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How UVA basketball’s return to its traditional offense has the team back on the right track

Analyzing how the shift away from inside triangle and back to mover blocker has this offense back where it needs to be.

Continental Tire Main Event - Virginia v Illinois Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers scored their first field goal in a settled offensive possession 5:39 after the start of regulation against the Clemson Tigers. Not coincidentally so, that was also the first possession of the game that UVA used its mover blocker (or sides) offense. Over the next six settled offensive possessions (when the ‘Hoos didn’t try to score in transition), Virginia ran its sides offense and combined to score 12 points on those first seven possessions (1.71 points per possession), taking a 5-3 deficit and flipping it into a 17-7 advantage.

While the team used its middle triangle offense for those first five minutes and then a collection of spurts throughout the rest of the first half, sides was clearly producing better shots despite UVA not having run it in any significant volume for months. In the first half, UVA scored .966 points per possession as they were clearly getting accustomed to playing mover blocker while Tony Bennett still used middle triangle as a counter.

But, in the second 20-minute period, the Cavaliers nearly used sides on every single possession and, consequently, scored 1.286 PPP on their way to the team’s best offensive performance in weeks.

“We tried to make a few tweaks to our offense,” said freshman guard Isaac McKneely, who scored 12 points on 4-6 shooting against Clemson and played the sides offense throughout his high school career.

He continued, saying that “we ran a little bit more sides tonight. We haven’t run that much this season so we tried to tweak it a little bit. We knew Clemson was going to be physical on our screens and try to bump us off our cuts. We worked really hard the last couple days in practice on sides and I thought it was really flowing. We got off to a little bit of a slow start, but I thought once we got it rolling our offense was clicking and hopefully we can carry that into the next few games.”

Tony Bennett added that “we did a couple different things offensively,” and that, because “right now Ben [Vander Plas] isn’t fully healthy, [as] he’s got some back issues,” the triangle offense isn’t as effective. “We just decided to go back to some of the things we’ve done [in the past] mixed in with the other stuff and I thought that was a good lift. We saw some good, tough movement, hard screens, getting a little bit [of] different kinds of looks.” According to Bennett, that was “the way we needed to play,” in that game.

While Bennett was sure to not make any definitive statements about UVA’s offensive scheming moving forward and implied that the fact that Vander Plas is “not moving great,” is a considerable detriment to the middle triangle offense where having a defense-stretching big playing in the middle is a necessity, the proof is in the pudding that sides (and the counters UVA runs out of it) is what UVA ought to rely on moving forward.

Virginia’s shift to its middle triangle offense back in January with Vander Plas dominating minutes as the stretch big who allowed UVA’s guards to attack the paint worked well for a while. But opponents have caught up and caught on while Vander Plas’ back injury and general struggles shooting the ball (20.7% from three and 26.3% from the free throw line in February) have allowed teams to pack the paint to prevent UVA’s backcourt or Jayden Gardner to work well on the inside. As a result, Virginia had four straight games scoring under 1.0 PPP (adjusted for competition) with poor performances against Louisville (.994), Notre Dame (.939), Boston College (.867), and North Carolina (.992).

Yet, when things looked most dire for UVA and for its offense, Tony Bennett turned back to his tried and trusted sides offense. Popularized by his father Dick Bennett, the sides (or mover blocker) offense has been a staple for the Cavaliers since Bennett arrived in Charlottesville.

While it’s undergone alterations and does have far more counters built in — such as wing ball screens, the ability to switch into a high ball screen offense, and more off-ball action from the bigs — the basics of the scheme have remained the same. The two bigs are the “blockers” who man the elbows of the settled offense, most prominently setting pin down and flare screen for the three guards (or “movers”) to cut off of. It’s a continuity motion offense with rules and built-in actions for players to master over time that can also be player-specific with modifications based on personnel a possible and prominent element of it.

