While the football team might be struggling, the Virginia Cavaliers mens basketball team is off to an encouraging 3-0 start. Game 4 comes against the Texas Southern Tigers, a team that made the NCAA Tournament as a 16 seed last year after a cinderella conference tourney run through the SWAC.
Despite rostering Shaquille O’Neal’s son Shaqir, the Tigers have failed to build on last year’s momentum in the beginning of this year. They’re 0-2, with one of the worst offenses in the Division 1 thus far. This will be Virginia’s last lower-tier opponent before a late November gauntlet, so the ‘Hoos need to tighten things up before it gets more difficult.
Here are five things to look out for as Virginia takes on Texas Southern tonight.
Playing a Man Down
Midway through their 80-51 victory over NC A&T this Tuesday, the ‘Hoos had their biggest scare of the season when Isaac McKneely went down with an apparent ankle injury. He returned to the bench after halftime with a walking boot on, and assuming it’s an ankle sprain, it’s likely McKneely is out against Texas Southern at the minimum. With Virginia down their best shooter and primary minutes-getter at the 2, there’s an opportunity for a few others to step up and earn more playing time going forward.
Isaac McKneely's ankle is not broken according to #UVA head coach Tony Bennett. X-rays were negative.— Michael Curran (@mcurran_11) November 15, 2023
Bennett will likely insert Dante Harris in the starting lineup — pairing him with Reece Beekman for some lockdown defense — but other bench wings Leon Bond and Taine Murray will be called upon to play more minutes in light of McKneely’s absence.
Fortunately, if there’s ever a good time for an injury, it’s in early November, because Virginia now has an opportunity to tinker with their rotation, increase playing time for their depth pieces, and discover what they’re capable of with a key player missing. Obviously, we hope for a speedy recovery for McKneely, one of the ‘Hoos most important players, but this will be an essential first look at how Virginia performs a man down.
Through two games, Texas Southern is shooting an abysmal 34.6 effective field goal percentage (354th in the nation per KenPom). Poor guard play is largely responsible. Their starting backcourt of seniors PJ Henry and Jonathan Cisse has combined to shoot 14/64 from the field (21.9%) and 6/27 from three (22.2%). The two guards have attempted nearly half of Texas Southern’s total shots so far.
Chucking inefficient shots is not a recipe for success against Virginia’s dominant defensive backcourt. Reece Beekman and Dante Harris will be the best combo that Henry and Cisse face this season; the Texas Southern tandem is going to have to move the ball better and take smarter shots to survive against Virginia.
In addition to bad shot selection, turnovers stemming from errant passes have plagued the Texas Southern backcourt: Arizona State had 11 steals and forced 19 turnovers in their 63-52 win over Texas Southern on Saturday.
Beekman, Harris, and Ryan Dunn will prey on bad passes like the one in the clip above, leading to easy transition buckets.
On the other side of the ball, Virginia’s guards will have to step up as scorers with McKneely out. Beekman was 2/9 from the field against NC A&T (although he still had 7 assists in only 20 minutes) and Harris shot 0/2. It’s nothing to be concerned about considering the stakes of last game, but they’ve gotta be better especially if McKneely is out for an extended period into late November.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for the ‘Hoos so far this season has been graduate transfer Jordan Minor’s lack of any impact. He’s operated as the 10th man in the rotation, logging 11.5 minutes per game off the bench, and he didn’t play a single minute against Florida. Many Virginia fans expected him to be the most significant transfer acquired this offseason, possibly starting at the 5 and providing a much needed defensive presence in the paint to go along with solid rebounding and some post scoring.
His mid-major dominance in 2022-23 (17.4 PPG and Defensive Player of the Conference) has not transitioned. Minor looks uncomfortable on the floor, both offensively and defensively. He turned the ball over on his first touch against NC A&T, traveling on what would have been a wide-open dunk. Although it’s a limited sample size, he hasn’t shown signs of a former DPOY in Bennet’s Pack Line system. If you ignore their body frames, Minor looks like the true freshman while Blake Buchanan seems like a seasoned veteran in the Pack Line.
Virginia has just a few more games against bottom-of-the-barrel mid-major opponents. These might be Minor’s last chances to carve out a spot in the rotation. Otherwise, this may go down as the most disappointing storyline in the 2023-24 season.
Beekman-less Minutes on Offense
The ‘Hoos look disjointed on offense when Beekman’s on the bench. Offensive possessions often stall out, until one of the perimeter players is forced to make a play one-on-one towards the end of the shot clock. Dante Harris has been a stellar complementary piece, but there’s a noticeable drop-off in offensive rhythm and production when he’s leading the charge.
Per EvanMiya’s Bayesian Performance Rating (BPR), which measures an individual player’s value through efficiency stats and overall impact, Reece Beekman has been the second most impactful player in the ACC, barely behind preseason All-American selection Kyle Filipowski. Virginia expected Beekman to play upwards of 35 minutes a game this season, but with the unpredictability of injuries, it would be encouraging to see more offensive proficiency when he’s resting on the bench.
It’s not an all-out catastrophe quite yet, but Virginia’s needs to improve their sub-par free-throw shooting. Through three games, the ‘Hoos are 50/79 (63.3%) from the free-throw line (277th in the nation). It’s not just one major culprit, the whole team’s struggling: Beekman’s 7 for 11, Buchanan’s 11 for 20, Dunn’s 9 for 14, and Harris is 7 for 12.
Getting to the stripe hasn’t been the issue, but it’s rare that the ‘Hoos come away with two points each time their on the foul line.
Free-throw shooting can make or break close games down the stretch. Virginia’s blown some sizable leads in big games over the years, and it often starts with poor free-throw shooting. The best Virginia teams had multiple reliable free-throw shooters, who could be counted on to consistently knock them down, especially in big moments.
Even if it’s just a fluky, team-wide slump, Virginia needs to break the trend soon, whether it involves an additional emphasis on free-throws at practice or a few key players stepping up their performance from the line.
Virginia should win comfortably against Texas Southern, but they need to remain focused and energetic in order to put the game away early, easier said than done considering it’s their second game this week against a mid-major team. This will be the ‘Hoos last chance to improve in areas of need before some substantial, resume-building matchups against Wisconsin, Texas A&M, and possibly West Virginia.