The Virginia Cavaliers continue to tempt fate. After a narrow three-point win over the Louisville Cardinals on Wednesday, the ‘Hoos squeaked by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 57-55 as Dane Goodwin missed an open three at the buzzer. Only one Cavalier shot above 40 percent from the field in an ugly victory.
Kihei Clark continues to bail Virginia out
It would be nice if Virginia’s veteran point guard wasn’t their only option to get a bucket down the stretch, but give Clark some credit: on a night where he officially passed John Crotty for the school’s career assist record, Kihei once again carried the Cavaliers late.
The only Cavalier to score in the final six minutes of the game, Clark paced the ‘Hoos with 15 much-needed points on 4-7 from the field. He also righted a wrong from the Louisville game: after missing a few late free throws in that contest, Clark drilled two big ones from a one-and-one at the charity stripe to extend Virginia’s lead to three points with 22 seconds remaining.
Clark, whose assist record will be one of many leaderboards he climbs by the end of his career here — partially a product of his sustained high-level play, partially a product of his unique opportunity to play five seasons — continues to live up to expectations as a veteran. He’s been in much bigger spots than this, and it shows. Kihei came up big for the second straight game, and is a key reason Virginia’s avoided back-to-back bad losses.
Where has the three-point shooting gone?
Virginia finished this game with seven made threes on 24 attempts, good for a tick above 29 percent. And it felt much worse than that. For 40 minutes, Virginia continued to inexplicably miss wide open catch-and-shoot looks, hamstringing their ability to create any separation from the Fighting Irish.
The first possession of the game was a microcosm of what was to come from beyond the arc: 12 seconds into the shot clock, Ben Vander Plas caught the ball wide open at the top of the key and launched. That’s a good shot for your jump-shooting big man. Brick.
There were really no good stretches for the Cavs shooting the ball. After an Isaac McKneely and-one late in the first half, the ‘Hoos led 27-18 and seemed about to crack the game open. Out of the under-4 timeout, McKneely found two wide open threes against the Notre Dame soft zone. Brick and brick. The Fighting Irish would cut the lead to four before the break, successfully avoiding a knockout blow.
The Cavaliers haven’t had a game above 33 percent from three since January. With the postseason rapidly approaching — just four games stand between the ‘Hoos and the ACC Tournament — it’s the worst time to go cold. They need to break this streak soon.
Reece Beekman’s scoring struggles continue
A lot of Virginia’s issues on offense as of late have stemmed from Beekman’s diminished effectiveness. It started with a run of missed layups against Duke and has ballooned into a woeful stretch shooting the ball: in his last three games, Beekman is shooting 21% (6 for 29) from the field and 22% (2 for 9) from three.
To be clear, Beekman is still an excellent player, and absolutely vital to the Cavaliers. He didn’t have any real flashy defensive plays today, but added a ton on that end and additionally recorded five assists without turning the ball over. The standard for Reece is just set so high by the rest of the team’s struggles to create offense, especially outside of Kihei Clark, so when he’s off offensively it stands out.
Reece will most likely turn it around — he’s a great player, and that’s what great players do. But he’s not absolved of responsibility for this recent run of underwhelming team performances, and he needs to step it up as a scorer and get back to that player we saw in Las Vegas and at Michigan.
No resolution to the frontcourt confusion
Every frontcourt pairing the Cavaliers rolled out against Notre Dame seemed equally underwhelming. The Gardner-BVP pairing started and closed in crunch time, but that felt more like a decision made out of inertia and deference to experience than any sort of reward for quality play.
Gardner had the best game of any of the frontcourt guys, putting together a valuable scoring run in the middle of the second half by picking apart the Notre Dame zone with midrange jumpers and forcing them back into man defense. He also came up with four vital rebounds.
Outside of him, though, the situation was dire. Defenses continue to not respect Ben Vander Plas on the three-point line, taking away a key part of his impact. The fifth-year went 2 for 6 from beyond the arc, somehow raising his season average.
The incredible hustle plays weren’t there for Ryan Dunn — not because of a lack of effort, but moreso because of a lack of fortunate bounces — which underscored the difficulties Dunn has in a more controlled setting right now. Dunn air-balled an open three in the first half, and for all he brings to the team in terms of athleticism and energy, he’ll struggle to play bigger minutes until he finds more consistent ways to contribute in the half-court offense. And Kadin Shedrick once again struggled to find his footing, receiving brief stints in both halves and ultimately recording very little impact outside of three fouls committed.
It would be nice to see someone step up in the frontcourt and start consistently contributing. All four of these players have had positive moments this season; with the exception of perhaps Gardner, they’ve also all had runs of borderline unplayability. Every big man Virginia has will be needed at some point in the postseason; much like the three-point shooting, the bigs have gone cold at the worst time.
A win is a win, I guess
Yes, Virginia did win the game. This is good: it moves them into a position to potentially take sole possession of first place in the ACC with a Pitt loss at Virginia Tech tonight. 13-3 in the conference and 21-4 overall, with your only non-conference loss coming against then-top-ranked Houston, is pretty impressive.
But at some point the Cavaliers also need to actually put together a convincing performance. The NC State win at home felt like it might have marked the turning of a corner, as the Cavaliers thoroughly dominated a ranked team; in hindsight, it feels more like an aberration. They’ve plummeted to 22nd in KenPom after beating the ACC’s two worst teams by five combined points, which feels totally fair.
Earlier today, the NCAA announced the current NCAA tournament top 16 teams. Virginia is currently on the 3-seed line, ranked 10th overall in the country.
The top 16 seeds in bracket form #BracketPreview pic.twitter.com/oJSbK6wybp— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) February 18, 2023
But looking at those 16 teams right now, how many of them would Virginia be favored against if they played today? And how long can the Cavaliers continue to hang onto their top seed while doing the bare minimum to avoid disaster?