After an NIT season a year ago, it is nice to see the Virginia Cavaliers back in the NCAA Tournament this year. The ‘Hoos have played just one NCAA Tourney game since winning the championship. That one game was impacted by a Covid outbreak within the team. The team arrived at the arena hours before tipoff, without having practiced in a week. For a team that relies on execution and focus rather than individual talent, this was a terrible situation.
This year, there should be no issues with Covid, but they do have a tough opponent. Furman ranks 89th on KenPom, roughly equivalent to Wake Forest, who Virginia handled with relative ease back in January. That January Wahoo team is not the same as the current team, and not just because of Ben Vander Plas’ injury.
In January, the Wahoos averaged 1.15 points per possession. Since then, it’s 1.02 points per possession. Some of that is a couple of bad games, including the ACC Tournament Final loss to Duke (0.80 ppp). But overall, the offense just hasn’t looked as good as it did early in the season. That will have to turn around if Virginia is going to make a run in this tournament. And with the relatively favorable draw, this is the time for Virginia to get back to what they were doing earlier this season when they looked like one of the top teams in the nation.
Furman is a veteran team, and one that bucks the trends in college basketball. Save for one guy, everybody here started their career at Furman. That one guy is Carter Whitt, and if that name is familiar, it’s because he’s a transfer from Wake Forest. In 27 minutes, across two games (one start) against Virginia, Whitt scored one point.
Furman is led by a big three of power forward Jalen Slawson (SoCon player of the year), shooting guard Mike Bothwell (leading scorer in SoCon) and point guard JP Pegues (second in conference in assists). Slawson is second on the team in scoring, first in rebounds, second in assists, first in steals and first in blocks. He’s their best shooter as well. Listed at 6’7” 215, this seems like a job for Ryan Dunn. He won’t start, but he should be off the bench soon and should play big minutes.
Slawson is too quick for Jayden Gardner. And he’s likely too big for Armaan Franklin.
Bothwell is a beast getting into the lane. He shoots a lot of free throws, and makes them.
What the Paladins do not have is size, especially up front. At 6’9” 215, Garrett Hien starts at the five, but Slawson is often the biggest guy on the court. Also, Hien is largely a perimeter player on offense.
This is a very poor closeout on the part of the Chattanooga defense. Virginia will be better. That is pretty much Hien’s game. He can shoot, and he can finish inside.
Pegues gets into the paint and finds the big man for the layup. Notice that when the play begins, Hien is the only Paladin on the interior. Check out the previous highlight of Hien’s three-pointer; there’s nobody at all inside. Four-out or five-out, that’s their offense. Spread the floor and use ball screens and dribble-drives to get into the paint, either for the finish or to kick to open shooters. They shoot a ton of threes (13th in three point rate nationally), though not very well (159th in three point shooting).
What they really want to do is get out in transition. Although they are 124th in adjusted tempo, they are 51st in average offensive possession time (Virginia is 343rd).
That’s Bothwell to Slawson for the dunk. You can’t see it in the clip, but this fast break begins with good defense from Bothwell. Bothwell is a solid defender. Slawson is an outstanding defender. But as a team, this is not a good defense.
Here, our old friend Casey Morsell knocks down his second early triple against Furman earlier this year. Morsell comes off a pin-down screen, opening up enough space to get off a clean look. We see very similar looks from the Wahoos, and should see plenty of that in this game. Whether it is Armaan Franklin or Isaac McKneely getting those looks, the ‘Hoos need to do a better job of knocking down those shots than they have been the past few weeks.
Furman’s defense is also vulnerable to cuts.
Hien gets caught ball-watching. His man cuts and gets a layup out of it.
And because they lack size, they can be beaten by bigger players in the post.
Hien is off the floor in this case, leaving Slawson on NC State’s 6’9” 275 lb DJ Burns. Virginia doesn’t have a 275 pound big man, but Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro both have huge size advantages in this game, especially when Hien is off the floor.
The downside to that size advantage is that if Furman goes small, then one of Virginia’s big men would have to guard on the perimeter. That is not a matchup Virginia is going to win. And in that case, there really isn’t anybody you can “hide” Shedrick on, because they can all shoot. Every Paladin who saw consistent minutes this year has attempted at least 40 three pointers. None of them are knock-down shooters, but they are all capable.
This is another game where Ben Vander Plas’ absence will be missed. BVP can credibly guard on the perimeter, but also gives a matchup problem on the inside on offense. Without him, Virginia lacks that flexibility. So does Tony match-up and go small with Hien off the floor?
The small lineup for Tony in this game would likely be Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Ryan Dunn, and Jayden Gardner. That lineup is +23 points in 28 minutes. Most of that is over the past few games with Ben Vander Plas injured. That lineup has so much quickness and athleticism.
This is just one example from the ACC Semifinal against Clemson. Just a thing of beauty. The ball never touches the floor. One pass after another, leading to a layup.
With Hien in the game, there is a different problem for Tony Bennett and the Wahoos. Francisco Caffaro has started the past three games for the Wahoos, but what is his role in this game? Furman doesn’t have an interior presence or a back-to-the-basket scorer. Caffaro is a banger, but he isn’t a rim protector. He has one block all season. Kadin Shedrick has 39.
Against a team that wants to spread the floor and drive to the rim, having a rim protector can be huge.
Mamadi Diakite moved into the starting lineup for the second round game in 2019 and had 16 blocks over the next five games. Diakite replaced Jack Salt, who played just two minutes in that second round matchup against Oklahoma, who had little size and ran a lot of four- and five-out. Against Purdue, who did have size, Salt played 34 minutes and had a huge impact on the game. Finding the right matchups for the right opponent matters.
Against this type of offense, having an eraser in the paint means the perimeter defenders don’t need to leave their assignment to help as often. That means fewer open threes for the opposition and can lead to an offense forcing things if they can’t get the shots they want.
Look, this is a game that Virginia should win. Unlike the Ohio game two years ago, there aren’t any outside distractions, like a Covid-19 quarantine, impacting the team. What is impacting the team is poor play. Although they got things together enough to string together four straight wins before the Duke loss, they still don’t look like the team we saw earlier in the season. Shots still aren’t dropping, be it three pointers, free throws and even layups.
This Furman team can score. They’ve been playing together for years, and they know what they are capable of. With the struggles Virginia has had offensively of late, getting into a shootout with the Paladins is not an option. That means Virginia’s defense has to be sound, but keeping the ball out of the paint against Furman is tough. And it often means living with some open threes. The Paladins don’t need everybody to be on from outside. Even just one or two guys bombing away from deep could be enough to keep the Pack Line off-balance. That would put a lot of pressure on the Wahoo offense to keep up with a very good Furman offense.