This team is very much in progress and that’s okay
We knew that this team was going to be far from a finished product heading into the season. Maybe not to the extent of dropping the season opener at home to Navy, but still, there were always going to be bumps in the road as this team grows.
Before truly diving into this game, it’s critical to remember that early season struggles are not a foreign thing for this program. Last year’s squad lost to a very mediocre San Francisco team in the second game of the season yet later went on to win the ACC.
The 2016 team lost to George Washington in the second contest of the season and then proceeded to finish second in the ACC and make a run to the Elite Eight.
The 2014 Wahoos fell to VCU in their second outing and later lost to Green Bay and, shortly thereafter, to Tennessee by 25 points.
Non-conference play gives Virginia an opportunity to struggle, make adjustments, and experiment before the ACC picks up.
Are there a number of flaws that will need to be addressed or at least lessened for this team to reach its potential? Yes. Are there limitations on this team’s potential that mean this probably isn’t a national contender type of team? Yes.
But, at the end of the day, this will more than likely turn out to be one of, if not this team’s worst performance of the season against a team that executed well and is built perfectly to beat it. This isn’t a Virginia team that should be contending on the national stage. But, with time to mesh together, a talented roster, and the always reliable Tony Bennett mid-season growth inducing pixy dust, this team still has the chance to be very good.
Navy shoots lights out as Virginia’s defense still needs work
Partially as a result of Virginia’s defensive rotations being slow and a bit disjointed for much of the first half, the Midshipmen shot the lights out from behind the arc for much of the game. Finishing at 11-21 on the night, Navy relied on its perimeter presence to get out to a first half lead.
Hot shooting from Sean Yoder (3-3 from three, 6-7 from the field) and John Carter Jr. made life incredibly difficult for an obviously still-gelling Virginia defense. While the ‘Hoos tightened the screws in the second half and only let up 24 points in the final 20 minutes of play, the ease with which Navy put points on the board in the first half is concerning for when the ‘Hoos play tougher competition.
That said, the ‘Hoos do tend to struggle against small ball teams who can get going from deep. It’s in the nature of the pack line defense and is by no means specific to this group of Wahoos. The issue for this group is that it doesn’t quite have the lineup versatility of previous Bennett teams.
Hopefully for Bennett and company, the first half was more so a result of first game jitters and players getting accustomed to playing together in a game setting rather than an indication of further struggles to come. The second half improvement would indicate as such, but there should still be lingering doubts about this roster’s ability to match up when opponents go small.
The rotation is already narrowed down
Coming into the season there was optimism that with just ten scholarship players on the roster, all ten would have plenty of opportunities to establish themselves. Yet, against Navy, the ‘Hoos rolled out a seven-man rotation of the most experienced players on the roster. Granted, Taine Murray did get two minutes of action in the first half while Carson McCorkle played a minute due to foul trouble.
Yet, coming off the first game, the staff doesn’t seem to yet trust Murray, McCorkle, or Igor Milicic Jr. to contribute for this team. That’s a shame considering how each of those guys is a higher ceiling option than Kody Stattmann and, especially when the starters aren’t hitting shots, those guys could provide much needed secondary production.
As it stands, it appears that this team will be heavily reliant on its starters both in terms of minutes played and production. Sure, more guys could work themselves into the mix as the season goes on. But, for now, there is a dearth of playable depth on this roster.
There were flashes of really encouraging play
Despite all the disappointments and frustrations, there still was a good deal of encouraging play against Navy. Jayden Gardner proved his scoring prowess and displayed his never-dying motor, while Kadin Shedrick was incredibly sound defensively and made countless plays blowing up ball screens as a hard hedger, and Reece Beekman stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, six steals, six assists, five rebounds, and just one turnover.
While he passed up too many shots and missed too many of the threes he took, Kihei Clark had his moments as well as he scored 12 points and did well to slot into a complementary role alongside Beekman. Armaan Franklin didn’t do so hot offensively, but was still a pest defensively as he finished with three steals and a blocked shot.
There seems to be real potential in ball screens with Beekman and Gardner and the Wahoo coaching staff has done well to adjust certain sets to benefit this roster’s personnel.
Then, the defense was much sounder in the second half despite giving up a few too many offensive rebounds in key moments. Navy just made more plays down the stretch.
Near to no threat from the perimeter
What plagued the ‘Hoos and likely determined that this was a bummer of a bad loss rather than a win grasped from the jaws of defeat was Virginia’s inability to hit threes.
Franklin — who was brought into the program to stretch defenses and make difficult shots — finished the night 2-11 from the floor and 1-7 from behind the arc while Clark shot 2-7 from deep. Stattmann did knock down his one long ball early in the game, but didn’t provide any sort of offensive production after that.
Those struggles along with the fact that three guys who are likely three of the team’s best shooters — Carson McCorkle, Taine Murray, and Igor Milicic Jr. — only played a combined three minutes. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of the staff for not playing those guys. Rather, just the fact that they aren’t getting minutes means that there is a much limited threat on the perimeter for the ‘Hoos.
Without that ability to generate some easy points from perimeter shot-making, the offense struggled for long stretches as the ‘Hoos were forced to keep grinding on the interior.
It’s unlikely that Franklin in particular shoots this poorly moving forward, so there will be some adjustment to the mean in terms of perimeter shooting. But, one of the quintessential issues that was obvious for this offense heading into the season has already reared its ugly head in game one and there’s no easy fix or answer especially when there was so much sloppy play as Virginia turned the ball over fourteen times.
All in all, this game stunk. But the ‘Hoos have a chance to turn things around quickly with Radford coming to town on Friday before Virginia hits the road to try and get back on track for real against Houston in Texas next Tuesday.