Virginia wrapped up their regular season on Saturday with a win at Louisville. We go into each year with expectations for how we think things will play out. What the team’s strengths will be and how each player will factor in. Of course, it never goes as planned. Teams and players over or underachieve in areas we didn’t expect. It changes the way we look at the next season.
There were legitimate concerns over whether Jayden Gardner’s skillset would translate against bigger better athletes in the ACC. Maybe he’s had to adjust his style a little, but it hasn’t seemed to be a problem at all. Averaging better than 15 points and nearly 7 rebounds, he’s been every bit of an offensive force for the Wahoos as he was at East Carolina. His field goal percentage (50.3) even ticked up.
While he was obviously brought in for his scoring, it’s been Gardner’s defense that’s drawn praise from Tony Bennett recently. Frankly, he was a defensive liability early in the season. Even pulled in key moments because of it. That seems like ages ago. He’s not only comfortable in the system now, he’s become a solid individual defender as well. Meanwhile, his turnovers have decreased each month from two per game in November to one per game in February/March.
He’s truly a Virginia guy now. A Bennett-approved beast, a capable defender who values possessions a bit more. With the strong possibility of him returning, it would be exciting to have the current version for a full season. Undoubtedly with further improvements.
Kihei Clark Signed NCAA Championship Court
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Francisco Caffaro and Kadin Shedrick have both been in the program for long enough, but they had only played a combined 353 minutes before this season. Caffaro, a redshirt-junior, has dealt with injuries throughout his career. And Shedrick, a redshirt-sophomore, missed most of last season with mono symptoms. That inexperience proved problematic early on, but they’ve come on strong in the second half of the season.
Up until January, things looked pretty bleak for Caffaro. Then out of nowhere, he had a huge breakout game against Virginia Tech. That seems to have been a real turning point. In the last 15 games going back to that win over Tech, he’s collecting nearly 70% more rebounds per minute than his prior career rate. He can be matchup dependent and the scoring comes and goes, but that consistent effort has made him a trusted option now.
Kadin Shedrick is one of the most talented big men Tony Bennett has coached. We’re starting to see him blossom now. He’s scored in double figures in 7 of the last 13 games, something he had only done once before against a power conference opponent. He’s had big games at the right times too, going for 16 points in the win at Duke and grabbing a career-high 13 boards at Miami. The next step is becoming more consistent. He still has outings where he’s a non-factor.
UVA entered this season with two unproven centers. Next year, they’ll presumably bring back a pair of trusted veterans.
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Tony Bennett recruited Reece Beekman as hard as we’ve seen him do with anyone. He was treated like a five-star prospect by the Virginia staff because that’s what they believed he was. To compete in the upper echelon of college basketball. It’s almost required to have at least one exceptional guard. It’s looking very likely that Reece will soon fit into that category.
Beekman led the ACC in steals and assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s by far the best perimeter defender in the league. None of that is surprising to anyone who paid attention last season. The steps he’s taken as a scoring threat, however, are.
Remember when everyone said he couldn’t shoot? Well, he’s connected on 39.5% of his three-point attempts in ACC play. It’s a small sample size, but hitting open threes is looking pretty comfortable for him now. And lately, he’s showing off a smooth little pull-up jumper too. When you combine those skills with his playmaking and ability to finish at the rim, it could get real scary for opponents in the near future as his confidence continues to grow.
If we had seen Malcolm Brogdon as a true-sophomore, the season he missed with a foot injury, I suspect he would have resembled Reece Beekman in a lot of ways.
Not So Good
In a lot of ways, Armaan Franklin is having the best offensive season of his college career. He’s shooting 10% better from inside the arc than a year ago, while reducing his turnovers by nearly 40% on a per minute basis. Those are remarkable year-over-year improvements. He’s become a much more efficient scorer in every way but one. Unfortunately, that one area is what UVA needed most this season.
A year after hitting 42% of his three-point attempts at Indiana, he’s sitting at 27% this season. He’s taking a lot more of them too, the most attempts on the team. Shooting is a funny thing. A lot of factors can impact it. The truth is he’s probably not as good of a long range shooter as last year’s numbers reflect, but surely not as bad as this year’s either.
