(Image – Associated Press)
Well, that certainly didn’t go as planned. But, now that we’ve all had a few days to brood and process the result from Saturday, I’ve got five key takeaways from UVA’s loss to Gonzaga that will be critical to keep in mind for this team moving forward.
Gonzaga is good at basketball
The ‘Hoos played poorly on Saturday. That we know. But, Gonzaga is also likely the most skilled team in the country and has the most impressive resume of any program right now. The Zags have the perfect blend of experience and talent with a phenomenal head coach who puts his players in positions where they are going to succeed. They’ve got three players who could realistically be All-Americans, and they’re as close to a lock for a #1 seed as any team ever has been in late December.
It’s all going to be okay
With that in mind, the sky is definitively not falling for this UVA basketball team and for the program in general. Their resume is poor and there is a laundry list of concerns for them moving forward, but this is still a roster of good college basketball players who play for one of if not the best coach in college basketball. If anyone can turn this team around, Tony Bennett can. He’s done it time and time again, and I expect him to do so again this season.
To recount the point I made after the San Francisco loss, the Virginia basketball program has had struggles in non-conference play under Tony Bennett only for them to flip the switch in conference play and go on a crazy run. Look no further than last season when the ‘Hoos dropped fairly embarrassing games to Purdue and South Carolina, then proceeded to lose three straight games early in ACC play only to finish the year with wins in eleven of their last twelve games.
Or, think back to the season that started it all back in 2013 when Virginia lost to VCU, Wisconsin, and Green Bay early in the season and then lost to an unranked Tennessee team by thirty-five points. As you may remember, that team won the ACC Regular Season Title, won the ACC Tournament, earned the program’s first #1 seed since 1983, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen.
On Saturday, the Wahoos lost to the #1 team in the country by twenty-three points in their first game against a team with any kind of shot at making the NCAA Tournament. Was it an embarrassing loss? Yes. Was it a frustrating one that further exposed this team’s flaws? Yes. But was it a season-defining loss? No. This team will bounce back, and start to click as they get more minutes together.
Kihei Clark is carrying this offense
With all that being said, there are notable issues that need to be addressed for this team to improve. On the offensive side of the ball, the heavy reliance on Kihei Clark to be the sole playmaker and creator for this team is unfortunate. Right now, there’s no second guy who appears willing to be aggressive. Even though Clark has his struggles with turnovers, it’s hard to fault him when nobody else is willing or able to step up.
In the read and react offense that Virginia ‘Hoos ran on 58% of their settled offensive possessions, Clark was the only guard or wing who could beat his guy off the dribble. Then, he was used a great deal as the handler in the high ball screen sets and ball screen variants out of sides. He was sloppy with the ball at times and appears to be pressing too much as he’s regressed to the point from early last season where, off of screens, he’s penetrating too quickly and too far to the point where he cuts down any reliable chance at producing points.
Nevertheless, I expect Clark to improve as the season progresses; he did so last year. The question for the offense will be who else is capable of making plays. Jay Huff’s foul trouble hurt the Wahoos dearly on Saturday as he has been their second most aggressive player this season. For the offense to improve, Huff needs to take even more shots, both from the perimeter as a floor spacing center, and in the paint where he’ll need his guards and his coaches to make the conscious effort of feeding him the ball. Along with Huff, hopefully Sam Hauser will be more effective shooting the ball moving forward and will be less rushed than he was against the Zags.
Then, outside of Virginia’s ‘big three’ of sorts, Reece Beekman and Trey Murphy are the next two guys who have to continue to step up. Despite being in their first season in the orange and blue, these two are going to be critical in determining the long term potential of this squad.
The defense is lost
On Saturday, the Wahoos gave up the most points in a game in over ten years. Obviously, Gonzaga played out of their minds and Corey Kispert had a Carsen Edwards-esque performance. But, the Virginia defense is lacking at this point and there are a number of reasons why.
First off, this team doesn’t have the athletes that previous Bennett teams have. There’s no Mamadi Diakite, Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins, or Isiah Wilikins-like help defender on this squad who can clean up his teammates’ mistakes. Heck, there isn’t even a Jack Salt on this team. There’s also no real go-to wing defender a la Malcolm Brogdon, Devon Hall, or De’Andre Hunter. Frankly, this team’s best one-on-one defender is its 5’9”, 160-pound point guard.
Secondly, it’s obvious that there are still a number of guys who are yet to completely fit into the Packline defense. Notably, guys like Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy still appear a bit lost against real competition. Granted, they’re both only six games into their respective Virginia careers, so heaping too much blame on their shoulders would be premature. But, there’s going to have to be some drastic improvements in the defensive rotations and system because this team lacks the athletes and defenders who can negate problems that arise.
We should have faith that Tony Bennett will be able to turn things around defensively. But, it’s clear that this team’s defensive ceiling and floor are much lower than those of past Bennett-coached teams.
There haven’t been any breakout performances
Even though we’re only six games into the season, it’s clear that there haven’t been many particularly impressive individual improvements. To be frank, there are only a few players who have exceeded or even met preseason expectations through non-conference play.
Among the upperclassmen, there aren’t any definitive stars. Fifth years Sam Hauser and Jay Huff haven’t played as well as their talent would suggest. Huff has struggled from a lack of opportunities while Hauser hasn’t necessarily been the lights out shooter he’s known to be and has generally struggled on defense. Tomas Woldetensae is still just a shooter offensively and kind of needs to be hidden defensively. Kihei Clark has had his ups and downs, but still seems to be the player that he was last season. Kody Stattmann is a bit bigger and a bit stronger, but hasn’t shown much in terms of playmaking or shooting ability. Trey Murphy has provided great outside shooting, but not much else and is still adapting defensively.
Casey Morsell is athletic as ever but still isn’t hitting shots and is still choreographing each and every one of his moves on offense. Justin McKoy has shown a few nice flashes offensively and is a good on ball and help defender. But, he doesn’t provide floor spacing or any real dynamism on offense. Francisco Caffaro has been supplanted as the backup center and is clearly not a threat on offense while also appearing slow in his hedging and recovering defensively.
First years Jabri Abdur-Rahim and Carson McCorkle are yet to crack the rotation. Of course, Reece Beekman has been an integral part of the rotation and appears to be the second-best guard on this team. He still needs to be more aggressive and look for his own shot. But that will likely come with time.
Kadin Shedrick has performed the best relative to preseason expectations as he’s been solid defensively. He’s utilized his length and athleticism and is very smooth playing center in the packline. His footwork is to die for and, despite this being his first year on the court, he appears to have years of experience hedging hard on ball screens. Offensively, he’s shown some scoring flashes at different points and has been a menace on the offensive boards. Obviously he’s still got a ways to go, but he’s been the most impressive player (again, relative to expectations) so far this season.
Of course, this team has only played six games and has been greatly impacted by Covid-19 induced breaks from play. But there still hasn’t been a ton to get excited about. This doesn’t mean that guys won’t improve and develop as the season progresses. And, they don’t necessarily need to as individuals because there is already an abundance of talent on this team. However, it’s likely that there will be no massive individual breakout season for this team. And that’s a shame considering how deep this roster is.
Nevertheless, this is still a very good basketball team with a great coaching staff instructing them. The ‘Hoos are going to improve this season. It just comes down to how much and how quickly they will.