The struggles away from home continued for the Virginia men’s basketball team with an underwhelming 76-60 defeat in Raleigh against NC State. The Wolfpack put together a monster 45-20 run in the middle of a game which wasn’t as close as the final 16-point scoring margin suggests. The Cavaliers kept it close early, but offensive struggles paired with an impressive shotmaking display by NC State throughout the game led to another blowout road loss for UVA.
Five takeaways from another disappointing result for Virginia:
A vast shot-making disparity decided this game
Good jump shooting can hide a lot of problems. In the first half, Virginia led 19-15 and seemed in control of the game when they trapped DJ Burns in his own corner and forced a tipped pass out of bounds which left NC State with just one second on the shot clock and an inbounds pass 60 feet from the basket. However, on the inbound, Dennis Parker Jr. caught the ball, took one dribble, and knocked down a three from almost half court as the shot clock expired over Ryan Dunn. The next possession down, DJ Horne nailed a pull-up midrange jumper with a defender right in his face and NC State went on to close the half on a pivotal 20-9 run.
WHAT. A. SHOT.— NC State Men's Basketball (@PackMensBball) January 6, 2024
DPJ from the logo... pic.twitter.com/9YqMGTaVHS
The opposite also holds true: the inability to make open jumpers has a bad way of affecting a team’s whole style of play. In the first half, Virginia shot just 5-17 on jumpers including a putrid 13% (1-8) from three. Their declining confidence made it easier for DJ Burns to stay on the floor, as he wasn’t forced to close out or guard on the perimeter, and also opened things up for the NC State offense as they could push ahead and create looks in semi-transition.
Too many times this season, vast shotmaking disparities have forced the Cavaliers into almost-insurmountable holes. Entering today, UVA averaged just three made shots beyond the arc in their three losses. This isn’t a problem that should continue to recur on a roster featuring the best three-point shooter in the ACC and multiple transfers whose primary role at their previous stop was to score the basketball. Outside of Isaac McKneely, who shot 4-7 from three mostly in garbage time, the Cavaliers made exactly one three in eight attempts. Both of those numbers are too low.
Poor shot selection continues to hurt Virginia
The Cavaliers certainly don’t make it easy for themselves to score the basketball. They entered this game with long twos making up 31% of their field goal attempts, the second-highest mark in the ACC, and just 34% of their attempts coming from three. That second number is inexplicably the third-lowest mark in the ACC for a team with plenty of jump shooting and a very solid 36% three-point percentage for the season.
When effective jump shooters like Isaac McKneely, Andrew Rohde, or Jake Groves catch the ball on an inside-out pass, a semi-contested three-point attempt is a better shot than taking one or two dribbles into a pull-up midrange. Too often, the Cavaliers create small advantages and turn them into bad shots. NC State’s performance this game offers a good model for what a team more willing to hoist threes instead of midrange jumpers can do: the Wolfpack attempted 28 threes to Virginia’s 15 and even though they only made 36% of them, a single hot streak in the early second half was enough to put Virginia away. Good things happen when teams attempt lots of catch-and-shoot threes.
Shortening the rotation backfires for Tony Bennett
The Cavaliers played just seven guys in the first 27 minutes of this game: their starting five along with brief spells of Jake Groves and Taine Murray. Notably, recent freshman sparkplugs Leon Bond and Elijah Gertrude didn’t appear in the regular rotation. Perhaps the decision to stick with so many players for heavy minutes had something to do with Virginia looking fatigued compared to an energetic NC State squad as the game progressed, especially in the second half.
It’s not like a deeper rotation really would have changed things for the Cavaliers, though. Once Bond entered the game with 13 minutes remaining in the second half, he immediately allowed a three on a late closeout, bricked a midrange jumper, and then allowed an and-one to Michael O’Connell all in the span of about 60 seconds. If we trust Tony Bennett as a talent evaluator, perhaps the shortened rotation simply suggests that this Virginia team doesn’t have very many ACC-ready basketball players right now — a sobering but reasonable conclusion to draw for a squad that’s now lost two of its first four ACC games by an average of 19 points.
Virginia’s lack of a true big is apparent once again
Against NC State’s 6’9, 275-pound big man DJ Burns, the Cavaliers had no effective answer. They certainly tried: Tony Bennett inserted Blake Buchanan into the starting lineup for UVA and essentially matched his minutes with Burns, and Virginia threw constant doubles at Burns with their lankiest and most disruptive defender Ryan Dunn. However, it just wasn’t good enough. On the majority of possessions, Burns either worked his way to the basket against Buchanan in single coverage or immediately swung the ball after recognizing a double team to create a wide open three on the back side.
The box score for Burns doesn’t jump off the page — he finished with just six points on six shots in 22 minutes. However, the effect of an inability to guard Burns one-on-one cascaded throughout the game as the space created by devoting additional attention to the big man created additional space for NC State’s jump shooters to heat up. It’s not fair to pin all these struggles on Buchanan, who held up about as well as Virginia could reasonably expect. But how much would Virginia love to have Kadin Shedrick back right about now? Or even just Francisco Caffaro?
Road woes continue for the Cavaliers
Entering today’s contest in Raleigh, Virginia had played five games away from home and emerged with two one-possession victories and three losses by over 20 points. That just hasn’t been the way the Cavaliers play under Tony Bennett; they hadn’t suffered three 20+ point losses over the course of a whole season in over a decade before this year.
This roster bears all the hallmarks of a team which struggles on the road: young, inexperienced, and lacking a true go-to scorer capable of quelling runs and silencing crowds (Reece Beekman is a lot of very good superlatives for this team, but he isn’t that guy). Still, there’s really no excuse for things to be this bad. All season, Virginia’s been unable to respond away from John Paul Jones Arena when punched in the mouth by a hot shooting run by their opponents. Plenty of young teams don’t fall apart on the road with this level of regularity. If tournament play is still something the Cavaliers aspire to succeed in, they absolutely need to sort out their woes away from home.
At least the higher seed hosts the first few rounds of the NIT.