The Virginia Cavaliers opened up ACC play with an absolute bang, beating the Syracuse Orange by 22 points and a final score of 84-62. As the ‘Hoos are now 7-1 on the season and 1-0 in the ACC, we’ve got five takeaways for them moving forward.
Isaac McKneely can take over a game
Isaac McKneely set a career high for points in the first half (!) of this game with 16 on 6-9 shooting from the field and a 4-6 mark from deep. In the second half he added six more points, finishing with 22 on 8-11 shooting from the floor and 6-8 from deep. McKneely is an elite shooter, that’s not a groundbreaking assessment. Yet despite the fact that he came into the game shooting 48.1% from three, he’d yet to have that truly breakout performance against legit competition.
Step 1:— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) December 2, 2023
Step 2: ᴋɴᴏᴄᴋ ɪᴛ ᴅᴏᴡɴ
Against Syracuse, we got our first real look at what flamethrower I’m-never-going-to-miss-again McKneely looks like in a Virginia uniform, and whew buddy is it a sight to see.
Continuing to both generate shots for McKneely and getting him to embrace pulling the trigger whenever possible are keys for this team and this offense this season. As such, seeing that work out in the ACC opener is a great sign for his and the offense’s development as the early season schedule progresses.
It might not be as flashy, but defensively McKneely is so rock solid. His positioning is always fantastic, he’s got great reaction time, and he has the proper build and foot speed to be a reliable secondary perimeter defender.
Even while hobbled, Reece Beekman is elite
Guess I’m Captain Obvious today. Even while being in visible pain and consistently speaking with trainer Ethan Saliba due to some sort of right knee injury, Reece Beekman entirely controlled the flow of this game. He locked up the ACC’s leading scorer Judah Mintz with ease and tallied 13 points, eight assists, zero turnovers, a block, and a steal.
How consistently and easily Beekman touches the paint and either finishes at the rim or exploits opponents for over-helping by identifying the passing lanes and hitting shooters on the outside is so special.
He makes it all look so easy, especially defensively. In back-to-back games he clamped up Mintz and Wade Taylor — two of college basketball’s best scoring guards. That doesn’t just happen, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted how valuable it is that UVA can trust him to do that game in and game out even while not at full strength.
Offense runs pretty easily when you shoot 57.1% from three
Even beyond McKneely, UVA shot 46.2% (6-13) from deep against the Orange. Taine Murray (2-3), Andrew Rohde (2-4), Beekman (1-1), and Jake Groves (1-2) all contributed as valuable complementary perimeter threats. Obviously Virginia isn’t going to shoot this well very often, but the mere fact that they’re able to put an ACC team away by hitting from deep is encouraging.
The ability to stretch the floor clearly benefited Beekman, but also Rohde as creators. The St. Thomas transfer shot 4-8 overall and added four assists with just one turnover. He is clearly growing more and more comfortable as Virginia’s secondary initiator after his 13-point, six assist performance against Texas A&M on Wednesday.
Elijah Gertrude’s raw athleticism flashes
His six point, 2-5 shooting, three turnover, two steal, and one block stat line might not necessarily indicate it, but this was a really encouraging second game from Elijah Gertrude. At 6’3”, he’s the third best athlete on this team behind Beekman and Ryan Dunn, and the impact he has doing the dirty work on the defensive rebounds, within the defensive rotations, and as a capable decision maker as a ball handler is legit.
Gertrude still has a ways to go to be a reliable scoring option, and he’s still not 100% back from his torn ACL last winter. But the potential is obvious, evidenced by his strong take to the basket late in the second half.
For however long Dante Harris is out, Gertrude will rack up valuable playing time for his development. As a result, assuming Harris does return this season despite the fact that “he sprained his ankle pretty bad,” per Tony Bennett, Virginia is going to have more depth in the backcourt and be able to throw different combinations and looks at teams.
Beekman, Rohde, and McKneely dominate in “the mix”
Virginia has been experimenting within its typical offensive schemes in the early goings this season. One of said experiments that’s been especially successful has been running their typical inside triangle offense with the three starting guards playing on the inside with the two frontcourt players — typically Groves and Dunn — on the wings.
By doing so, UVA has successfully spread the floor with McKneely, Beekman, and Rohde constantly picking and cutting off one another. Their shooting prowess and ability to drive to the basket has served the team well while benefiting off pulling opponents’ bigs out to the wings and out of the paint.
“We’re trying some new things, just trying to spice it up a little bit,” said Isaac McKneely after the game. “When you’re in the mix [the three guys inside the triangle] with ‘Drew and Reece it’s a really good time. They always seem to find me when I’m open, so credit to them for sure.”
In the “mix” against Syracuse, Rohde and Beekman excelled at attacking the basket while McKneely and Rohde spaced the floor. Having those two shooters set ball screens for such an elite driver like Beekman is a terrifying prospect for opposing defenses, and it paid off incredibly against the Orange.
In Fort Myers, UVA’s offense stagnated with Beekman being the only player consistently generating offense. But by mixing and matching personnel and scheme in the last two contests, Virginia has found more offensive success and has efficiently found ways to utilize the strengths of their best players.