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Men's Basketball

Preseason Mailbag: Offensive schemes, when Reece will take over, Igor’s upside

We are officially one week from Virginia tipoff (well, at least unofficially, with the Blue-White Scrimmage scheduled for Sunday, October 17) and still have plenty of questions about how this team will look after an offseason of change.

In this preseason edition of the mailbag, I take a look at a few overarching questions about this year’s roster, make some unsound predictions, and get to revel in some of the Reece Beekman and Igor Milicic Jr. hype. Without further ado:

Lots of unknowns, but I’m curious to hear your view on which of our offenses (Sides, 3-man motion, ball screen (spread or CBS), or 5-out) is the best fit for [Virginia’s] most likely personnel. Or to what extent it really hinges on personnel choices. @haney

This is a really interesting question to think about. Last things first — I don’t think the offense this year will be very personnel-choice-dependent, because most of the players on the team at different positional groups have similar playstyles. There are no major stylistic clashes a la the 2018-19 team, whose different centers (Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff at times, and in super-small lineups, Braxton Key) all brought different abilities to the table.

For that reason, this Virginia team should be able to pick one core offensive scheme and stick to it. Of all the schemes they’ve recently run, I think the most logical fit personnel-wise is either blocker-mover or some sort of continuity ball screen offense.

I don’t think the team right now has the quantity of off-dribble scoring that they would probably need to effectively implement that triangle-esque three-man motion offense we saw at times last year, and spread ball screen or five-out offenses require elite perimeter shooting to function well.

The team caught lightning in a bottle last year with three tremendous shooters in Jay Huff, Sam Hauser, and Trey Murphy, which allowed for unprecedented offensive experimentation; without that collection of shooters with size, it’ll be tricky to run those more personnel-reliant, free-flowing offensive systems. For that reason, I think running a more structured offensive set makes a lot of sense.

My inclination is to go with sides (or blocker-mover), just because of how familiar the coaching scheme is with the system. There are plenty of good looks for post-up duck-ins in the sides offense, which plays to Jayden Gardner’s strengths. The constant motion within sides should also keep the ball moving and the offense flowing for an inexperienced team looking to find their identity as the season begins.

What do you realistically think the ceiling for average offensive and defensive points per game will be? @jazznutuva

I think some historical context will help pick some realistic numbers here that aren’t just me pulling guesses out of thin air. Here are charts of Virginia’s points scored and points allowed over the past ten seasons, along with a bar graph of their point differentials in each season.

Now, for the slightly more informed guesswork:

This offense is going to be better at scoring the ball than that 2019-20 offense was — that team was definitely an outlier under Tony Bennett. I don’t think there are any individual scorers on this team capable of doing what Mike Scott and Joe Harris did for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 teams, but I think the team’s offensive scheme has come a long way since then and the pace will be a bit faster, so I expect this year’s team to outperform those two in points per game, but not by much. I don’t see them surpassing 2014-15 or 2016-17’s offenses, so let’s put their ceiling around those data points — 66 points per game.

Defensively, I think it’ll be hard not to improve from last year, when Virginia allowed more points per game than in any other season in the 10-year sample. This team has one of the more impressive defensive backcourts assembled in the Tony Bennett era, and though there might be some growing pains as new players adapt to the scheme, this defense has some upside. I think their ceiling is right around that 2018-19 team: allowing 56 points per game.

If we add those best-case ceiling guesses together, we end up with a +10 point differential, which puts this year’s team exactly in the middle of the last 10 Virginia seasons. That outcome feels like a fair ceiling for this roster: it isn’t fair to expect them to be the best team in the country, but this squad is certainly capable of making some noise come tournament time.

How far into the season [will we be] when Reece gets the keys (looking at the schedule)? @DFresh11

I have a lot of faith in Reece, so I’ll go out on a limb and predict that his takeover of the offense happens sooner rather than later.

As for when, specifically, he’ll become the guy? I’m eyeing the early January slate of games. Virginia plays three road games in a row against Syracuse, Clemson, and North Carolina in a week, beginning in a New Year’s Day clash with the Orange. Then, on January 12, they come back to Charlottesville and face off against Virginia Tech in JPJ. I could see Beekman asserting himself throughout that road trip and finishing it off with a statement game against Tech in the team’s first home game in three weeks. 

What do you make out of all of the Igor practice hype? And the lack of buzz around the other young players on the roster? @Hoos9412

Knowing everything we know about Igor Milicic Jr. — his unique recruitment process with Isaiah Wilkins, how he almost ended up staying in Europe, and how international players typically take a lot of time to get acclimated to the college game — I’m really inclined to buy into the Igor hype that just continues to build.  

The stars have also aligned quite nicely for Igor to be successful this year, in terms of larger-scale roster construction. This year’s team has two major needs on paper: wings with size and ball-handlers. From everything that’s been said about Igor, it seems like he fits the bill for both of those categories.

I don’t think the buzz is fake. I think Igor does legitimately look awesome in practice so far. I also think that due to this year’s unique circumstances, Igor will be more likely to see playing time than young international players in the past have been. However, those organizational caveats still exist, and the bar remains very high for Igor (or any young players at Virginia) to earn heavy playing time. So, short answer: the hype is most likely real, but it might be worthwhile to temper your expectations for Igor right out the gate.

As for the lack of buzz around the rest of the young guys, I don’t necessarily take too much from it. I don’t think it’s a negative — young players like Igor receiving such effusively positive praise from around practices is very much the exception, rather than the rule.

Who plays the most out of Taine, McCorkle, Igor, and Kody? @atkinsizzle (and a bit for @lepre45)

This is me buying into the hype: Igor.

As far as my legit case for Igor goes, I’m basically playing a numbers game with minutes between these four guys. At guard, Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, and Armaan Franklin are all locks to play heavy minutes — even if Taine Murray or Carson McCorkle show out, their opportunities to see the floor will be sparse.

Kody Stattmann has a slightly more obvious path to minutes than Taine or Carson. His 2020-21 season was strange, but if he can improve on his 2019-20 campaign, Stattmann could carve out a role as the only stretch big on the roster. He averaged 6.7 three-point attempts per 100 possessions in 2019-20, and though he’ll enter the year behind Jayden Gardner and Kadin Shedrick on the big man depth chart, Stattmann should see time (to the person who sent in a question about Stattmann getting minutes at the 4, here’s your answer).

However, the minutes void on the wing this year is gaping. The team will probably start the year with Kihei, Reece, and Armaan all playing at the same time, which would make the 6’4 Indiana transfer the team’s de facto small forward. However, as the season goes on, I could see Igor taking advantage of the team’s thinness at that position and seizing playing time with a few solid outings as a freshman — much like Reece Beekman at guard last season.

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