Virginia Men's Basketball

Five Takeaways From the William & Mary Game

(Image-Andrew Shurtleff-AP)

Virginia did what they were supposed to yesterday, easily defeating William & Mary 76-40. It’s not usually wise to draw conclusions from a lopsided December game. In this case, however, I believe there are some definite takeaways. The 18 day break provided them with a long opportunity to analyze the first four games and make adjustments. For that reason, any change probably had more purpose behind it.

Identity Taking Shape

Tony Bennett’s teams have often needed time to come together. Last year’s group looked dreadful at this time, then went on to a 2nd place conference finish. The 2015-16 Elite Eight team lost at GW, then started 1-3 in conference play. His first ACC champion squad took several ugly non-conference losses. There’s no magic wand under his desk. But eventually, he’s found the right combinations and proper buttons to push.

One identity trait that every Bennett team has shared is great defense. As Coach Williford discussed on the JWILLY Show, getting better on that end was the focus of practices leading up to the W&M game. They weren’t perfect, but the team clearly received the message. There were far fewer breakdowns than in previous games. That same effort will need to continue and further improve. This group has a smaller margin for error on defense than past teams.

There was a noticeable uptick in energy yesterday. They came out more focused. There were signs of on-court leadership from Kihei Clark and Sam Hauser that weren’t as evident before. I think it all adds up to a team that’s starting to understand who they have to be in order to be successful.

Murphy’s First Start

The 6’9 transfer from Rice, Trey Murphy, made his first start as a Wahoo. He played a season-high 32 minutes, and led the way with 15 points Just as importantly, he spent a good part of the game defending smaller guards. That’s crucial for UVA going forward. We know he can score. For this team to be its best, he’ll need to handle some tough defensive assignments.

While Trey was terrific, this is as much about lineup combinations. Bennett went with a big lineup for 80% of the first 30 minutes before some late experimenting and mop-up duty. Hauser and Murphy together with either Huff or Shedrick to be exact. That’s what he has to do to get his best offensive players on the floor. It’s a little unorthodox in today’s college game.

Most other teams predominantly use three true guards. It’s been problematic defensively in the early going. One of our big guys has to defend a quicker player on the perimeter. Of the three forwards they had been rotating, Murphy is best-suited for the job. By starting him yesterday, I think Bennett is signaling that he’s more committed to riding that big lineup with Trey as the designated combo forward.

Stretch-Four Sam

Sam Hauser exclusively defended the power forward position yesterday, at least until the late experimental lineups. That’s a development. He had started all four prior games as the small forward, and split his time between 3 & 4 spots pretty evenly. Staying in front of smaller guards had been a struggle, particularly against Kent State. It looks like they’re trying to avoid putting him in that situation now.

I’m not sure which is the chicken or egg, but this all tied in with Murphy’s increased time. Their roles are being more defined. Interestingly, they often switch positions you might say on offense with Hauser acting as a guard (mover) in the blocker/mover set. I doubt the 80/20 big vs small split holds, but they’ve identified their best chance of keeping the optimal offensive lineup on the court now. Expect the same blueprint to continue against Gonzaga.

Rotation Tightening

After starting the first four games, sophomore forward Justin McKoy didn’t enter yesterday’s contest until the final eight minutes. It’s a tough turn of events for a guy that’s had some really good moments. Very simple to explain though. If Hauser is a pure-four, there’s just not much time left in the one position McKoy plays. That’s really all there is to it. Murphy essentially was Sam’s backup yesterday, sliding down to the power forward spot in three-guard lineups during Sam’s breaks.

Justin is a talented player, worthy of a major role in the ACC. I think he’ll still get some opportunities going forward, only in a more limited role. And there probably will be some matchups where Sam spends time at the 3-spot, potentially opening more minutes for Justin. UVA has 13 scholarship players that legitimately could contribute if needed. It’s a wonderful problem, but still a problem.

It’s also worth noting that sophomore center Francisco Caffaro played the final three minutes of the first half, his first somewhat meaningful action this season. He had only made a pair of mop-up appearances before. They seem to be making more of an effort to keep him engaged, so that he’s ready when needed. His physicality could be important at times this season.

Shedrick Shines

Freshman Kadin Shedrick was the first reserve off the bench had another great game, posting 10 points and 7 rebounds. It’s not so much the stats either, more the bright flashes of what’s coming. He’s the most talented big man we’ve had under Bennett, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Size, agility, developing skill, and a relentless motor. He has every tool a coach could want, along with the right attitude. There’s still a long way to go to reach his potential, but the gains of the last two years have been enormous.

Obviously, he has an important role on this year’s team as the backup center. There’s also a bit of a tryout going on for next season when the job opens. So far, Kadin looks like he’s on track to be ready to step into the opening. Maybe just as exciting is the on-floor chemistry he and freshman point guard Reece Beekman have developed. They really compliment each other well. It’s going to be a lot of fun watching those two together over the next few years

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