In embarrassing fashion indicative of how much the team has been struggling of late, the sixth ranked Virginia Cavaliers lost by 15 points, 63-48, to the Boston College Eagles tonight in a game that many who were unable to watch due to the ACC’s restrictive streaming policies will be grateful to have missed. With this defeat, we have five takeaways to try to make sense of what in the world that game was and what such a bamboozling performance means for UVA moving forward.
UVA offense continues to be horrifically inefficient
This three-game stretch against Louisville, Notre Dame, and Boston College was supposed to be the time when Virginia cruised to three victories before setting their sights on the two remaining competitive regular season contests against Clemson and North Carolina. The quality of these three teams is such that a squad at the top of the ACC shouldn’t have been significantly burdened with one of them, much less all three. Yet, here we are.
The most common theme over these past three games has been just how bad UVA’s offense has been. Scoring just 0.8 points per possession against KenPom’s 123rd rated defense nationally, Virginia didn’t even make it to 50 points. The shooting was bad, but so was the entire offense. Open shots weren’t generated, guys couldn’t hit them when they were, and there was simply zero juice for the Wahoos in a game that they needed to win to maintain sole possession of first place in the ACC and to avoid a bad Quad-4 loss.
On the night, UVA shot 19-59 (32.2%) from the field and 4-21 (19%) from beyond the three-point arc. The Cavaliers were a ridiculous 8-22 (36.4%) on layups which is tremendously inefficient. Virginia’s guards couldn’t manage to finish through any sort of contact even when they were able to get to the rim while UVA’s big men (outside of Jayden Gardner) were similarly bad.
The list of players who shot poorly against BC goes on, and on, and on. Reece Beekman continues to look like a shell of his former self, shooting 2-8 from the field, 0-2 from three and finishing with six points, two assists, and two turnovers. While he’d been the Wahoos’ saving grace offensively recently, Kihei Clark was similarly bad as he scored seven points while going 3-11 on his field goal attempts and 1-4 from deep. Keeping with the backcourt, Armaan Franklin went 2-10 and 0-4. Franklin and Beekman have combined to shoot 12-41 (29.3%) in the last two games. Isaac McKneely also wasn’t much better, hitting a pair of threes but shooting 2-8 from the field and 2-7 from deep.
Meanwhile, a few late buckets improved Ben Vander Plas’ line to 3-7 overall and 1-3 from three while Jayden Gardner was the lone player to touch 50% shooting by finishing 6-12 for 16 points.
I don’t have to tell you this was a bad offensive performance. That much is obvious. But the reality is this goes beyond a shooting slump. It goes beyond a team having a bad night. These are systematic problems with this offense. Opponents have figured out how to effectively guard Virginia’s Inside Triangle Offense and are reaping the benefits while the Wahoos are either unwilling or incapable of finding another answer. These are all still good players and this is still a great coaching staff that, combined, should be expected to improve and address some of these issues moving forward. But this was bad and time is running out for UVA to fix what’s wrong.
Jayden Gardner was the only bright spot
I already mentioned him, but Jayden Gardner does deserve credit for how he played in this game. With everybody else around him bricking shot after shot, Gardner went to work and kept this game from being a blowout of massive proportions. His midrange game, while not incredibly efficient, was at least enough to keep Virginia within striking distance of a second half comeback and his willingness to attack the basket when shots weren’t falling was encouraging to see despite the struggles for those around him.
Defensively, he was similarly stout as he held his weight against the dynamic Quinten Post. Notching two blocks and a steal, Gardner helped to hold Post to just eight points on 4-14 shooting with four turnovers. It wasn’t all him, but he was the most present defender against the BC big man and he absolutely did his part well.
The Wahoo coaching staff needs to adjust now
Deservedly so, Tony Bennett and his staff received heaps of praise for switching to relying on small ball lineups and their Inside Triangle offense back in January. That helped to spark a seven game winning streak as the ‘Hoos had won 11 of their last 12 before falling to Boston College.
But that adjustment has run its course. The starting front-court combination of Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas continues to be both Virginia’s most used pairing while being the second worst efficient front-court grouping (only Gardner-Dunn is worse on the season amongst combinations with 100+ possessions together on the floor).
Those two guys playing together simply does not suit this team well as their combined defensive liability and offensive volatility limits UVA on either end of the floor. First and foremost, that’s something the staff needs to address. Yes, Kadin Shedrick has not been playing to the standard he needs to and Ryan Dunn isn’t quite where he needs to be to play 20+ minutes per game. But Virginia absolutely needs to lessen the minutes Gardner and Vander Plas spend on the floor together.
Each is a valuable piece for this team who brings a lot to the table. It’s just that they don’t truly fit together on the floor. The sample size is big enough, small ball with Vander Plas and Gardner is not a sustainable high volume pairing considering how other teams have figured out how to defend and attack them.
