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The Big Preview: UVA basketball hosts Clemson in final week of the regular season

Previewing tonight’s game against the Clemson Tigers.

Clemson v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team is clearly struggling right now. They aren’t shooting the ball well and they aren’t defending as well as they are capable. This is why the Wahoos have plummeted from 13th on KenPom all the way down to 38th in less than a month.

Honestly, it’s making it very frustrating to write these previews. How many different ways can you say, “knock down a friggin’ jumper”?

The regular season isn’t over, there are still two games left for Virginia to figure out what is wrong. Both games are at home, and neither game is against a particularly tough opponent. Clemson is up first, and though they are tied with the ‘Hoos at 13-5 in the ACC, the Tigers have lost four of seven including a loss to Louisville. They have, however, won two in a row, including a 25-point road win over NC State on Saturday.

For those Wahoo fans thinking the season is over, look no further than Clemson. Riding high at 10-1 in conference, the Tigers lost three straight and looked bad. The loss to Louisville seemed like the end of the line for Clemson. Then the two straight wins. Virginia can turn it back around as well.

Just need to start shooting the rock a bit better. Reece Beekman has hit two treys this month. The bigger problem might be that he’s shooting just 39% on twos this month. If Reece can’t shoot, defenders are going under screens. If he can’t finish inside, there’s no help defenders. All of that means shooters aren’t getting open looks, plus Reece isn’t getting to the line (and when he does, he’s missing his free throws).

UNC barely defends the screen action, and then their rotation fails, leaving Vander Plas wide open. See, they can knock down shots…as long as they have all day to shoot.

Virginia ranks fifth nationally this season in assist rate (assists per field goal made), at over 65%. But, over the past two games, it’s just 50%. An assist rate of 50% would rank 190th nationally. Virginia does not have good enough isolation players to sustain a good offense with an assist rate of 50%.

This is pretty. But can you rely on these types of plays? Far too rare.

This is the Virginia offense these days. Yes, Gardner is a good midrange shooter, but mid-range jump shots aren’t a big part of modern basketball offense, because they are inefficient. In January, Gardner averaged seven field goal attempts per game, in February it’s 11.5 per game. Gardner’s scoring has helped keep the offense afloat, but the offense is better when Gardner is a smaller part of it.

It isn’t even just that the threes aren’t dropping. It’s that the looks aren’t even there. Virginia didn’t even attempt a three pointer for the first nine minutes against UNC. The Cavaliers didn’t make one until 15 minutes in.

The Wahoos have averaged just 16 three point attempts per game in February, down from over 23 per game in January. Just the attempt at the three pointer stretches the defense, allowing more space for Reece and Kihei to get into the paint. The threat allows them space to generate good looks, which then start to drop, opening up the defense even more.

Taking a look at Clemson, they have talent. PJ Hall is one of the most underrated players in the ACC. At 6’10”, he is a 40% shooter from outside. But he can also score in the post.

And off the dribble.

With the way Virginia struggled defending some of UNC’s shooters, especially the bigger ones such as Pete Nance, there is real concern about their ability to shut down Hall and fellow sweet-shooting-big-man Hunter Tyson.

Tyson played well in two matchups against the Hoos last year, averaging 16 points on just 9 field goal attempts per game.

Gardner on Tyson on the perimeter is a mismatch. There is no intent to slander Gardner in this piece, by the way. Gardner got his revenge in the second Clemson game last year, scoring 23 points on 11 shots (7/11 FG, 9/10 FT). It wasn’t all mid-range jumpers, either.

That front-court duo is about all that’s left from last year’s Clemson squad. Point guard Chase Hunter was mostly a backup in past years and, though he’s had an up and down year, he’s been playing well of late.

Clemson can play. They can score, they have size up front . If Virginia continues playing the way they’ve been playing for the past two weeks, Clemson probably wins this game. But if the Wahoos pick up their energy, play some defense, and knock down some shots, they should win this game easily. The question is, which Virginia team shows up?