Three reasons Virginia’s familiar roster has reached new heights this season

Domingo 01 de Enero del 2023

Three reasons Virginia’s familiar roster has reached new heights this season

Better offensive shot selection and defensive growth have been key for Virginia’s hot start

Better offensive shot selection and defensive growth have been key for Virginia’s hot start

In their twelfth game of the 2022-23 season, Virginia made light work of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: buoyed by a 25-0 run spanning the first and second halves, the ‘Hoos climbed to 10-2 in a convincing 18-point victory over Josh Pastner’s outmatched squad. The Cavaliers comfortably sit in the top 25, seem like a shoo-in for an NCAA tournament berth, and stand out as contenders for the ACC title.

Through twelve games last year, Virginia sat at 7-5 after an equally lopsided ACC result — this one a 17-point defeat at home against a mediocre Clemson roster that failed to make the NCAA tournament field. The ‘Hoos had looked hapless against Houston in a blowout loss and dropped a pair of games against James Madison and Navy; it was a low-water mark for the program in the post-national-championship era.

So what’s changed? Not the players. Virginia trotted out the exact same starting lineup of Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner, and Kadin Shedrick at Georgia Tech yesterday that they did a year ago against Clemson. The Cavaliers rank 12th nationally in KenPom’s minutes continuty metric, with over 70 percent of the team’s minutes this season being played by the same players as last year.

Instead, the players have simply gotten better. Sure, there have been new additions — two key ones have been key contributors to the team’s scorching start — but most of this team’s growth can be chalked up to internal improvement. In three specific areas, the ‘Hoos have made marked leaps that have vaulted them from a mediocre ACC squad to a legitimate national contender; they won’t be a favorite in March, but they look good enough to at least make the second weekend, which is a far cry from where they stood last season.

Improved three-point shooting

Last year’s offense felt like pulling teeth at times, largely due to its total inability to buy a three-point basket. It was an absolute culture shock to go from one of the most talented shooting teams Tony Bennett’s ever had to the 2021-22 roster. That 2020-21 team had four players who shot above 38 percent from three on at least two attempts per game: Trey Murphy, Tomas Woldetensae, Sam Hauser, and Jay Huff. The 2021-22 squad had zero, and they didn’t really have anyone close.

The result? A team that shot very few threes and made very few threes. They finished the season 340th in three-point rate and 247th in three-point percentage. Less than 30 percent of their field goal attempts were threes, and less than 33 percent of those threes went in the basket. They finished seventeen games with fewer than five made triples. That’s putrid.

This year, the ‘Hoos have seen a return to form from beyond the arc. While they’ve been frustratingly inconsistent at times, their highs blow last year’s team out of the water. And things were different right out the gate. Virginia’s single-game high in three-pointers made in 2021-22 was 10. In their first game of 2022-23, they made 11. In their second game, they made 13.

And in a funny twist, their success hasn’t been thanks to their two major offseason additions whose primary role was to knock down threes: Ben Vander Plas and Isaac McKneely. McKneely has shot just 34.8% on 3.8 threes per game; Vander Plas has been even colder, shooting only 31% on 3.5 threes per game.

Instead, the positive improvement from beyond the arc has come from three players who oftentimes shouldered the lion’s share of the blame for last season’s putrid three-point performance: Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, and Armaan Franklin. All three are current members of that “good shooter” club that boasted Huff, Hauser, Murphy, and Woldetensae in 2020-21 and no members in 2021-22.

Sure, it’s been rough at times as the ‘Hoos seem to go cold too easily for an apparently elite jump shooting team. But Virginia’s three-point attempt rate and field goal percentage have taken significant leaps. This year, they’re attempting threes on 37.5% of their possessions — middle of the pack, instead of bottom of the barrel — and making 36.7% of those attempts, a very solid clip that ranks third in the ACC.

Getting to the line

Another key improvement that’s vaulted the Virginia offense to the top of efficiency rankings is their newfound ability to get to the line. By and large, the offense has simply started taking more good shots and less bad ones, and free throws are the most efficient shot in basketball. Their free-throw rate of 0.46 — meaning they attempt a free throw for approximately every two field goal attempts — ranks ninth in the NCAA.

Again, the biggest leaps have come from the players who were already on the roster, especially Virginia’s corps of big men. Kadin Shedrick and Jayden Gardner in particular stand out for playing more physically around the basket and attacking contact to get to the line. While Shedrick’s been inconsistent of late, he’s averaging 6 free throws per 40 minutes, up from 4.7 last year. Gardner’s taken an even larger step: he’s at 6.6 free throws per 40, up from 4.2 last season as he appears finally acclimated to ACC-level physicality.

Admittedly, these numbers are probably a bit inflated: the Cavaliers have led down the stretch in quite a few close games, and as a result been gifted free throws due to intentional fouls. These aren’t indicative of improvement in getting to the line, but improvement as a team in general; after all, last season it was too often the Cavaliers forced to intentionally foul down the stretch and hope for misses at the line.

However, the improvement is so striking that there has to be some signal. The Cavaliers ranked 247th in free-throw rate last year, and rank ninth this year. They’re going to the basket more frequently and more physically, even with their most athletic slasher playing injured for the last few games.

Defensive improvement across the board

Tony Bennett insisted last year that a year of development together would turn this squad into a cohesive defensive unit, and he’s been proven right. At times in 2021-22 — those moments where Jayden Gardner got yanked early for missing a defensive rotation or Armaan Franklin got beat off the dribble to the basket again or Kadin Shedrick picked up another stupid foul jumping for an impossible block — it seemed like even the defensive savant Tony Bennett might not be able to round this group into UVA-defense form. But a summer of practice together has forged another classic Virginia defense from this group.

Sure, there are still those moments of frustration occasionally. And this team’s lack of a truly elite wing defender a la DeAndre Hunter (no, Ryan Dunn doesn’t count — at least not yet) prevents them from entering the pack-line Hall of Fame. But the growth of a lineup that really only boasted two plus athletes in Reece Beekman and Kadin Shedrick into one of the NCAA’s top defensive units has been impressive.

The Cavaliers are up to 19th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency from 59th last year, and they’ve hung their hat on that end of the floor when their offense has abandoned them. Strong defensive play have won Virginia games against inferior opponents when their offense has abandoned them, like against James Madison and Florida State. And flashes of individual defensive brilliance, particularly from Reece Beekman, cemented victories in two marquee matchups against Michigan and Illinois.

Statistically, the improvement hasn’t been a massive leap anywhere; instead, it’s been a flurry of small improvements across the board. Virginia is turning opponents over a little bit more, allowing them to make shots at the rim a little bit less, preventing them from grabbing offensive rebounds slightly more effectively, forcing them to take more unassisted shots and recording blocks and steals more often. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a starting five that’s had a full season to develop as a unit, and a stellar defensive coach who gets the most out of his players. Virginia’s defensive growth isn’t eye-popping, but it’s won them a few games this year and will certainly win them a few more.

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