Simplistic in nature, sides is less about scheming wide open shots for players and more of an expectation that UVA will be able to wear down its opponents by gaining a step here and there that can eventually lead to the best possible shot. It’s the offense that is best known for draining the shot clock and methodically working to eventually produce a quality look, relying on the IQ and know-how of the players perhaps even more than the specific skill-sets that they have.

Against Clemson, we saw the experience that UVA’s roster has with sides and the value of a number of the team’s individual player’s skill-sets prove to be particularly prominent. While the Cavaliers definitely required a reasonable adjustment period to get comfortable playing in sides and taking the type of shots it generates, the offense simply flowed so much better than it had over the last few weeks. For the game, Virginia scored an adjusted 1.115 points per possession, the best offensive outing since beating NC State back on February 7th. Mover blocker may not fix some of the limitations that Virginia has offensively, but, for now and likely in postseason play, it’s the set that is most likely to provide UVA’s players the means to produce at the level that suits their significant quality.

How the sides offense can work for this UVA team

Jumpers/drives off pin-downs

The most traditional shot that’s generated out of mover-blocker comes from the typical, nearly simultaneous pin-down screens at each elbow. Exemplified well by the play below, Armaan Franklin comes off a pin-down screen from Ryan Dunn looking for a pass from Reece Beekman, but Franklin’s defender navigates the pick well and stays with him. But, on the other side, another dangerous shooter in McKneely is able to get separation from his defender with a crafty screen from Francisco Caffaro. And, as he tends to do, McKneely uses the screen well and knocks down the open jumper.

That pin-down action can be confusing for defenses to guard especially when the guard is a threat to score. On this play below, Franklin’s defender gets caught in Caffaro’s screen and looks for a switch, dropping down into the paint with Papi to prevent the pocket pass. Unfortunately for Clemson, he seemingly fails to adequately communicate that to PJ Hall who Franklin keeps in the paint with a hesitation before pulling up from the midrange and nailing it as McKneely did.

While not too prominent against Clemson on Tuesday, these actions can be used well to generate open threes for guys like Franklin and McKneely as well. Those typically come with the screens farther on the perimeter, closer to the baseline, and off of wider cuts from the guards.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that the guard coming off the pin-down screen does attack off the dribble and either looks to get to the rim or to dish the ball to the rolling big. Here, Reece Beekman puts his passing skills and basketball IQ on full display, locating the sliver of space for a bounce bass to Gardner who bursts towards the basket after setting the pin-down which got Beekman a step off and forced Hall (Gardner’s defender) to delay his following of Gardner towards the basket. With a tough finish, Gardner draws the and-one with some english.

We see this again, although in a slightly different area, with Clark coming off the Gardner pin-down. As the screen comes but doesn’t create as much space for Clark as it did for Beekman, Kihei takes two dribbles (which is two more than Beekman did) into the paint and promptly puts Hall in no-man’s land with Gardner’s proficiency from the midrange capitalizing on the space the action created.

This is what I’m referring to regarding the personnel being able to suit the scheme. Because of Gardner’s ability from the midrange (which will be on further display a bit later), Clark knows he just has to get Hall to take a step or two in his direction in order to generate an open shot. And sides (and specifically the pin-down screen) allows him to get his defender on his back and be enough of a threat to pull Gardner’s defender towards him.

When defenders try to beat the pin-down by going under it, there are solutions to that approach as well. Here, Beekman’s defender gets lost by his back and forth cutting and settles for slipping under the Vander Plas screen. But, Reece and BVP identify this. So, before catching the ball, Beekman backs out a bit, receives the pass, then uses the well-timed Vander Plas screen to create space for a rare midrange shot from the junior. Without a hand in his face, Beekman knocks it down.

Fades across the key off rising flares into threes

Of course, if a shot isn’t generated off of that individual pin-down and cutting action, the offense continues to try to find that necessary space to get a good shot. Take this play early in the second half where Beekman comes off a Dunn pin-down, takes a dribble as if he’s going to drive, and draws the attention of McKneely’s defender. As he’s supposed to, McKneely fades across the top of the key and Beekman finds him. With a jump stop, a ball fake, and a dribble to his left, the Poca native gets off the open triple.

