Virginia Men's Basketball

Mailbag: Simplified Offense, Huff’s Minutes, Recruiting, & More

Fresh off a humbling loss to Gonzaga, the mailbag is back with fan questions on Jay Huff, Sam Hauser, recruiting, this team’s identity, and lots of talk about defense.

Hooz: When we’re talking identity, I think there are two levels to it. The first is the non-negotiable Bennett way, shared traits of all his teams. Taking care of the basketball, and making the opponent earn everything defensively. Once that’s established, the next level is about finding their own way toward maximizing their potential within that path.

The Gonzaga game made plain that they’re not at that first level yet. It’s crucial, and I think it’s as much about culture as anything schematic. No more important than previous teams though. Bennett-Ball is unique. When everything is working properly, it’s a finely tuned machine. Far greater than the sum of its parts. But until they find that right gear, they can inexplicably underachieve. We’ve seen some very talented Bennett teams in the past have really bad stretches before it all clicks into place.

This team is built differently. It’s missing some of the key defensive components of previous teams, making for a new challenge for the coaching staff. The offensive strength is in the frontcourt unlike the guard-led teams of the past. The solution probably isn’t as simple as a lineup change. Being as sound as possible defensively, even if that’s less than we’re accustom to, and then maximizing Hauser, Huff, and Murphy offensively. That’s the blueprint. The devil is in the details of how to get there.

Zach: Teams are definitely aware that Hauser can hurt them from deep so they’re going to play up on him on the perimeter, but there’s more to it than that. Unlike Kyle Guy or even Tomas Woldetensae, Hauser is too big and too slow to get considerable space by flying off pin down screens. He’s also fairly reliant on having his feet set which means that he needs even more space. 

Those physical limitations make it difficult to scheme him open especially when teams are aware that he’s the guy they have to pay attention to. If anything, the UVA offense just needs to be more effective penetrating and touching the paint and then kicking to shooters for Hauser to get more open looks. We have seen him used as a screener who then pops, which I think can be effective if for no other reason than he helps spread the floor for others. I would also like to see us continue to feed him in the mid-to-high post in the 5-out set as he’s dangerous in the midrange and shifty enough to be effective in there. But, as a perimeter player, I think Hauser is at his best as a catch-and-shoot guy.

Probably the best adjustment they’ve made so far is just figuring out their own personnel. I mentioned in a blog last week, Sam Hauser is now being used exclusively as a power forward on defense. They seem to be especially aware of matchups when it comes to Murphy being used as a guard. That’s more of a necessity, but opposition lineups can make it hard at times.

Some tweaks to fit personnel might be necessary, but Bennett’s packline is what it is and won’t be changed in any significant way. Teams far less talented than this one have been very successful with it. It just takes a degree of understanding responsibilities and detailed focus that isn’t apparent yet with this team.

Zach: Through six games, three have been blowouts where Huff averaged 16 minutes per game because Bennett played the young guys heavily. Then, he was in foul trouble yesterday and only played 13. In Virginia’s two close games this season, he’s averaging 31.5 minutes per game. With more games against actual competition, he’ll get more minutes.

Hooz: Realistically, it’s the lowest defensive ceiling of any recent UVA team. But let’s keep perspective, that’s a heck of a high standard. I mentioned above, there are key components missing. There’s no Mamadi Diakite or Isaiah Wilkins to clean up mistakes. There’s no shutdown guard like Devon Hall or Malcolm Brogdon, at least not that’s proven worthy of being a lineup mainstay yet.

Digging deeper, there are further issues. They have too many one dimensional players. Hauser, Huff, and McKoy can really only defend one position each. Woldetensae is needed for his shooting, but has to be hidden to an extent defensively. Murphy has been forced to play out of position so that we can get both him and Hauser on the court together. And it’s hard to play without a center (Huff, Shedrick) because none of the forwards offer any rim protection.

That all sounds really bad, and it’s not great. But most teams have these kinds of issues. We’ve just been spoiled. And I think the system tends to highlight weaknesses when there’s a lack of cohesion. Especially against a team as terrific as Gonzaga.

The system provides a high floor. That’s the current objective. Obviously, all the covid-related changes in schedule haven’t helped the cause. More than anything, I really believe it’s about understanding the collective commitment it takes. It’s not an effort issue, that’s there. But they’ll need an improved focus, to develop the right mentality as Bennett put it in the post-game. I do think there are a couple individual players capable of substantial improvement as their comfort grows, creating a higher ceiling than maybe seems possible at the moment.

Zach: “Simplifying” an offense is hard to define, but in terms of cutting down the variety of the sets the UVA offense runs, I don’t think that’s necessarily the issue. Rather, I think the coaching staff has to be better at putting their guys in positions where they’re more likely to succeed. 

Part of that is also running the sets that are going to likely be most effective for the skillsets of the players on the floor. UVA went heavy 5-out, read and react against Gonzaga which resulted in a lot of contested, sometimes deep threes as the Wahoos elected to settle for poor shots because they had issues penetrating the Gonzaga defense. I wish we could see a little bit of the continuity ball screen set just because I think it fits this roster as well as any of the other offenses Bennett runs and would likely give Reece Beekman more built in opportunities to be a secondary playmaker instead of forcing him to make plays off the dribble without any help.

In reality, the built-in issue for this team on the offensive side of the ball remains the same as it was last season: a dearth of playmakers off the dribble and a lack of easy offense. Sure, now the team has the ability to stretch the floor. But it’s still largely on Kihei Clark’s shoulders to make this offense go. That’s why we saw so little mover-blocker against Gonzaga. Essentially, Bennett still doesn’t trust anybody outside of Clark to have the ball in his hands when the chips are down. 

This is a long answer to essentially say that it’s not that these Wahoos need sets to be simplified or to cut because there are too many; they’re all high IQ basketball players. Instead I just want to see each player’s abilities maximized which will likely come from some, yes, simpler, scheming. Keep using Kihei Clark off ball screens, but also use Reece Beekman in that same mold to take some of the pressure off of Kihei’s shoulders. Feed Jay Huff down low some to give him the opportunity to be an aggressor. Keep giving Hauser touches in the midrange. The offensive talent on this team isn’t the issue as much as it is finding the right way to utilize it. 

Hooz: In terms of calendar months, probably not all that close. I doubt anything happens until the season is over. Most likely, the next commitment will be from either a transfer or a high school senior that hasn’t been discussed much if at all. That’s just the nature of the late recruiting cycle. And truthfully, other than the dream candidate Trevor Keels, the coaching staff would rather wait and see if there are any early defections before deciding which type of players to pursue.

Things will heat up quickly both with potential additions for next season and the 2022 class when the season ends. By November, five total commitments is a realistic possibility, and it could be more than that. We’re all hoping for a normal off-season of evaluation and recruiting. Coaches badly need to see the 2022 class in-person playing in competitive settings. There’s a lot of lost time to make up for.

If there’s one guy to keep an eye on, it’s 2022 Poca (WV) guard Isaac McKneely. He’s a little further along than most juniors, having already named a final eight. Based on the evidence we have to go on, Bennett seems to favor him. I expect we’ll see the usual zeroing in tactics this Spring in an effort to secure his early commitment.

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