The Virginia Cavaliers started their 2023-24 campaign with an impressive 80-50 victory over a feisty but overmatched Tarleton State squad at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers came out firing, finishing the first half shooting 56% beyond the arc and 58% overall, and controlled the game from start to finish. The game gave us our first look at Virginia’s transfers and freshmen as well as Tony Bennett’s rotation in the early going.
Here’s where we’re at on every major contributor for the Cavaliers after game one:
Beekman looked every bit the solid point guard Virginia will need him to be this season against Tarleton State. He’s clearly the most comfortable player on the team running every offensive scheme, and the difference in ball movement with Beekman on the floor stands out. He played a key role in runs to start each half, breaking down the defense to set up easy threes and also creating some instant offense early with a pick-six runout dunk on one of the game’s first possessions.
He paced the team in scoring with 16 points, finishing with a respectable five makes out of six attempts inside the arc and 6-7 from the free throw line. Single game plus-minus can be misleading, but Reece’s +34 in 27 minutes perfectly encapsulates how dominant the ‘Hoos looked with their star on the court. Beekman should easily earn an First Team All-ACC nod this year and looks like one of the best guards in the country.
Leon Bond III
What a debut for Leon Bond, who flashed off the bench in his first career game in the blue and orange. Bond showed a knack for finishing plays on offense in the Blue-White scrimmage, and shone in that regard against Tarleton State: he scored 12 points on just five shots. Bond’s athleticism — previously only showcased by pregame dunks in the layup line — proved too much for Tarleton State, as he grabbed five offensive rebounds including the game’s biggest highlight in a one-handed put-back slam.
(⌐■_■)— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) November 7, 2023
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McKneely doesn’t look like a lead guard, but he absolutely looks like a lethal off-ball scorer in the Kyle Guy mold. His knack for finding open space to get three-pointers off is special — even when guarded by the lengthy perimeter defender Bubu Benjamin, McKneely worked off blocker-mover screens effectively. He made four of eight three-point attempts, a great outing for most players but a ho-hum performance for the second-year knockdown shooter. It’d be nice to see him contribute more when the team goes away from the sides scheme, as McKneely didn’t look great off the dribble, but when you shoot the ball as well as Isaac did, nitpicking isn’t necessary.
Groves’s start came as a surprise to some, but the Oklahoma transfer contributed well in his first game as a Cavalier. Though he found himself in foul trouble throughout the game — partially a product of his slow feet on defense — Groves lived up to his billing as a stretch four, knocking down three three-pointers. He might not start every game, but he definitely brings a unique dynamic to the Virginia frontcourt.
Buchanan’s potential as a defensive threat was obvious from the moment he checked into the game. He controlled the paint and timed a block off the backboard beautifully on the one occasion a guard blew by him to the basket. Offensive limitations will cap his playing time as a true freshman — one point, a bad midrange miss and a 1-4 performance from the free-throw line aren’t promising in that department — but Tony Bennett should give Buchanan, who played just 13 minutes, a longer leash moving forward.
Harris brings a shifty quickness to the Virginia offense which the Cavaliers haven’t had in a long time. Opposing defenses will have a tough time adapting from Reece Beekman’s plodding but methodical style of breaking down defenders to Harris’s lightning-quick handle and burst. He’s also an absolute pest on the defensive end: Tony Bennett might not love the rate at which he gambles for steals, but the JPJ crowd certainly will.
There might be some growing pains with Rohde, who scored just six points on 2-8 shooting as the starting small forward for the Cavaliers, as he adjusts to life against stronger competition. The three-point shot should still be there (Rohde shot a respectable 2-5 beyond the arc), but on his drives the sophomore looked outmatched and a step slow. He was surprisingly crafty inside the arc in the Summit League last season, but it may take some time for those skills to translate.
Minor’s limited playing time was the biggest surprise of the evening in terms of the rotation, as the reigning NEC Player of the Year didn’t even enter the game until the four-minute mark of the first half and struggled to make an impact. Minor contributed just three rebounds and one block in nine minutes of playing time and got blown by a few times on the defensive end.
His strength will come in handy against situational matchups, but it looks like Minor’s slotted to play a minor rotational role in the frontcourt — and Blake Buchanan may usurp that role in the rotation sooner rather than later if the freshman keeps up his stellar defensive performances.
The third-year Murray played 11 minutes and didn’t make a compelling case for increased playing time: though he finished with five points, he blew a few assignments defensively — errors that just don’t fly with this coaching staff. Murray’s the current clubhouse favorite to be cut out of the rotation entirely once ACC play begins and playing time becomes more scarce.
Dunn falls in this category instead of the “stock up” section because he played just 21 minutes thanks to foul trouble, but don’t take his placement as any indication of concern going forward for the sophomore’s breakout. He started the scoring with a spot-up three and finished with nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks, and a steal despite limited playing time. A poor 4-8 outing from the line soured Dunn’s performance (he was visibly frustrated with himself after leaving the game in the second half), but he’s unquestionably this team’s second-best player and a menace on defense.
One note to file away for later: the Cavaliers experimented with letting Dunn bring the ball up the court and run point late in the game. There were too many possessions ending in soft fouls to draw any conclusive results about the Dunn-at-point experiment, but for Dunn to even be asked to fill that role after barely dribbling in his freshman season is a sign of the incredible development fans should expect to see more of going forward.