Normally, UVA likes to have a flare screen from the opposite side big man to produce said open three off the fade. The same thing roughly happens on this play with Clark coming off a pin-down, dribbling towards the paint, and then drawing the help from Franklin (the guy who originally passed the ball to Clark) in order to create space for Franklin to get off the three. Here, Gardner sets a bit of a phantom screen that isn’t necessary because Franklin’s defender is undisciplined and helps to Clark.

This is exactly what sides does to defenses. It can exploit undisciplined defenders and defenses incredibly effectively, especially with the experience that Virginia has. Couple that know-how with the shot and playmaking abilities the Cavaliers have, and it was only a matter of time before UVA’s offense got going enough for Clemson to not be able to hang around.

Back door cuts off baseline flares

There’s also yet another option out of that lone pin-down and curl action with the third guard (who starts on the opposite side of the guard who receives the pass and comes off the pin-down) using a flare screen from his paired blocker to cut towards the hoop.

That’s actually exactly what happened on UVA’s first possession in sides against Clemson. With Beekman coming off the Gardner pin-down, driving towards the paint after catching the ball while Clark faded across the top of the key, Franklin cut towards the baseline with the slipped Dunn flare screen being switched by Hunter Tyson (Franklin’s defender), and the player responsible for switching onto Franklin stuck ball-watching as Beekman fed his teammate for an easy reverse layup.

Again, that’s what this offense does. It exploits any mistake, misstep, or mental error from an opposing defense and trusts that the IQ and talent of the offensive personnel is capable enough to capitalize.

In a big moment in the second half, a very similar play extended UVA’s lead from 10 to 13. Clark comes off the pin down from Gardner, McKneely cuts backdoor off the BVP flare screen while Clark catches the ball, takes one dribble to better his angle for the pass, and puts the ball on a rope for McKneely to catch and finish on the reverse and through contact for the extra point.

When I asked McKneely about playing with Clark in this offense, he emphasized that “Kihei’s just an absolute mastermind. Literally the possession before [that backdoor cut off the flare screen for the and-one], Kihei told me to do that. He said ‘When you go off that screen, just curl to the rim. It’ll be there, I promise,’ and I was like ‘Okay.’ And it was! So, yeah, playing with Kihei is amazing. It seems like he always just finds me in the right spots and, like I said, he’s just a mastermind with the ball. Him and Reece both, playing with them has been a blessing and I’m really thankful to be under them for sure.”

If there was ever a statement to properly portray why sides can work for this team, it’s that. It’s no coincidence that Clark knew that curl to the rim would be open. He’s played in this offense for nearly five years. And, Beekman, to his credit, is a similarly intelligent basketball player who’s now almost completed his third season within the Bennett offense. Incorporate McKneely, who’s high school coach literally learned sides from Tony Bennett and implemented it within his program, and Franklin, who is the type of shooter and cutter who naturally fits well in this scheme, and Virginia’s guards check all the boxes.

Especially having two point guards in Clark and Beekman who can find the shooters in Franklin and McKneely, there are a lot of advantages to playing sides with this backcourt. The pieces are all there amongst those four guys and the combinations that can be created between them provide enough variation to keep defenses on their toes regarding how they need to defend each guy.

Side ball screens allowing guards to attack

Speaking of the value of having Clark and Beekman as initiators and playmakers, something that’s been incorporated into this set since the National Championship season has been the wing empty-backside ball screens that Bennett fell in love with out of the continuity ball screen offense that worked so well for that 2019 group.

With Clark handling the ball in the corner after coming off a previous Dunn pin-down screen, he motions for the freshman to come back to him and set a ball screen. Kihei identifies the space on the baseline, drives it, and then finds a cutting Caffaro who fumbles the pass, but kicks out to the open Dunn as the shot clock expires. Dunn, forced to shoot on not think, cans the triple. Something to watch moving forward.

