With the Virginia Cavaliers preparing for their first round NCAA Tournament contest against the Furman Paladins tomorrow at 12:40 (on TruTV), the matchup between the two squads is coming into clearer focus. As such, before our full game preview goes up later today, we’ve detailed five key matchups between the Wahoos and Furman that will determine the final outcome.
JP Pegues vs Kihei Clark
There are a number of tough individual matchups that will be critical to keep an eye on in UVA’s game against Furman, particularly when the Wahoos are on the defensive side of the ball. Arguably the most notable one is that of Paladin point guard JP Pegues against Kihei Clark.
Shifty and able to utilize change of speed and direction well, the 6’1” Pegues has a versatile offensive game. While he’s shot just 33.9% from deep on the year, that’s on 5.6 attempts per game. He’s smart with his shot selection, has extended range, and is capable at getting into the lane and working from there. He’s a 64.5% finisher at the rim, largely avoids midrange jumpers, and also takes care of the ball while also boasting a 21.8% assist rate, good for fifth in the Southern Conference.
Just a sophomore, Pegues has come on strong in conference play and could pose a mismatch against the smaller Clark. After Kihei struggled to guard RJ Davis (24 points, 8-14 from the field) and Jeremy Roach (23 points, 7-12 from the floor) in the ACC Tournament, Pegues is a similar style of guard. Unlike Roach and Davis, he doesn’t score much from the midrange (Pegues is just 10-40 on long twos this season) and thus will likely have less success driving and shooting over Clark than those two did.
Nevertheless, how successful Pegues is at initiating the Furman offense and to what degree Clark can get under his skin will determine at least a portion of the potential success the Paladins can have on Thursday. To win, they have to get hot, and Pegues is a guy who can make that happen. If Clark can pester him early and force the younger player out of his comfort zone (which is something he is prone to do), it could be a long day for Pegues and the Furman offense.
Mike Bothwell vs Reece Beekman
Sticking with the Furman’s backcourt on offense, Mike Bothwell is a dynamic, physical scorer who will most likely be guarded by Reece Beekman. The ACC Defensive Player of the Year could, at times, match up against Pegues and Armaan Franklin could switch onto Bothwell some as well. But Beekman projects as the most likely defender against the Southern Conference’s leading scorer.
Relatively similar to Pegues, the 6’3” Bothwell is only a 32.8% shooter from beyond the arc this season, but he takes 4.4 threes per game and is capable of heating up. Where he’s most dangerous, though, is inside the arc. A 50.7% shooter from the midrange, Bothwell takes just over two long two-pointers per game, but is extremely effective when he chooses to do so. Additionally, he’s quite good at drawing fouls and converting with a 5.0% fouls drawn rate and an 82.6% success rate at the charity stripe. Throw in his 66.5% finishing around the basket and Bothwell is quite the complete bucket-getter.
Of course, here enters Reece Beekman. If there’s one perimeter defender in the country who can take a scoring guard out of the equation, it’s Beekman. Against a hot Tyrese Proctor in the ACC Championship game, Beekman held the Duke freshman to five points on 1-6 shooting. Versus Caleb Love two days earlier, he limited the taller UNC lead guard to 3-15 shooting. He has the length, the quickness, the hands, the IQ, everything that you could ask for in a leading perimeter defender.
Against Bothwell, Beekman will need to embrace the physicality that the 6’3” Paladin brings to the floor. While listed as just five pounds heavier than Beekman, Bothwell is more built and wants to put his shoulder into his defender to create space to work. Reece’s wingspan and flawless footwork ought to help negate any advantage Bothwell can gain, but he still needs to be aware that the fifth year shooting guard will try to out-muscle him in getting to the basket.
Bothwell is good both in isolation and when using a ball screen. Fortunately, Beekman can match him in both scenarios as he’s particularly adept at maneuvering ball screens and guarding one-on-one. Granted, when Furman’s bigs such as Jalen Slawson or Garrett Hien are brought into the play, how Virginia’s big man guards the action will be critical considering that both Slawson and Hien are palpable threats to pop and fire away from three. Again, Beekman’s individual abilities do mean that the ‘Hoos can vary their ball screen coverage and avoid hedging too hard with their front-court players and instead put more of the onus on Beekman to stop Bothwell from getting open to either pull-up or attack the basket.
As Pegues is typically the man to jump-start the Furman offense, Bothwell is the one most often finishing it. If Beekman can frustrate Bothwell the way he has so many other great scorers throughout his career, the task of beating Virginia becomes significantly more difficult for Furman.
Jalen Slawson vs Jayden Gardner/Ryan Dunn/Kadin Shedrick
While the Pegues and Bothwell matchups are relatively clear cut with regard to who UVA will defend them with, stretch four Jalen Slawson presents more of an unknown. At 6’7”, Slawson can do many things offensively with Tony Bennett calling him “a complete offensive player.”
Slawson can fire away from three as he’s a 38.9% shooter this season on 2.9 attempts per game. Notably, he’s willing to let it fly from deep if he’s in rhythm. Additionally, he’s good off the bounce and is also a really smart passer with a 20% assist rate this season (which, for reference, would rank third on UVA). Slawson also shoots an absurd 73.3% around the basket while, like Bothwell, he knows how to get to the line and knocks down his free throws at a respectable 76.6%.
