The Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team continued their struggles away from home with a disappointing 66-47 loss at Wake Forest. The offense never recovered from a 1-13 start from the field, settling for inefficient jump shots and failing to knock many of those poor looks down. On the other end, Virginia’s defense held Wake Forest to their lowest scoring total of the season, but hot shooting from guard Hunter Sallis (21 points on 8-13 shooting) and contributions from Boopie Miller and Andrew Carr were more than enough to keep the Cavaliers at arm’s length for most of the second half.
Five takeaways from another one of those blowout road losses which have plagued the ‘Hoos this season:
The offense relies almost solely on Reece Beekman
We’re now over halfway through the season and only two players for the Cavaliers have demonstrated any ability to run the offense effectively as a ball-handler. Even worse, one of them has been sidelined for the past 10 games due to an ankle injury. With Dante Harris absent from the rotation, the load falls entirely on senior Reece Beekman’s shoulders to grease the wheels of a stagnant and uncreative offense as much as possible.
Beekman certainly does his best: he assists on almost 44 percent of Virginia’s baskets while on the court, a ridiculous mark which ranks third in all of Division I according to KenPom. He showed up again today, playing typically elite defense on a variety of Wake Forest’s three-headed monster backcourt (Boopie Miller, Hunter Sallis, and Cameron Hildreth all entered today averaging at least 16 points per game, a mark which would lead UVA) and contributing offensively with a team-best 10 points and four assists — though you’d hope for better efficiency than 3-12 from the field. But in the bigger picture, the burden Virginia places on Beekman might be too much to ask of any single player.
It was telling that late in the first half Tony Bennett left Beekman in the game despite his two fouls. Historically, Bennett avoids putting players at risk of picking up their third foul at almost any cost: last season, UVA players spent a grand total of four minutes and 40 seconds on the floor with two fouls in the first half. But with Virginia down just five late in the first half, Bennett felt the need to re-insert his star point guard, and then made a similar decision to play Beekman with over 16 minutes remaining despite picking up a third foul. That’s how vital he is to any semblance of a functional offense for Virginia.
Jordan Minor could stick in the rotation
Tony Bennett came out of Virginia’s mini-bye week with a surprise in the starting five. Going big against an undersized Wake Forest squad, the Cavaliers started Reece Beekman, Isaac McKneely, and three players 6’8 or taller in Ryan Dunn, Jordan Minor, and Jake Groves.
It wouldn’t be fair to call this insertion of the Merrimack transfer to the starting five an overwhelming success, as the Cavaliers predictably suffered from a lack of ball-handling and started the game with a putrid one made field goal in 13 tries. However, Minor definitely brought some juice and scrappiness which Virginia’s lacked this year. He crashed the glass hard and did a surprisingly good job finding space to receive passes in mover-blocker.
The limitations are still there. Minor still struggles to finish around the rim; Wake Forest big man Efton Reid gave him issues around the hoop after he received the ball, and Minor also fumbled a few passes on the roll. The numbers certainly aren’t pretty: 3-8 from the field and 3-5 from the line with two ugly misses. However — and this might be more of a reflection of Virginia’s lack of frontcourt talent than anything else — against teams with smaller big men like Wake Forest, Minor might be one of the best options at big for the Cavaliers.
Shot selection remains a persistent issue for the ‘Hoos
Honestly, this section could be a copy-paste from the five takeaways in Virginia’s blowout loss against NC State. The Cavaliers continue to settle for too many bad midrange jump shots off the dribble, fail to get to the rim in any consistent manner, and seem hamstrung by a commitment to plodding and methodical offense. Virginia attempted 31 midrange jump shots today — over half of their total field goal attempts. With the way basketball is played in 2024, that should never happen.
In 20 minutes UVA has taken 4 shots at the rim, 4 from three, and 16 from the midrange.— Zach Carey (@Zach_Carey_) January 13, 2024
That is how you lose basketball games!
As frustrating as it can be to watch the Cavaliers slow it down and pass up good opportunities to push the ball ahead in transition, a commitment to half-court offense hasn’t historically meant poor offensive performance for Tony Bennett’s teams at UVA. From 2014 to 2019, Virginia ranked in the top 50 of KenPom offensive efficiency every single season running this exact same sides system. They ranked 130th entering today, a number that will almost certainly decline following today’s game.
Shot selection isn’t the only problem with Virginia right now, but it’s a pretty major one. It would be nice to see Tony Bennett try to mix things up a little bit — maybe allowing the ‘Hoos to push in transition more often, maybe letting Elijah Gertrude play more to try and create some rim pressure — but frankly the bulk of the blame seems to fall on the roster’s personnel right now.
And even if the Cavaliers were getting looks from better spots on the floor, another issue remains:
Virginia can’t make shots
The Cavaliers have only one jump shooter who forces defenses to change the way they defend: Isaac McKneely. And after a scorching hot start to the season, he’s cooled off a bit as defenses key in on taking away his space to get open threes off and force him off the dribble and inside the arc. IMac finished today just 2-10 with some uncharacteristically poor misses, like a catch-and-shoot three late in the first half which didn’t hit the rim. His shots are off line right now and it’s clear that he’s out of rhythm.
However, it’s not fair to pin all of Virginia’s jump shooting troubles on McKneely. There’s no reason the team as a whole should be so incapable of knocking down jumpers. Andrew Rohde, Jake Groves, and Reece Beekman should all be more credible threats to space the floor than they are right now. Leon Bond III’s hot midrange shooting in non-conference play hasn’t extended to ACC play. And players like Dunn, Minor, and Buchanan are non-threats right now.
The percentages weren’t good: 8 of 31 (26%) from the midrange and 4-12 (33%) from three. But the percentages aren’t the whole problem. They’re partially a symptom of how non-threatening the Virginia offense is right now; it’s impossible to shoot the ball efficiently without creating advantages by pushing in transition, drawing double teams, or beating defenders off the dribble. And with half the season gone and the same issues still persisting, it’s possible that these offensive struggles might just be endemic to this iteration of the Cavaliers.
It’s getting late early for the Cavaliers
Virginia entered the day as the 10th team out in Joe Lunardi’s early bracketology rankings. That number will definitely plummet following a 19-point road defeat. The Cavaliers are now 2-3 in ACC play despite facing the easiest schedule in the conference so far, have lost every true road game they’ve played, and have the metrics of a squad well outside NCAA tournament contention regardless of whether you look at descriptive metrics like NET or predictive ones like KenPom or Bart Torvik.
The season’s halfway over: it’s not too early to worry about a paltry tournament résumé. The vibes of this team are not good right now, and they’re dangerously close to running out of time to turn things around. With the way things are shaping up, Virginia might need big performances against blue bloods UNC and Duke late in the season just to keep their chances for making the NCAA Tournament alive. For now, though, even a home win over Virginia Tech on Wednesday feels like a risky proposition.