This element of sides is particularly effective for this team with both Beekman and Clark as guys who can thrive off of these ball screen looks. With how the sides offense is set up, this wing ball screen comes without any other offensive players (and, more importantly, any help defenders) on the same side of the court where the screen is being set. That means, unless the defense plays the screen to absolute perfection, there’s going to be an advantage somewhere.

On the literal next possession on Tuesday, Clark uses a slightly higher Dunn ball screen, attacking high side this time and passing to the cutting Dunn as Hunter Tyson hedges hard to Clark. Dunn catches the ball, recognizes the immediate help, and finds a wide open Taine Murray in the corner. Yeah, the shot missed. But, it was open, and the action meant Dunn was in the perfect inside position to corral the offensive rebound and the second chance layup.

Props to Dunn for a collection of really positive offense plays. This pass is something I didn’t know he had in his wheelhouse.

In a combination of concepts, Clark uses another wing ball screen on this play below. As Clark gets downhill, Beekman fades across the middle of the offense, promptly loses his defender who bites on Clark’s drive, and Kihei finds him for the open triple.

Again, this is why this offense can be so gosh darn dangerous with the right pieces. Beekman knows to mirror Clark’s movement because of the principles of sides and Clemson simply gets lost in it. Having the players who both know where the openings can be and can properly execute when they’re found is the final step and one this UVA offense conquered time after time against the Tigers.

Gardner midranges to keep defenders honest

Of course, when an open shot isn’t generated from those specifically schemed actions, it’s critical for an offense to have the guys who can make plays. That was relatively prominent for the ‘Hoos against Clemson as Jayden Gardner’s midrange game reasserted itself as a central component of this iteration of Virginia’s sides offense. With the shot clock under ten seconds, Beekman catches the ball off the reverse from Clark and uses a slipped flare screen from Vander Plas to attack the basket and then find Gardner for the soft midrange finish.

Next up, with the shot clock winding down once more, Clark comes off a side ball screen but doesn’t find anything immediately open. So, Gardner flashes to the elbow, catches the ball from Clark, gets his defender to bite on the pump-fake because of his midrange acumen, puts the ball on the floor, and then draws one singular step towards him from Armaan Franklin’s defender before dishing to his fellow former transfer for the corner triple.

Again in the final ten seconds of the shot clock, Beekman comes off the Gardner pin-down, recognizes he needs to attack and, with Gardner fading into the short corner, Beekman gets Hall to shuffle towards him before feeding the hot big man for a long two. Not the most efficient shot to end the possession. But that’s the type of play that is required considering that the sides offense can result in late clock situations because it’s a continuity scheme that can run itself in circles if an advantage isn’t gleaned.

Gardner was 3-10 from the midrange against Clemson and 5-13 from the floor. Most of his shots were close to falling and, with some time playing in this offense again, he looked a lot better in the second half. To keep defenses honest when guards come off his pin-downs, Gardner will need to continue to hit those jumpers when his defender tries to help onto the driving guard.

What this means for UVA moving forward

What I’ve detailed here isn’t the entirety of the looks that sides can produce. There’s still a lot more Virginia can get out of this set, such as post touches or high ball screen looks that flow out of sides. But the emphasis here is that the continuous nature of this offense suits these players better now than the inside triangle offense that worked for them in January. UVA’s best players are its guards, and this is the offensive set that best utilizes their specific skill-sets and basketball intelligence while still taking advantage of the more occasional contributions from the front-court.

Sides is by no means a perfect offense. It can turn monotonous and flat if the players aren’t being properly aggressive or if there isn’t sufficient threat from the personnel that forces defenses to help from various places.

Yet, Virginia does have the pieces in the backcourt, has enough of a scoring punch in the front-court, and boasts the requisite experience playing within the system to benefit off of the slivers of space this offense generates. It’s what they should look to rely on moving into postseason play, obviously while also incorporating some other looks in there as well. There is no perfect offensive scheme and there’s no perfect offensive personnel, but the combination of sides and what this UVA offense has going for it should be enough for the Wahoos to be successful in this final stretch of the 2022-2023 season.