Virginia basketball isn’t known for their offense.
Over the years, Tony Bennett made a name for himself through the lockdown Pack Line defense, inherited from his father Dick. Many wins entailed wars of attrition in which the Virginia Cavaliers outlasted their opponents in a slow-paced, defensive slugfest. So-called “modern” basketball enthusiasts expressed frustration in Virginia’s “ugly”, defensive-minded style of basketball, viewing it as an outdated return to the archaic game of their forefathers.
In reality, Tony Bennett’s best teams sported a beautiful, meticulously-crafted offense — also popularized by Dick Bennett — that catered to their team strengths and eventually paved the way to the national championship. The base, mover-blocker (or “sides”) offense enabled former point guards London Perrantes and Ty Jerome to control games by creating off of flare screens and pin downs; it opened up sharpshooters Joe Harris and Kyle Guy for numerous three-point looks on the wings; and it even created post-up opportunities for big-men Mike Tobey and Mamadi Diakite.
The basic offense consists of two blockers — the big-men whose primary role is to set screens — and three movers — the guards who flow off of the screens set by the blockers. To learn the intricacies and rules of the offense, I’d recommend reading the detailed write-up on “Sides” from UVA basketball blogger “Cuts From the Corner.”
In the last three years, Virginia’s struggled mightily on offense. The sets that used to work have regressed, forcing Bennett to go back to the drawing board. Although the ‘Hoos have strung together three straight wins, this season, the Cavaliers rank 176th in the nation in offensive efficiency according to KenPom, ranking 14th in the ACC and sitting barely behind Louisville.
What’s wrong with Virginia’s offense? I’ll touch on a few reasons why the ‘Hoos offense hasn’t been humming like it once did, and provide some of my own solutions for how they could fix it:
Besides having capable jump-shooters, quality screen-setting is the most important element in the mover-blocker offense.
Kyle Guy didn’t need much space to bury three-balls, but in this play, former UVA player turned assistant coach Isaiah Wilkins sets a picture-perfect pin-down screen for Guy, using a wide, strong base to impede the defender pursuing Guy.
Contrast that with this pin down screen attempt by Jake Groves against Wisconsin.
It was still early in the shot clock, but a strong pin-down here would’ve given Beekman a window to pull a three-point shot or drive into the lane as his defender rushed to close out on him. Little things like this go a long way in basketball. The last few years, Bennett’s “blockers” haven’t done their job well enough, making it difficult for Virginia to guarantee open three-point looks against athletic, pressure defenses.
Although he wasn’t the most talented big man, former Virginia center Jack Salt earned substantial minutes through his picture perfect screen-setting.
Salt positioned himself around the elbow, before quickly maneuvering in the way of Ty Jerome’s defender as Jerome popped out to the wing, giving Jerome just enough time to fire off and bury a three. Textbook stuff from Salt.
Jordan Minor’s emergence over the last few games has added a much needed layer in the offense. Minor is far and away Virginia’s best screen-setter. His sturdy, 240 pound frame certainly helps, as he has a naturally stronger base than other forwards like Jake Groves and Ryan Dunn. One individual’s competency doesn’t solve the entire problem. Minor’s made a bigger impact in ball-screens, opening up driving lanes for Reece Beekman and scoring at times off the roll. He’s helped mover-blocker a bit, but not enough to move the needle on an offense that needs to evolve.
It is worth noting that in addition to weaker screens, Virginia’s “movers,” the guards, haven’t done the best job of coming off of screens. In general, effective off-ball movement has declined in the last few years, with players lacking purpose in utilizing the screens. Kyle Guy was the best off-ball player that Virginia’s ever had and, unfortunately, Virginia’s current sharpshooter Isaac McKneely hasn’t demonstrated the same ability to create openings off of screens thus far in his career.
Great screen-setting is irrelevant if you can’t make shots.
In the last three seasons, the Cavaliers have shot 32.3%, 35.0%, and so far this year 35.7% from three-point range. From 2016-2019, the team’s lowest three-point average was 38.3% in 2018. The NCAA did extend the line a few feet backwards in 2020, but others quickly adjusted, while Virginia’s regressed significantly from three-point land.
Without going into detail on individual players, Virginia hasn’t really hit on knock-down three-point shooters the last few seasons. In terms of high school recruiting, players such as Carson McCorkle, Casey Morsell, and Taine Murray haven’t panned out to extreme degrees, and there have been misses on the trail. In the transfer portal, several players that Virginia brought in as potential shooters performed below expectations; including Ben Vander Plas, Armaan Franklin, and even Andrew Rohde this season.