As for how UVA goes about guarding Slawson, it will most likely be by committee with Jayden Gardner, Ryan Dunn, and Kadin Shedrick the most likely candidates to defend him. There’s always the off chance that Bennett decides to put Armaan Franklin or, in a dire scenario, even Reece Beekman on him. But, assuming Bennett sticks with starting either Francisco Caffaro or Kadin Shedrick in the front-court, Gardner will likely start on Slawson with Dunn filtering in to defend him and Shedrick potentially doing so as well if/or when Furman goes small.
Dunn probably projects as the best defender against Slawson just because of his length and mobility. This could absolutely be a heavy game for the underutilized Dunn-Gardner pairing in the front-court. Similarly though, Gardner has had success against players in the Slawson mold (think vs Kyle Filipowski earlier this season and vs Paolo Banchero last year).
That said, Furman uses Slawson to initiate its offense a lot, running lots of horn actions and ball screen/dribble hand off actions with him, so potentially adding the length of Dunn would be more reasonable. Shedrick is also a very viable option considering how he does move well for a big guy, could exploit Furman’s lack of size on the other end of the floor, and could limit Slawson going to the basket.
Suffice to say, UVA has the guys to guard Slawson. Largely, it’s about not letting him get hot and forcing Furman to rely on their complementary players. If Beekman can have success against Bothwell, Clark can frustrate Pegues, and UVA’s front-court can limit Slawson, there’s very little to drive a Furman victory, particularly considering that the Paladin’s offense would have to be the driving force in any serious upset bid.
UVA’s offensive scheme vs Furman’s team defense
If there’s a weakness to this Furman team, it’s on the defensive side of the ball. Ranked as the 183rd defense on KenPom, the Paladins can be lazy defensively and lack both the individual defenders and, more importantly, the team-wide commitment and emphasis to be a truly quality NCAA Tournament defense. Maybe they’ll be able to turn things around now that the Paladins have made the NCAA Tournament, but a team doesn’t simply flip a switch and start defending at a high level.
Against Clemson, UVA bullied an undisciplined Tigers defense that lacked sufficient length to bother the Wahoos in their sides and inside triangle offenses. Versus Duke, the Blue Devils’ absurd length, defensive acumen, and relentlessness gave Virginia fits.
How does that apply to Furman? Well, the Paladins are 127 spots lower than Clemson in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, are far smaller and less physical than the Tigers, haven’t played nearly the strength of schedule as Brad Brownell’s squad, and are similarly undisciplined perhaps without some of the motor that made Clemson a (fraudulent) ACC contender this season.
Obviously, comparing Furman and Clemson is comparing apples to oranges. But this is meant to provide some measurable reference point for what should be expected of UVA on offense tomorrow. This Virginia personnel is well-versed in the schemes they run, has plenty of chemistry playing together, boasts high basketball IQ, and has the requisite talent to soundly beat this Furman defense even without making shots from deep.
Furman absolutely does have some decent athletes who, on their own merits, are solid individual on-ball defenders. But Tony Bennett’s offensive scheme forces defenders to be so, so much more than that and to be well-versed as a team guarding actions that his team has mastered. The Paladins don’t have the athleticism of Clemson, let alone Duke, and promptly will need to rely on their players working seamlessly together against tricky offensive schemes that suit UVA’s guys. Put the weakness of Furman’s defense with the relative strengths of Virginia on offense and it’s quite clear that the Wahoos should be expected to put up a lot of points tomorrow.
Jadyen Gardner vs Jalen Slawson
As a microcosm of the above point, tracking how Furman and Slawson specifically handle Jayden Gardner could be a telltale sign for how well the Paladins can stymie Virginia’s offense. Arguably Furman’s best individual defender, Slawson was the 2022 So-Con Defensive Player of the Year and came second in voting this season. He has good hands, can block shots, and can force turnovers with the second highest block rate and the 10th best steal rate in the So-Con.
While Jayden Gardner isn’t typically one to back his man down and try to win solely in the low post, that actually works for predicting Furman’s defensive success tomorrow. Slawson is a playmaker defensively, but he can get caught up trying to make something happen and promptly get lost in the action. With the way that UVA utilizes Gardner as a screener in its sides offense, Slawson is bound to get greedy at times and allow Gardner to either roll to the basket or leak out to the baseline for one of his patented midrange jumpers. In the inside triangle offense, the constant screening on the interior will force Slawson to both help his teammates negate the impact of those picks while also keeping track of Gardner and preventing him from getting to his spots.
If Slawson makes life hard for Gardner, that may very well be a sign that the Paladins have Virginia’s offense figured out. Absolutely, there’s more in UVA’s offensive repertoire than Beekman and Clark simply feeding Gardner. But that’s one way that the Cavaliers could dominate this game (like they did against Clemson) and, if Slawson can negate that impact, the Wahoo backcourt will have to carry a heavier scoring burden, something they can sometimes struggle to do if shots aren’t falling.
Altogether, this is actually a pretty favorable matchup for UVA. Furman’s strengths on offense line up well with Virginia’s defensive strengths. Meanwhile, the Paladins lack the inherent defensive traits that can give this offense fits which ought to allow the Wahoos’ experience, chemistry, and talent to take over.
Going on the record, I’m predicting a 71-60 UVA win.