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UVA basketball will go as far as their enigmatic frontcourt can take them

Elite guard play raises the floor, but Virginia’s big men need to step up to vault the ‘Hoos to another level

Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Bryan Bennett /Getty Images

This season, the Virginia Cavaliers’ starting backcourt has been nothing short of exceptional — the unit that has propelled the Cavaliers from NIT purgatory into the verge of national championship contention. Reece Beekman, when healthy, is the most impactful player in the ACC. Kihei Clark continues to epitomize “winning player” in his fifth season. Armaan Franklin has come into his own as a jump shooter and finisher around the rim.

When sharing the floor, that trio has outscored opponents by 27.7 points per 100 possessions, an outrageous number that leads all ACC backcourts by a wide margin. This team’s floor is extremely high compared to last season thanks to such solid guard play.

However, its ceiling will be defined by the other two spots on the floor. In the frontcourt, the Cavaliers have experimented with different combinations of post scorer Jayden Gardner, rim protector Kadin Shedrick, stretch big Ben Vander Plas, bruiser Francisco Caffaro, and athletic freshman Ryan Dunn. The team hasn’t always maximized what they can get out of this group of talented players.

Even when it has, two key questions — the small-ball defensive woes and the recent struggles of Kadin Shedrick — have marred recent results, even as the ‘Hoos cruise through conference play. Answering these questions is the key to Virginia’s postseason success, and will define the ceiling for the Cavaliers.

Versatility in personnel, but not in practice

On paper, Virginia’s frontcourt is designed to match up well against whatever opponents throw at them, especially with the surprising emergence of Ryan Dunn as a viable option at the four.

Facing a bruising big — DJ Burns, Armando Bacot, you know the type? Roll out Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro at the five. Traditional center who doesn’t have the post game to bully you down low? Stick Ben Vander Plas at the five and force them to play in space. Facing five-out or true small-ball? Time to deploy some combination of Vander Plas, Jayden Gardner, and Dunn all game.

In practice, though, Virginia hasn’t always placed their personnel in positions to succeed against opposing frontcourt matchups. Even during the team’s seven-game winning streak, strange lineup decisions caused trouble for the Cavaliers. Boston College’s stretch big Quinten Post kept it close for a half at JPJ by picking on Francisco Caffaro, when the more athletic Shedrick would be more able to match up with his size and shooting defensively. Though Jayden Gardner ultimately bested him with a late drawn charge, Syracuse’s Jesse Edwards picked on the undersized Gardner and Vander Plas in another game where Shedrick’s services seemed to be needed more often than they were used.

The pendulum has swung the other direction, too, with Virginia playing too big for the situation. In the first 24 minutes against Miami, Jim Larrañaga’s small, fast lineup of shooters ran out to a 15-point lead before the ‘Hoos turned to switchable athlete Ryan Dunn at the four; Dunn’s presence keyed a comeback that fell just short, but the freshman was still a +13 in 16 minutes of game time.

The first step to using Virginia’s frontcourt talent effectively? Playing the right players in the right matchups. The ‘Hoos have improved in this aspect as each combo’s strengths and weaknesses become apparent, which provides reason for optimism.

However, even with the right guys on the floor, two other frontcourt issues will be key for the Cavaliers to resolve as they head into the home stretch.

Small-ball lineups struggling defensively

When Virginia has deployed their optimal frontcourt groupings this season, the results have been by and large successful. It would be nitpicking to suggest a team currently favored to win the ACC and ranked in the AP Poll’s top ten has been unsuccessful by any definition of the word.

And yet the season so far has revealed some exhaust ports in the Death Star for the ‘Hoos. The most obvious of these flaws — that proverbial weakness that many Bothans, or in this case opposing video analysts, probably sacrificed to uncover — is the defensive impotence of Virginia’s small-ball frontcourt of Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas.

Of 26 duos that have spent more than 150 possessions on the floor together for Virginia this season, the Gardner-BVP pairing is one of just two with a negative plus-minus. Their adjusted efficiency margin, an EvanMiya stat that roughly stands for “opponent-adjusted plus-minus,” is -3.1. For comparison, here are the adjusted efficiency margins of every frontcourt pairing the ‘Hoos have played this season for at least 150 possessions:

This pairing’s struggles stick out like a sore thumb, especially because it’s the lineup the ‘Hoos have decided to roll with in the starting five. And while their struggles have come on both ends of the floor — of those 26 duos, the Gardner/BVP frontcourt has provided the second-worst offense and third-worst defense in terms of points per possession — the most glaring issues have been on the defensive end.

Early in the ACC season, Pitt absolutely shredded that combination in the second half to the tune of a 19-3 run and a massive comeback from a 10-point halftime deficit. Initially stymied by the ‘Hoos in a 23-point first half, the Panthers discovered that with Gardner and Vander Plas sharing the floor the Cavaliers were vulnerable to straight dribble-drives. The ‘Hoos had no athlete capable of protecting the rim on the floor, and also struggled to rebound with their bigs pulled away from the basket.

One-off games like that, especially early in conference play while every team is still figuring out who they are, can be stomached. However, the evisceration of the Gardner-BVP pairing by Mike Young and the Virginia Tech offense officially vaulted it into the concern zone. VT’s motion offense and big-man-centric passing picked apart Gardner and BVP; even a last-ditch shift to ultra-small-ball with Armaan Franklin at the four and a switch-everything defense couldn’t save the ‘Hoos.

Smart teams will pick up on Virginia’s vulnerability to shots at the basket when they don’t have a true big man on the floor. Smart and good teams will use that vulnerability to generate easy shots whenever they want to, and potentially send the ‘Hoos packing in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

And why don’t the ‘Hoos have a rim protector on the floor very often these days? That’s the second issue that Virginia needs to sort out before the end of the season.

The Shedrick conundrum

I won’t belabor this point, as it feels like beating a dead horse at this point and our very own Dan Siegel has done the Shedrick situation justice already. But it’s worth mentioning here that Virginia’s starting center for 14 of their first 15 contests has all but been removed from the rotation altogether.

To me, the reason for this boils down to one straightforward number: 5.38. That’s how many fouls Shedrick has committed per 40 minutes this season. It’s the highest mark in the ACC among 92 qualifying players. This isn’t an aberration, either, as every Virginia fan knows: Shedrick finished 91st out of 92 qualifiers last season. I think Tony Bennett and the staff simply don’t trust him to stay on the floor (he’s at 10.8 fouls per 40 in the last two games, by the way, so things haven’t exactly been trending upward).

This issue is both clear-cut and urgent. Virginia needs to get Shedrick playing productively soon, because he’s their best line of defense against big, athletic fives. And with DJ Burns, Dereck Lively, and Armando Bacot coming up on the schedule, there are plenty of big, athletic fives on the horizon for the ‘Hoos.

How the ‘Hoos should move forward

There are two ways Virginia can handle these issues going forward, depending on whether or not Kadin Shedrick is able to play his way back into the team’s good graces and re-establish a permanent role in the rotation:

  1. With Shedrick: Utilize the full strength of the team’s lineup versatility, and match Virginia’s frontcourt with opposing lineups — big versus big, small versus small — in the way this team should be able to on paper.
  2. Without Shedrick: If Kadin can’t work his way back into the rotation, the ‘Hoos need to be more flexible in adapting to clearly disadvantageous situations. Specifically, they should play Ryan Dunn & Ben Vander Plas as a small-ball pairing more often in lieu of the flawed Gardner-BVP pairing. They won’t have a great answer for true bigs, but Caffaro at the five is the best they’d have.