With that in mind, part of the reason that the Gardner-BVP combo has become a weakness for this team is how opposing defenses have adjusted to playing them. Against UVA’s Inside Triangle offense, teams are playing off Vander Plas and thus daring him to shoot while committing resources to prevent Beekman and Clark from attacking the baseline or any driving lanes that were previously opened by BVP’s shooting gravity. Vander Plas shooting 5-23 (21.7%) from three in February has proven that strategy worthwhile.
In doing that, defenses have effectively neutralized one of if not the biggest advantages that Virginia had in running its Inside Triangle offense. BVP threatening teams on the perimeter was an absolute boon for UVA’s backcourt in being able to attack the paint as Armaan Franklin in particular did well in the paint while Vander Plas pulled the opposing center out onto the perimeter.
Yes, there are still post looks and open shots that can be generated out of this offense for the ‘Hoos and it hasn’t been the only thing they’ve been running. But the proof is in the pudding, it’s time to get away from Inside Triangle being UVA’s base offense. Ideally, that’s a reversion back to playing Bennett’s traditional Sides offense and consequently trying to incorporate Kadin Shedrick back into the fold more prominently. There are other things the staff can rely on offensively as well, such as their 21 pistol looks where they utilize the point guard pairing of Beekman and Clark.
Overall here, the bottom line is adjustments need to be made beyond the players simply hitting more shots. That needs to happen too, but the staff not having switched away from these previous adjustments when they’ve stopped working has hurt the team. Now, they need to adjust again for UVA to get back to playing to its standard.
The value of continuity and familiarity has dried up
This three game stretch has inexplicably sent UVA reeling. After handling a tough NC State team at home and managing to eke out an overtime win against the Duke Blue Devils despite poor foul shooting, it seemed like the ‘Hoos were set up really well to go seize the conference’s Regular Season Title, have a chance at the ACC Tournament, and then to try to make a run into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I’ll touch on how things are shaping up for those goals after this loss momentarily, but these three games are truly hard to properly analyze.
Before the Louisville game, UVA was ranked 14th by KenPom’s efficiency metric. After these three games? They’ve fallen a dramatic 20 spots all the way down to 34th. That’s practically unheard of and points to just how badly the ‘Hoos have performed relative to expectation in these three games.
The conclusion that starts to emerge is a depressing yet logical one: Despite some minimal but meaningful individual offseason improvement from players like Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, and Kihei Clark and the relatively valuable additions of BVP, Ryan Dunn, and Isaac McKneely, this team’s early and mid-season success was most significantly a result of the value of the roster’s continuity from last season and the extra practice and playing time UVA had due to its trip to Italy this summer.
That’s not to say that this team isn’t good, can’t still do good things this season, or that the players don’t deserve credit for improving their games in a real way from last season. It’s also not meant to discount those early season wins against Baylor, Illinois, and Michigan. But the reality is that UVA did significantly benefit from early season continuity and familiarity which opponents have caught up to by now.
Winning the ACC or making a run in March is looking difficult
This has already been a long story, but this loss and the circumstances of it put into question UVA’s potential for the remainder of the season. They now sit half a game behind Miami (14-4) in the ACC standings and are tied for second with Pitt at 13-4. With a stern test against the North Carolina Tar Heels this coming Saturday, a reasonably tough matchup against the Clemson Tigers next Tuesday, and a rematch against a Louisville team that played Virginia close last week, it’s going to be difficult for the ‘Hoos to go 3-0 to finish the regular season. But that’s what has to happen for the Cavaliers to reasonably expect to win a share of the ACC Regular Season Title.
Meanwhile, this loss will significantly drop UVA for its potential seeding come the NCAA Tournament. Virginia was ranked 10th by the committee roughly a week ago. Now, they could very well fall out of the top-16 and maybe down to a five seed. That immediately decreases their odds of making a run in the NCAA Tournament with a guaranteed tough first round matchup, a potential game against a higher seed in the round of 32, and then the likelihood of playing a one seed in the Sweet Sixteen should the ‘Hoos get that far.
Beyond the logistics of the seeding, does this look like one that can win in a tournament setting right now? Yeah, they’ve got a few weeks to get things sorted and the ACC Tournament could provide a good opportunity to grow more before the big dance. But what was shaping up to be a favorable end to the regular season and decent seeding in the NCAA Tournament has officially gone by the wayside with this 15-point loss to one of the ACC’s worst.
UVA will play better than this. The Cavaliers will improve from this loss. Adjustments will (hopefully) be made and the experience of this roster should help them turn things around quicker than most. But this loss is still a significant blemish and an indication of struggles that go beyond this one performance. The path ahead is far rockier than it was Wednesday morning. As a result, these next three games and the rate of improvement could very well determine how we view this team come season’s end.
Virginia still has the players and the staff to get this done. It’s just a matter of how much better the ‘Hoos can get and how much better they can play now that the lights are brightest.