offensive rebounds himself.
On the one hand, Handlogten is simply really good on the offensive rebounds. He kept the ball alive consistently, and the Gators crashed the boards hard to take advantage of his abilities. On the other hand, Virginia’s lack of size and true physicality up front contributed to Handlogten’s dominance, and that could be a real point of weakness for the team down the line this season. Ideally, Buchanan and Dunn will be able to batten down the hatches. But that’s no sure thing.
Offensively, after Virginia struggled mightily at the charity stripe without being punished for it in their season opener against Tarleton State, things got much dicier against the Gators with UVA shooting 14-24 (58%) on its free throw attempts. The aforementioned Buchanan was up and down all game, and while it’s hard to blame a true freshman, it wasn’t pretty.
Outside of him, Reece Beekman going 1-4 including a pair of misses late in the second half was strange. If Buchanan can hit 70% and Beekman (a career 78% free throw shooter) can hit consistently, it probably won’t be a huge problem. But it’s worth noting since UVA has struggled at the line through two games.
UVA’s rotation narrows to seven guys when it counts
Only eight players got on the floor for Virginia tonight, and Leon Bond — one of the stars of the season opener — played just four first half minutes. That also meant that Merrimack transfer Jordan Minor and junior guard Taine Murray didn’t see the floor.
Candidly, it’s not that surprising that Murray and Minor are outside the rotation looking in right now. Murray is a perfectly fine player, but he doesn’t do one thing well enough to really push for minutes on the floor. And although Minor brings more size and strength in the paint, he doesn’t compare to Buchanan and he played four years of 2-3 zone defense, so it’ll take time for him to adapt to a much more demanding defensive system.
Bond playing less speaks to how he’s a 6’5” frontcourt player and Florida is a big team who dominated UVA on the glass. His minutes will likely be matchup dependent this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a valuable situational player.
Otherwise, Beekman, McKneely, Dunn, Buchanan, Rohde, Groves, and Harris are the set in stone rotation right now. Minutes could fluctuate according to who is playing well and who the Cavaliers are lined up against. But this game confirmed those are the top seven in Bennett’s eyes right now.
Virginia is being careful with Reece Beekman
Careful might be the wrong phrasing, but the Wahoo staff has made a conscious effort to not put too much on Beekman’s plate early this season. After a hamstring strain bothered him for the second half of last season, Bennett has held back from forcing Beekman to carry the entire load for the ‘Hoos thus far.
It’s subtle, but Beekman’s 14 first half minutes combined with the fact that he was not locked onto Florida’s best player, Riley Kugel, indicates that the Cavaliers know Beekman’s impact on offense and late in the game is paramount for their success. Rather than running him for 38 minutes and making him the primary point of attack defender against Kugel, UVA played Beekman off the ball as much as reasonably possible and kept his first half minutes a bit more reserved before sending him out there for the entire second half.
For a program whose stars have burned out in March before, this is a nice development. The 20 second half minutes is a little scary given the season long implications, but a win is a win. Rotating who guarded who in the backcourt also allowed Beekman to have the legs late when the team needed him to get to the rim, and that paid off. Oh, and he also had the game clinching steal on Florida’s final possession.
To analyze his performance a bit further, Beekman played pretty well considering how high the expectations are for him. He stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, five assists, three rebounds, four steals, and one block and even hit a pair of triples on four attempts. There were moments where he struggled to get to the rim against Florida’s size (he shot 3-9 from two-point range), but in the end he did what needed to be done.
we tried to warn ya pic.twitter.com/ZePUU83cRz— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) November 11, 2023
Scoring from Rohde, McKneely, and Harris is the X-factor
Beekman is going to get his points, and he’ll set up Buchanan in the paint and the shooters around the floor. But how well the complementary guards on this team can create offense for themselves could very well be the x-factor for Virginia’s offense.
In the first half, the trio of Rohde, McKneely, and Harris combined for 17 points with Rohde hitting difficult catch and shoot jumpers, McKneely threatening the Gators from the outside, and Harris knocking down some really impressive midrange jumpers off the dribble.
ʙɪʀᴛʜᴅᴀʏ— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) November 11, 2023
In the second half, those three tallied just five, all of which came from McKneely. Part of that is Beekman playing the entire second half and dominating the ball (as he should), and Buchanan and Groves bailing the team out with 14 and 10 points in the final 20 minutes, respectively.
But for this offense to be reliably multifaceted and to prevent defenses from merely keying in on Beekman, the three other guards in the rotation will need to make plays to create secondary offense. This isn’t to say they can’t or that they didn’t in this game — they very much did in the first half. This result simply emphasized how valuable their combined scoring impact can be especially if it’s consistent throughout 40 minutes.