Isaac McKneely is the exception. As a pure shooter, he’s already shown signs of his potential. Halfway through the 2023-24 season, McKneely’s shooting 46.5% from three, good for top ten amongst all qualified players in Division 1.
His numbers glow on the stats sheets, but Virginia fans have witnessed him struggle against tougher competition. In the Cavalier’s five losses, McKneely’s made just 6 threes on 18 attempts (33.3%) compared to 40/81 (49.4%) in their 14 wins. Not only is he hitting fewer threes in Virginia’s losses, but he’s also attempting threes at a much lower rate.
Wisconsin laid out the blueprint on how to limit McKneely, and therefore Virginia’s offense as a whole. The play below shows McKneely’s only attempted three of the entire game.
Although he nails the shot, this play exemplifies how difficult it was for McKneely to even get a shot off from distance. Wisconsin’s Max Klesmit, a 6’4” guard wearing number 11, face-guarded McKneely for most of the game, chasing him around every screen and preventing any clean looks. Since McKneely’s proven to be Virginia’s only serious threat from deep, Memphis, Notre Dame, and others have followed this same blueprint.
In order to solve the issues at hand, Bennett will need to get creative, designing some new sets and drawing up actions to get McKneely open looks from three, branching outside of the basic actions in Mover-Blocker.
I’m not here to claim that Tony Bennett hasn’t made adjustments on offense. He’s sampled many different lineups and incorporated several new offenses (most notably including inside triangle and some high ball screen looks) to try and spark offensive production the last few seasons.
However, as other programs find continued offensive success with similar levels of talent and roster turnover, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what’s worked for some of those schools, and see if certain stylistic elements could be incorporated into Virginia’s playbook.
Arguably the best example of sustained offensive excellency over the last seven years from a non-traditional blue blood program belongs to Matt Painter’s Purdue Boilermakers.
Purdue’s current center — the 7’4 Canadian Zach Edey — is a generational college player, but Purdue has thrived on offense with many different roster iterations, while recruiting at a similar level to Virginia.
Take a look at this clip of a simple offensive action that Purdue popularized a few years back. It’s called a Zoom action — a simple three man play involving a pin down screen, followed by a dribble-hand off near the top of the key (Check out HoopVision68 on Youtube who makes fantastic college basketball analysis videos to learn more). This unique action opened up extensive space all season for Purdue’s sharpshooters — Ryan Cline and Carsen Edwards — to square up in rhythm for easy three-point shots.
Once defenses began to familiarize themselves with the action, Painter added a few wrinkles to spice things up, leading to easy baskets on backdoor cuts and fake hand-offs.
These are the types of simple actions that could free up Isaac McKneely. As ‘Hoos fans have seen, McKneely needs just a sliver of space to gather the ball and elevate, and more often than not the shot is going in. And UVA’s inside triangle offense runs on very similar concepts, it just tends to over-prioritize individual creation that leads to bad midrange jumpers.
When discussing modern basketball offenses, it’s impossible to ignore heavy ball-screen concepts, the trademark of many NBA teams today. Effective ball-screen concepts create advantageous match-ups for point guards, forcing defenders into “pick your poison” situations.
Over the last two years, Shaka Smart’s Marquette squad has emerged as a powerhouse through a revamped offensive system, incorporating NBA-like spacing. Their Wooden Award candidate point guard, Tyler Kolek, spearheads the offense, utilizing high-ball screens to generate consistent, quality shots.
If you think this looks like an incredibly simple action, well you’re right. This is just one option in Marquette’s “Flow” offense, in which the forward sets a ball screen for Tyler Kolek on the empty side of the court, essentially creating a two-man game where Kolek can either attack the hoop, pass it back to the screener, or kick it out to a shooter in the corner/wing.
Sometimes, the simplest choice can be the best choice.
Reece Beekman is a proficient decision-making point guard, capable of finishing in the paint, dumping off passes to rollers, and kicking the ball out for an open three when the defense collapses. Virginia generates their best offense with Beekman operating off of screens. Now that Minor has established himself as Virginia’s best screener, the ‘Hoos should run concepts similar to teams like Marquette — or even 2019 Virginia who ran a simple continuity ball screen/flow offense — in order to simplify things and maximize their team’s strengths.
Mover-Blocker is a solid offense, but a few adjustments within the offense, and experimenting with some new concepts could improve the Cavalier offense, getting them back on track as a legitimate tournament team.