(Image – AP Photo – Jessica Hill)
Welp. After a world-beating performance on Wednesday, the Wahoos came back to the earth with a disappointing showing against San Francisco on Black Friday. With such an outing come my first “Five Takeaways” of the season.
This isn’t as big a deal as it seems
This was a bad game all around. The game plan was poor, the in game coaching adjustments were suspect, and the on court decision making and execution left a lot to be desired. Nonetheless, this team is still very talented and there’s no reason that this game should derail this season.
If anything, this will serve as an early wake up call for a squad that may have been feeling the hype a bit too much and needs to grow as a unit. Remember, of the ten guys who played today and appear set to make up the rotation this season, four of them didn’t play last season, and one — McKoy — sat the bench for the majority of the year.
For perspective, good teams under Bennett have dealt with poor performances early in the season in the past. In 2013-2014, Virginia lost to VCU in the second game of the year, then lost to Green Bay in early December, and were blown out by Tennessee 87-52. That team won the ACC regular season and tournament championships and made it to the Sweet Sixteen. In 2015-2016, the ‘Hoos lost to George Washington in the second game of the season but still went on to finish 2nd in the ACC and make it to the Elite Eight.
This game exposed this squad’s suspected weaknesses. But, that was going to happen eventually. Fortunately, that happened today and not in early March.
A soft offense is stymied
On Wednesday we saw an offensive explosion from the Wahoos. They drained fifteen three-pointers and appeared unbeatable as their new five-out offense resulted in quick ball movement and increased spacing that suited their offensive talent. On Friday, however, the offense was stagnant from the jump as San Francisco ran UVA’s shooters off the line. The ‘Hoos also failed to drive the ball to the rim consistently, and, even when they made it there, struggled to convert.
This outcome does raise significant concerns with this offense. There doesn’t appear to be anyone who can take the ball to the hoop with any sort of effective consistency, and, when guys do, they fail to recognize the collapsing defense and turn into offensive black holes while teammates wait around the perimeter.
I’ll expand on it in an upcoming story, but this new five-out offense doesn’t fit this team’s backcourt talent. Sure, it works well for getting perimeter touches for guys like Murphy, Hauser, and Huff. But since those guys are ineffective slashers, the onus is on the guards to penetrate to score and then kick.
Realistically, the only guy who has done that effectively so far has been Reece Beekman. Kihei Clark has struggled to penetrate without screening help and appears lost once he gets into the paint. Casey Morsell has a one track mind to get to the hoop but he lacks the height and skill to finish well. Tomas Woldetensae is actually a decent passer off drives but really only can do so when someone is closing out hard. Kody Stattmann lacks the quickness to get by anyone. Frankly, Trey Murphy might be this team’s best hope as a slasher, but he still needs to add strength and a bit more burst to be that guy.
All in all, I think Bennett needs to get back to the mover blocker and continuity ball screen offenses that won him a national championship. Sure, it’s nice to have another, versatile set to go to when appropriate. But this offensive performance displayed how this new offense is poorly suited to this squad and how these guards need help getting separation.
The defense is an issue
Every single year in the preseason press conferences Tony Bennett makes a comment along the lines of “the defense isn’t there yet.” And, every year, we laugh it off because this is a Tony Bennett coached team playing the packline defense. But, now, it’s apparent that the comments from Bennett and Jason Williford weren’t just high-minded complaints of imperfection. Rather, it is obvious that this team really does have a long way to go for the defense to be comparable to Bennett defenses of the past decade.
The interior defense has been suspect at best, and USF exploited the athletic deficiencies of Sam Hauser and Jay Huff. Additionally, the backcourt struggled to stick with the playmakers of USF. On top of that, the team’s best defender, Casey Morsell, didn’t play in the second half. Morsell has been poor on the offensive end. But the way he guarded Zane Martin on Wednesday would suggest that this team needs him on the defensive end.
The losses of Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite never appeared as impactful as they do now. Nobody in this front court is a defensive leader and that’s incredibly evident right now. But, perhaps what’s most concerning is that this team hasn’t even played against any type of interior scoring threat. What happens when they tip off against a team like North Carolina who are four-deep with front court threats? Hopefully, transfers Murphy and Hauser and inexperienced guys like Shedrick and McKoy will improve as the season progresses. But, right now, the defensive performance all around has been sub-par.
McKoy and Beekman are bright spots
In an otherwise frustrating game, young guns Justin McKoy and Reece Beekman provided some encouraging play.
McKoy finished with career highs with eleven points and six rebounds, shooting 4-8 and hitting the first three-pointer of his career. He also scored a clutch basket with roughly 32 seconds to go to pull the game within one. He’s been decent defensively in an otherwise disappointing defensive front court and has displayed a penchant for driving on the offensive end and hitting soft hook shots. He’s not a real go-to guy at this point, but any offensive production from him is a huge bonus.
Beekman scored eleven as well and shot 5-6 from the field including 1-1 from deep. He was successful as a driver in the second half and finished well at the rim. The rumors out of preseason practice suggested that Beekman was set for a great freshman campaign and we’re already seeing early signs of that. He’s this program’s point guard of the future and that was obvious today.
A late rally comes up short
Despite a seven-point deficit with 1:46 remaining, the Wahoos rallied to pull within one with 32 seconds remaining. Beekman and McKoy each converted off of drives while Kihei Clark knocked down two free throws. The defense also got three clutch stops, but the ‘Hoos couldn’t win the game on their final possession after San Francisco missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
The decision not to foul with thirty-one seconds remaining is a bit of a head-scratcher. Had they done so, they theoretically would have had around 25 seconds with which to take the lead and, if they were to attack early in the clock, could’ve had multiple opportunities to do so. Instead, they had to rush an eight second possession and Sam Hauser’s miss came as the buzzer sounded.
At the end of the day, Virginia had an open shot to win the game with their best three-point shooter. Considering how they played, you can’t ask for that much more. Hauser just didn’t convert. If he had, the sentiment around this team is likely very different. Heck, if the team makes one of their other nine missed threes (they finished the day 3-12), this is a whole different conversation we’re having where we hail the last minute comeback and clutch-ness of our new star. Alas, the ‘Hoos are 1-1 and will play again Tuesday against a St. Francis team that just upset Pitt on the road.