Following back-to-back 29-point victories over two overmatched North Carolina A&T and Texas Southern squads, it’s hard to find much to be unhappy about with the 4-0 Virginia Cavaliers. They’ve passed their one real test against a high-level opponent and taken care of business against three weaker foes. In keeping with the optimistic spirit, we’re handing out 10 awards to the Cavaliers following their strong start.
The “Best Defender in the Country?” award: Ryan Dunn
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more impactful half of basketball this season than Ryan Dunn’s first half against Texas Southern. Dunn recorded 2 steals and 2 blocks and forced multiple turnovers — travels or throwaway passes — against a totally overmatched Texas Southern squad. He won every time a Tiger tried to go one-on-one against him and also dominated in help defense. There may be more impactful defensive players in the NCAA (big centers like Donovan Clingan can just affect so many plays compared to wings), but Dunn’s switchability, length and ability to guard 1-4 make him perhaps the best shutdown one-on-one defender in college basketball.
On the other side of the ball, Dunn made a play which should show up at #1 in the SportsCenter Top 10 tomorrow morning.
Dunn showed other signs of offensive growth, too. He looked uncharacteristically aggressive attacking the basket all game, knocked down a catch-and-shoot corner three and threw a beautiful no-look pass to Blake Buchanan for an and-one (Dunn’s quietly doubled his per-40 assist rate this year). If he keeps this growth up, it won’t be a surprise to hear Ryan Dunn’s name called as a lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft.
The “Straw Stirring the Drink” award: Reece Beekman
Beekman remains absolutely vital to everything Virgina does offensively: beyond his own scoring ability, Reece’s ability to threaten the paint with his patient dribble-drives opens up so many open looks for everyone else on the team. Entering the Texas Southern game, one of the NCAA’s reigning leaders in assist-turnover ratio had 19 dimes to just one turnover; after an uncharacteristically sloppy game in possession, those numbers fell to a less-alien-but-still-outstanding 23 assists and four turnovers. But Beekman’s impact cannot be undersold as the lead ball handler for an offense heavily dependent on his advantage creation abilities.
Oh, and he’s also the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Beekman recorded a monstrous three steals and four blocks against Texas Southern — numbers which, while elite, almost undersell his absolutely stifling defense on opposing ball handlers. No one ever looks comfortable dribbling while he’s guarding the ball. He won’t have the counting stats to win the Player of the Year award, but there’s a real case for Beekman as the most valuable player in the ACC.
The “Get Well Soon” award: Isaac McKneely
McKneely scored eight points in just 14 minutes against North Carolina A&T and made both of his three-point attempts before rolling his ankle after an awkward landing on Jake Groves’s foot going for a rebound. He sat out against Texas Southern and wore a small boot on the bench, but the injury didn’t appear too serious. His absence was sorely felt on the offensive end of the floor, and his floor spacing will be vital to the Cavaliers against higher-level competition. McKneely’s sitting a hair above 57 percent from three on nearly five attempts per game this year.
The “Starter!” award: Blake Buchanan
After a stellar performance in Virginia’s first true test of the season against Florida last week, the true freshman Buchanan earned the first start of his burgeoning career against North Carolina A&T. It’s ironic to say that a player who recorded 18 points and 7 rebounds in his second career game has an impact that doesn’t really show up in the box score, but in Buchanan’s case it’s true. His athleticism and length on the defensive end elevates this iteration of the pack line from good to great, and his willingness to attack the rim after catching the ball on the roll has been a breath of fresh air.
The “Starter?” award: Dante Harris
Harris made his first start of the season against Texas Southern as an injury replacement for Isaac McKneely. It wasn’t exactly a stellar beginning, as Harris struggled out of the gate during a sluggish offensive start for the ‘Hoos and ultimately earned a benching in favor of Taine Murray thanks to a poor decision in a 2-on-1 fast break. However, Harris came into his own over the course of the game. He knocked down two big threes, including a huge corner catch-and-shoot triple to silence a 7-0 run by Texas Southern, and created good shots for others off the bounce. The starting job is certainly still McKneely’s once the sophomore is healthy, but Harris did a solid job filling in when necessary.
The “Quiet” award: Andrew Rohde
Andrew Rohde’s certainly demonstrated something to the coaching staff, as the second-year transfer from St. Thomas has earned heavy playing time in every single game so far. However, while he’s been solid on both ends, Rohde hasn’t flashed that scoring ability which earned him the Freshman of the Year award in the Summit League last season. After averaging 17.1 points per game in 2022-23, he’s exceeded six points just once in four contests in 2023-24. Rohde was also responsible for back-to-back turnovers in the second half against Texas Southern, earning him the second spot on the “benched for Taine Murray” list. I still have faith in Rohde turning it around, and he’s been better than expected on defense, but the sophomore’s still due for his first breakout game.
The “Post Scorer” award: Leon Bond
Bond’s off to an exceptional scoring start to his Virgina career. As a redshirt freshman, he’s averaging 12 points per game over his first three home games. He brings a unique skillset to the table: at 6’5, Bond is more comfortable operating in the mid-post either facing up or scoring with his back to the basket. His moves off one dribble are exceptional, and he’s shown an impressive knack for finding space to get his shots off in that area. It’ll be hard to find minutes for Bond against better opponents since his lack of a three-point shot or lockdown defensive abilities doesn’t translate well to a low-usage role, but he’s flashed high-level scoring talent through just four career games.
The “Stretch Big” award: Jake Groves
Groves came to Virginia from Oklahoma this offseason to score, and that’s exactly what he’s done through four games. He scored 11 points against North Carolina A&T and knocked down both of his three-point attempts during an early scoring barrage to bury the Aggies. Against Texas Southern, he finally went cold beyond the arc (that 78% number from three wasn’t going to hold up forever) but scored a nifty Rondo-esque finish after looking off the help defense on a dribble-drive and tapped in a nice and-one in the second half. We saw Groves’s limitations against Florida’s oversized frontcourt, but he’s also absolutely demonstrated his offensive talent.
The “Adaptable” award: Tony Bennett
Shoutout to Bennett for using early-season competition against weaker opponents to get creative with his offensive sets. We know Virginia can execute mover-blocker well, but giving the roster reps with alternate sets like the inside triangle offense leveraged by previous elite UVA rosters will produce positive effects down the road. I don’t recall the Cavaliers running a single possession of traditional mover-blocker against North Carolina A&T in the second half after jumping out to a 30-point lead at the break. And Bennett’s willingness to let Ryan Dunn push the boundaries of the pack line with hyperaggressive post traps has paid dividends: Dunn doubled a player at nearly the free-throw line extended on one early possession against Texas Southern, forcing a turnover. Sometimes you need to bend the rules with an athlete like Ryan Dunn in your arsenal.
The “Lockdown” award: Virginia’s team defense
The Cavaliers didn’t exactly face two offensive juggernauts this week in North Carolina A&T and Texas Southern. North Carolina A&T ranks 334th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and Texas Southern entered their game against Virginia shooting just 39% from two, 19% from three, and 50% from the line. But you can only play the team in front of you, and Virginia held both teams to a Tony (below 20 points) in the first half, allowing a combined 33 points over 40 minutes of first-half play. The pack line principles combined with the length and athleticism of Beekman, Dunn, and Buchanan should continue to produce one of the nation’s top defenses.
Virginia's held their opponent below 20 points in three of their last four halves of basketball. They didn't do that once in the 2022-23 season.— Ben Wieland (@BenWieland) November 17, 2023