Virginia's Season Outlook Is On The Rise
By Josh Burton
As the University of Virginia Men’s Basketball team breaks for exams, it feels like a good time to look at where things stand for the Wahoos so far. We’ll also be looking at what’s ahead and what to expect for the rest of the season.
The Cavaliers hold an 8-1 record, highlighted by wins over #21 Texas A&M, Florida, and a win over Syracuse in the ACC opener. The lone loss on the season was a 65-41 drubbing by Wisconsin in the Fort Myers Tip-Off Tournament. The team has pretty good metrics. Virginia ranks 22nd on KenPom, 23rd in NET and 31st in BartTorvik as of this writing. They are also currently #23 in the coaches poll and the top team in the others receiving votes category of the AP Poll.
Pack Line Proud
This squad is living up to the reputation of head coach Tony Bennett’s pack line defense, rating as a top 5 unit in both KenPom and BartTorvik. Second-year Ryan Dunn has anchored the stout defense, averaging 2.6 blocks and 2.6 steals per game. He should be considered a favorite for the National Defensive Player of the Year award and is being shown as a potential NBA lottery pick in next summer’s draft.
"We have the two best defenders in the nation," says Leon Bond of Reece Beekman and Ryan Dunn.— Zach Carey (@Zach_Carey_) December 6, 2023
Last season’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year Reece Beekman has also been great, as he is currently averaging 2.8 steals while constantly being assigned the opposing team's best perimeter player. Look for the lethal 1-2 defensive punch to continue stifling opponents all season long.
On the offensive end, second-year Isaac McKneely has really come on in the last week. In two matchups against Syracuse and NC Central he went an identical 8-11 from the field, 6-8 from three and finished with a career-high 22 points in each contest. He has hit a scorching 58.1% from three on the season, which is good for second nationally. Look for Isaac to continue to assert himself in the offense and hunt his shot. He is currently the team's leading scorer (12.9 points per game) and I would expect him to stay in or close to the lead all season.
#UVA freshman guard Elijah Gertrude on Isaac McKneely hitting four 3s in the first 3:07: "McKneely, he's an alien. He's not from here."— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) December 6, 2023
Speaking of burning, one of the most surprising decisions of the young season was seeing first-year Elijah Gerturde’s redshirt burn as he was put into action for the first time against Texas A&M. He’s only played in three games so far but with each game Elijah has looked more comfortable on the court. His athleticism is off the charts and he has shown some flashes of a very effective offensive game, expect to continue to see him push for major minutes within the rotation.
What to Expect
Although the team has experimented with different lineups, it feels as though the starting lineup of Reece Beekman, Isaac McKneely, Andrew Rohde, Ryan Dunn and Jake Groves will stick until it proves ineffective. Rohde has shown to be a serviceable defender and has really excelled as a playmaker of late, averaging 4.3 assists over the last three games in the absence of Dante Harris.
Jake Groves has shown a very good ability to stretch the opposing defense, hitting over 42% from three on decent volume. His biggest issue has come on the defensive end, as the team has essentially traded rebounding for the strong offensive game he offers. As long as his defense continues to improve as it has so far he will be a key contributor.
The Wahoos have also picked up key contributions from a number of guys off the bench who should continue to contribute all season. In the backcourt, Elijah has been solid in the three games he has played while Dante Harris has been out with an apparent ankle injury. He has been seen both in a boot and on crutches, with no timetable given for how long he will miss. When he returns, however, I would expect them to both continue getting solid minutes. Third-year Taine Murray has also been steady when his number has been called, expect him to continue to contribute anytime he is on the court.
In the frontcourt, first-year Blake Buchanan has been a very solid surprise. He really made his presence known in the Florida game, aggressively attacking the basket and grabbing rebounds. He collected 18 points and 7 rebounds in the contest. His outstanding play earned him a starting spot in the next four contests before the staff went back to Jake Groves in the Texas A&M game. Look for Blake to continue to contribute as he grows more comfortable with the team and playing college ball.
In what has probably been the biggest disappointment so far this season, transfer Jordan Minor has not contributed to the level that fans had hoped when he announced his commitment. He has averaged less than 8 minutes per game with a DNP along the way. As a four-year player at Merrimack, he was generally playing a zone defense which seemed to play to his strengths as he was named Northeast Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year last season. However, picking up the pack line has seemingly been more difficult than anticipated for him to this point. The good news is that we’re only nine games in and he still has plenty of time to better grasp the defensive assignments asked of him and continue to try and earn more time on the court.
Last but certainly not least has been the solid play of Leon Bond III, who is coming off a redshirt year. I did not include him with either the guards or the front court because I believe he has the potential to play either when needed. Bond played exclusively in the frontcourt at the start of the season, primarily subbing in for Ryan Dunn when needed. Now the staff has started implementing him in lineups along with Dunn in the frontcourt, while also using Bond occasionally as a third guard.
Impressed with Leon Bond for Virginia so far this season. Active defensively: splits time 3-4, moves well when asked to hedge ball screens or double post (at 4). Nice pindown-pop movement shooting game, with touch in midrange. Cuts hard + with timing: 69 FG% on cut FGA— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) December 6, 2023
The biggest weakness for the team has been on the glass, where they were out-rebounded by four of the five power conference teams they've faced. Being able to sub Leon in at the guard spot for stretches should allow them to make up some of the difference.
The Cavaliers have one more marquee matchup before really getting league play rolling, a matchup at Memphis on Tuesday, December 19th. This will be the first true road game of the season for the Hoos, so it will be interesting to see how they handle going into a raucous environment.
ACC play will pick back up when the Hoos head into South Bend to take on Notre Dame on December 30th. From there the Hoos have a pretty manageable schedule in January before heading into a tough February. According to ESPN Analytics Matchup Predictor they will be favored in 6 of the 8 January matchups, while still having over 45% chances to win at NC State (1/6) and at Wake Forest (1/13). They will also have a bye during the week between these games, so they will have extra time to prepare for Wake.
February is where the season really begins to ramp up for the Cavaliers. The month opens with a trip to Clemson (Saturday, 2/3) followed by a quick turnaround at home against Miami (Monday, 2/5). They will also play at Virginia Tech (2/19), host UNC (2/24) and then head to Duke on March 2nd. This backloaded schedule should set up well for the team to continue to gel and be playing its best basketball when matched up with what should be the other conference leaders. If you’re looking for dates to circle on the calendar these should be as good as any.
The team will be back in action on Saturday (12/16) when they take on Northeastern. I will have your game preview and the rest of the Locker Room Access team will continue to have you covered all season!
(Featured Image Credit: Getty)