He’s been put in a little bit of a tough situation this year because of other issues on the roster. It’s like asking Devon Hall to be Kyle Guy, only while learning a new system. The role he’s in isn’t what he’s best suited for. He’ll continue to be an important player for UVA next season, and possibly beyond. They’ll need him to shoot the three-ball better and I expect he will. But ideally, they won’t be as dependent on it either. .
Lightly Used Freshmen
In the preseason, there was a lot of optimism about freshmen Taine Murray and Igor Milicic. They both had good moments early in the year. But neither were able to establish themselves in the rotation once conference play started.
Murray’s most memorable moments came against Iowa when his three-point barrage keyed a dramatic comeback that fell just short. Surprisingly, he’s been used predominantly as a forward. Defensively, he looked good enough to work with. But he didn’t seem very comfortable with the ball. I think that’s the issue right now, and why they tried such an unorthodox way of getting his shooting into the lineup.
Milicic was a late signee who the coaching staff was very excited about, and still are. They hoped he would make an immediate contribution. They could have gone with a transfer instead. It was a little bit of a gamble, risking this season for long term gain. We saw glimpses of his potential in limited minutes. But it was clear that his full skillset wasn’t ready to translate. He wasn’t comfortable being guarded and didn’t seem up to par yet defensively either.
Both of those guys have a lot of potential. And I don’t think they’re far away from being really good college players. It’s a tough adjustment for freshmen coming from overseas, much less to play for Tony Bennett. Hopefully they’ll stick it out and we’ll see them shine in the years ahead. But in today’s environment, there’s no guarantee of that. We’ll need to sweat out the upcoming transfer season first.
Filling the Voids
For a Tony Bennett team to be great offensively, they really need to have that high-volume deadly shooter, The Joe Harris and Kyle Guy variety who can fly around screens and quickly get shots away on target. . It’s not just the damage they do, but also the threat opponents are forced to account for. It’s a missing ingredient this season.
I really believe incoming recruit Isaac McKneely has a chance to have a similar impact as London Perrantes did as a freshman in filling that void. Not an instant star, just a stabilizing presence that makes the whole system work better. He fits the role perfectly. You never know how quickly a freshman will adjust, but he has all the tools to step in right away.
Sophomore Carson McCokle was recruited for that role. Fans tend to write off young players prematurely. He could turn out to be the guy they need yet. Taine Murray is a little different, but he certainly brings shot making ability as well. With Kihei Clark and Kody Stattmann likely moving on, there’s plenty of opportunity for a couple of them in the rotation.
Virginia has had a small-ball problem this year. They don’t really have an answer when opponents go there. It’s been especially apparent in the last two losses to Duke and Florida State.
There’s no athletic combo forward, like Braxton Key or DeAndre Hunter. Or just a lockdown power forward who can defend guards like they’ve had in Akil Mitchell and Isaiah Wilkins. When teams go small, UVA is forced to pick their own poison. They either stay with Shedrick and accept the mismatch or they answer with Kody Stattmann.
It’s a tricky situation for them to address in terms of roster management. Incoming recruit Leon Bond is that athletic combo forward of the future, but it’s a little early to count on him next season. He might even redshirt. It’s a delicate balance. They have to be careful not to interfere with the opportunity of incoming recruit Isaac Traudt, who should make an immediate impact,. For them to consider bringing in a frontcourt transfer, it would probably mean either Gardner not coming back or someone transferring. Things we don’t want to happen.
We’ll see what transfer season brings. But the most likely answer to their small-ball issue is just current players improving. Jayden Gardner continuing to make strides. And Kadin Shedrick becoming a little more like Mamadi Diakite, who didn’t need to come out in those situations because he could defend perimeter players. That’s the next step in Kadin’s development defensively, and crucial for him at the next level too
For me, the biggest lesson of this season was that experience in Bennett’s system is part of the system. This is a really good group of players, despite the voids. But the inexperience led to them taking a little too long for it all to click. Hopefully they have a postseason run left in them because they’ve become a fun team to watch and as always easy to root for.
Next season’s team will feature most of the same players, but it should be quite different. A year of experience and a little closer to Bennet’s winning roster formula. I expect the Hoos to be back competing at the top of the ACC in 2022-23.
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