In their second consecutive loss, the Virginia Cavaliers fell to the desperate North Carolina Tar Heels to the tune of a 71-63 final score. Not leading for a single second of the game, the Wahoos now sit at 21-6 on the season and 13-5 in the ACC.
Inability to make shots completely hampers the Virginia offense
For yet another game, UVA was simply too inefficient shooting the ball to realistically challenge for the win. The ‘Hoos shot 8-25 (32%) on layups against the Tar Heels after going 8-24 around the rim against Boston College. While some of that is a result of the offense not working well enough to produce better looks, that sort of conversion rate in the paint, no matter the defensive challenge, is not going to get it done against legitimate competition.
Of course, the poor shooting around the rim wasn’t the only offensive issue for Virginia against UNC. Going 4-12 (33.3%) from deep, 5-11( 45.5%) from the free throw line, and taking 32 shots that would qualify as midrange looks, the UVA offense had very little going for it throughout this game. The Wahoo starting guards combined to shoot 13-34 (38.2%) from the field as Clark, Beekman, and Franklin continue to struggle to score the basketball.
There’s absolutely more to the offensive issues of late than simply not making shots. But that’s still a significant part of it! Making tough shots is a necessary component of winning basketball at this level, and the ‘Hoos simply haven’t done that at a high enough clip over the past four games.
Jayden Gardner continues to be the only true offensive bright spot
As he was against Boston College earlier this week, Jayden Gardner was a rare positive for UVA. Scoring 19 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, the former ECU transfer shot 9-17 from the floor as his midrange game was essentially the only consistently effective offensive option for the Cavaliers.
The spacing that Gardner provides when he’s hitting from the midrange can be a really nice release valve for the Wahoo offense especially when the team’s guards are unable to score for themselves, but can draw enough attention for Gardner to get open. As he was last season, the fifth year power forward being Virginia’s top (and sometimes lone) scoring option does mean that the rest of the offense isn’t playing how it needs to play. Relying on so many two-point jump shots isn’t a great way to run an offense. But Gardner can’t control that he has to be relied on for heavy production, and he was altogether as effective as can be asked of him.
UVA defense is beaten by unlikely Tar Heels
Two of the biggest under-performers for North Carolina this season have been RJ Davis and Pete Nance. And, especially against a Virginia team that has been playing so much small ball and has at times struggled against truly threatening offensive centers, Armando Bacot appeared to be the guy who could give UVA the most issues.
Yet, Bacot only played 24 minutes due to foul trouble and the Cavaliers were typically solid against him. He scored just 11 points on six shots, but the Virginia native also had three turnovers and only totaled six rebounds.
Meanwhile, Davis and Nance dominated for UNC offensively. Nance was a matchup nightmare for the Wahoos as he scored 22 points on 7-10 shooting from the floor and a perfect 4-4 from three and from the free throw line. Nance’s production has been a missing piece for the Tar Heels this season and, in a game that they needed to win, he found ways to beat the Wahoo defense. Davis scored 16 points and dished out four helpers while finishing with 5-10 shooting from the field, 2-4 from three, and the same 4-4 from the charity stripe.
What does this say about the Virginia defense? Not too much we didn’t already know. Nance in particular found ways to win his individual matchups in this game as UVA didn’t have an answer for him down low while he also took advantage of open threes after the Cavaliers collapsed on Bacot in the post or when Davis or Caleb Love touched the paint. His scoring punch was an indication that Virginia lacks the playable athletes in the front-court to make up for either doubling in the post or getting beat off the dribble. Additionally, Davis just found success beating UVA’s guards. He hit some tough shots with hands in his face and was able to generate separation throughout the game that forced Virginia to scramble.
On the one hand, Virginia wasn’t as sound as the team needed to be on defense in this game and the lacking athleticism from the starting front-court is a legitimate issue. On the other, UNC shooting 15.1% better in this game than the Heels have over the entire season is an unfortunate turn of luck that dramatically shifted this game. Sometimes one team’s shots are falling and another team’s aren’t. This was one of those games.
Ryan Dunn and Kadin Shedrick deserve more opportunities
Relating to how UVA’s starting front-court of Gardner and Vander Plas is just too lacking defensively, it feels like it’s past time to bulk up the minutes for Kadin Shedrick and Ryan Dunn. Each was solid on defense tonight as Dunn in particular played well with two tough rebounds, a block, and a steal in 10 minutes. Shedrick was a bit sloppier, committing one turnover and only registering one assist, one point, and one foul in seven minutes. That being said, those two individuals immediately increase Virginia’s ceiling on the defensive side of the ball when they’re on the floor. The Cavaliers were actually four points better with Dunn on the floor in his ten minutes than they were when he was off while they were seven points better in Shedrick’s seven minutes.
Yes, Shedrick can get in his head too much, makes some dumb mistakes as a result, and hasn’t played to his potential this season. But he’s clearly a player who needs time on the floor to develop rhythm and confidence. His entire career he’s been kept on a short leash and while Tony Bennett has had plenty of success in holding his developing bigs to a high standard, this team needs his shot-blocking defensive presence and finishing ability on offense at this point of time. Dunn, while definitely limited in how he can produce offensively, is in a similar situation. He’s so sound on defense, as a rebounder, and as an overall athlete that he could be an x-factor for this struggling team.
Absolutely, UVA’s biggest problems are currently on the offensive side of the ball. Shots aren’t falling and playing Gardner and Ben Vander Plas who are more capable of hitting shots than Dunn and Shedrick is a logical and reasonable conclusion. But the reality is that this current rotation isn’t getting it done.
For as good of players as Vander Plas and Gardner are and what they can do for this team, their pairing continues to be inefficient. It was good to see Shedrick and Dunn combine for 17 minutes played. But throwing them into the fire for even more minutes (particularly this coming Tuesday against a Clemson team that has scorers in the front-court in PJ Hall and Hunter Tyson) could be a saving grace for UVA considering the defensive impact they have and the way Shedrick in particular can add a different, rim-running element to the offense at his best.
Hope is still alive for this team
I feel like I’ve criticized what’s happened to this team enough. The issues are relatively clear at this point. The reality that coaching adjustments need to be made and that players simply need to play better is a harsh one, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that those things can happen. This is Tony Bennett with a roster that is top-25 in the country when it doesn’t play like it has over the last four games.
Somehow, some way, UVA still has a real chance to get a share of the ACC Regular Season Title. If the ‘Hoos can beat Clemson on Tuesday and handle the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday, all they’d need to split the conference title would be for Miami to beat Pittsburgh at home in each team’s season finale. If the Panthers were to improbably lose to Notre Dame in Mike Brey’s last home game on Wednesday, Virginia could also clinch a share by winning its final two games. Unfortunately, the one seed in Greensboro is out of the question for UVA, and the two seed would only be possible if Pitt lost both of its remaining games.
Obviously, winning out is far easier said than done. Clemson is a very capable basketball team that boasts the same conference record as the Wahoos after destroying NC State 96-71 earlier today. The Tigers will present matchup issues for UVA on offense while they’re well-coached on the other end of the ball. It’s a very quick turnaround for a Virginia team that has been an unfortunate shell of its former self for weeks now.
But the opportunity to end the season on a positive note, grab a pair of confidence-boosting conference wins to close the regular season, and find a rush of momentum heading into the postseason is there. This is the same team that beat Illinois and Baylor, that hung with Houston, and beat Michigan on the road. Elite performances can come. But now’s the time to do it, to prove that this team hasn’t been found out and is still worthy of being considered among the ACC’s best and as a group capable of making a run in March Madness.