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Men's Basketball

Tale of the Tape: Five takeaways from Virginia’s season opener

Virginia opened their season Tuesday night with a 66-58 loss at home against Navy. The team couldn’t overcome a second-half cold stretch to come back against a hot Navy lineup, but the first game of the year certainly wasn’t a referendum on the year this Virginia team can have.

HoozGotNext already put together a great instant reactions piece immediately after the game, which you can read at this link.

Here are five things that stood out on film upon rewatching the Virginia-Navy contest, complete with multiple video examples. We take a look at both the concerns from the game and Virginia’s reasons for optimism going forward.

Creativity and aggressiveness out of sides offense

Much has been made of Virginia’s lack of three-point shooting this season, and how it might be a concerning sign for the year to come. Undoubtedly, it would benefit the team to have more players willing to let it fly from beyond the arc — right now, it’s really just Armaan Franklin.

Despite a cold game in his debut for Virginia, shooting just 2-11 from the field, Franklin did a great job hunting his shot in the sides offense. He cut hard and effectively took advantage of Navy’s defensive lapses, generating clean looks that he just couldn’t get to fall.

The team as a whole against Navy shot just 4-16 from three (25%), and just 3-14 (21.4%) before Navy took an insurmountable lead. However, while improved volume and efficiency from beyond the arc will definitely help the offense, there are other ways to generate quality looks.

Even just coming hard off a screen in sides and threatening to take a jump shot can create space around the basket. Watch this example, where Armaan’s hard curl into a mid-range jumper gets Kadin Shedrick an open dunk. Navy is forced to foul to prevent a very easy two points for Virginia.

Attacking downhill is another option for the “movers” in sides to put some pressure on opposing defenses. Here, Reece Beekman comes around a screen hard and finds himself with some space to work. He does a good job probing with his dribble and getting an easy open look in the lane.

Too often, Virginia gets stuck in offensive lulls where they’re just going through the motions of sides. These lulls are what lead to prolonged scoring droughts like the eight-minute dry spell against Navy late in the second half. A little bit of on-ball creativity and aggressiveness in the flow of the offense will go a long way for Virginia, especially given their lack of three-point shooting to bail them out when the offense stagnates.

High pick-and-roll looks to create an offensive spark

Another look Virginia can use to jumpstart the offense is the pick-and-roll out of a 1-4 high stack look. In this play, the ball-handler takes the ball at the top of the key, while the other four players form a line across the baseline. Then, one big comes to screen for the ball-handler, while the other fills in on the opposite block.

Virginia went to this action quite a bit against Navy, mostly out of timeouts or in their early transition offense. They generally found good looks at the rim when they did so, because it puts their best scorers in positions to succeed. Here, the look isn’t even run with all that much urgency, but Jayden Gardner still powers his way to the basket.

In the second half, this high pick-and-roll also helped fuel Virginia’s comeback. Running it with Reece Beekman handling the ball lets Reece use his change-of-pace talent to get downhill and finish around the rim.

Some of the team’s easiest offense came when they were simply running this high ball screen — a simple play designed to let players make plays. It’s a good curveball to throw at defenses and let the team run some free-flowing basketball when the rigidity of sides gums up the offensive flow.

Jayden Gardner’s high-level post presence

Gardner’s Virginia debut was stellar, and perhaps the most encouraging sign from Virginia’s loss to Navy. He looked every bit like the post scorer he was at East Carolina, willing his way to a team-high 18 points and 10 rebounds.

It’s no secret how Gardner gets his points: he bullies his way to the hoop with a combo of powerful and smooth post moves. He’s also great at cleaning up and finishing through traffic, like in this early first-half and-one.

What’s almost more impressive about Gardner as a player is his poise and comfortability in the post. He isn’t a one-trick pony; Gardner has counters to the different looks defenses can throw at him down low. When defenses send doubles his way, he has better-than-expected court vision and can throw some high-level skip passes.

Gardner also knows how to feel out a defense. In this clip, he feels the potential double team coming, and elevates for a midrange jump shot before the help can arrive. Having that midrange jumper as a secondary option when opponents key in on his post play will be huge for Gardner going forward.

Until anyone else claims the role, Gardner is the team’s de facto number one offensive option. He’s the most proven scorer on the team and looked the most comfortable when relied upon to get a bucket against Navy. Featuring him in the post should be a key goal for this Virginia team.

Defending the three-point line

The path to upset Virginia has always involved hot three-point shooting. It’s a vulnerability of the pack line defense: especially on the wings, confident and capable shooting from beyond the arc gives the scheme trouble. That’s why it’s not run at the NBA level; that’s also why, occasionally, teams can really heat up and hurt the Hoos from deep.

Navy was no exception to this rule: in the first half, they shot 8-12 from three (66.6%). However, Virginia can definitely do a better job closing out and contesting shots going forward. Too often, they were leaving known three-point threats like Navy’s John Carter Jr. wide open beyond the arc.

These sorts of defensive lapses are difficult to recover from against players with as much shooting talent as Carter. To Virginia’s credit, their D did tighten up in the second half, with guards on the perimeter staying glued to three-point threats and contesting shots better.

While that three went in, Virginia contested it well and the look came from a difficult spot on the floor. Sometimes, opponents just knock down shots — Navy certainly hit their fair share. That’s the pack line defense’s kryptonite. No getting around it.

However, the defense can definitely influence how well opponents shoot. The improved three-point defense of the second half bore itself out statistically. Navy shot just 3-9 (33.3%) from beyond, a marked defensive improvement. And John Carter Jr., who burned the Hoos for 16 points in the first half, scored just three in the second. Just getting a hand up on Navy’s threes helped out.

Team issues with rebounding

The team’s rebounding was definitely concerning, especially with smaller lineups in the game. Navy collected 35 boards to Virginia’s 30, including 10 rebounds on the offensive glass. Those offensive boards are absolute killers, especially when they lead to easy putbacks.

Rebounding is a team effort — it isn’t always just on the big men to clean the glass, especially when they’re out defending actions on the perimeter. Especially on the weak side, Virginia got killed boxing out. The coaching staff will certainly want to work on that before the team enters ACC play and ratchets up to another level of physicality.

In that clip, with Jayden Gardner out on the perimeter contesting a John Carter Jr. triple, it’s on the rest of the team to box out and collect the rebound. Greg Summers is a very physical guard who plays like a power forward and attacks the glass well, but still, someone’s got to get a body on him.

When the team is in position to collect rebounds, they also have to finish the job. Navy stole a few boards when Virginia players were properly positioned and did their jobs boxing out but just weren’t able to collect the ball.

There’s still plenty of season to go, and plenty of room to improve as the year goes on. Last year’s Virginia team dropped an early game to San Francisco before going on to finish first in the ACC. The tape from the team’s season opener against Navy reveals areas for improvement, but also plenty of things to be optimistic about going forward.

Virginia will look to right the ship and win their first game of the season Friday, November 12 against Radford at John Paul Jones Arena.

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