I think we’ve reached the point in the season where we can finally escape nightmares of the National Invitational Tournament. The Virginia men’s basketball program — having suffered through mediocrity all of last year — is returning to prominence in a big way after racing out to a 8-0 start and a No. 3 national ranking. If you can take anything else from this piece it’s this — do not underestimate the genius of Coach Tony Bennett, and do not look too far into close wins against Florida State and James Madison.
What Bennett has salvaged — all of the starting lineup from 2021-22 — and gained — consider transfer forward Ben Vander Plas and freshmen guards Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn — are pieces that have gelled faster than we could have imagined. I will not lie, I had my reservations about the No. 18 ranking with which the Cavaliers started the season. How would a team that flirted with a middle-of-the-pack ACC standing turn the tables in 2022-23?
This roster — composed of many of the same players — has exercised its demons and gotten the proverbial monkey off the back. How do I ensure your confidence in this team? Well, senior guard Armaan Franklin is no longer suffering through periods of abysmal three-point shooting, and senior forward Jayden Gardner has shouldered less of an offensive burden after carrying the Cavaliers through much of last season — all while Virginia continues to win.
Despite our skepticism, Gardner and Vander Plas can, in fact, co-exist
When former Ohio forward Vander Plas decided to take his talents to Charlottesville, Cavalier fans wondered how the addition could affect Gardner — Virginia’s leading scorer in 2021-22. It was — and still is — a fair question, as Vander Plas’ measurables, position and physicality are oddly comparable to Gardner’s. The two power-forwards — who are not quite the center-forward hybrid that junior Kadin Shedrick has always been — have nonetheless proved that they can provide some small-ball lineups for Bennett when the big men face some serious foul trouble. And — if you watched the Michigan game — Shedrick and Caffaro bore the brunt of challenging the Wolverines’ Hunter Dickinson — a center who has a penchant for some dirty play.
Vander Plas and Gardner, however, are rather different players. Gardner can dominate the mid-range with his soft floaters and strong ability to clean up misses, while the former is more apt at stretching the floor and keeping opponents’ forwards honest. Even as Gardner struggled early in the season — having averaged 7.8 points per game over the first four games — he has turned the burners on with several strong performances against Michigan, Maryland-Eastern Shore and James Madison. Vander Plas has provided consistent minutes off of the bench, not only replacing Gardner yet accompanying him in the frontcourt when Bennett chooses to roll out a more skilled lineup. Don’t worry, we won’t see the disappearance of Gardner or Vander Plas even if the former’s panic button seemed tempting.
Junior guard Reece Beekman has fulfilled his prophecy as the next Virginia great
Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. Who could possibly fill that void as the next great Virginia guard? I present to you the inevitable emergence of Beekman. The past few years have witnessed the ascendance of Beekman from a defensive standpoint, as he has thrived in Bennett’s Pack-Line system as a pest for opposing guards. As for the offensive side of things? He’s taken the next step. Beekman strung together two incredible performances — including a 19-point outing against Illinois and an 18-point finish against Michigan — all while sealing the deal defensively in both contests.
Beekman’s defense is poetry in motion. In the final seconds of the Michigan and Illinois matchups, Beekman tallied game-clinching steals and put any hope of a comeback victory away with his uncanny, ball-hawk ability. To see him dunk, slash to the lane and fearlessly take three-point opportunities is a welcome surprise for fans who saw the promise in the young guard from Milwaukee. Don’t be surprised if Beekman comes home with all the hardware — ACC Defensive Player of the Year, ACC First-Team and a potential National Defensive Player of the Year nod — as he has done everything possible to spur this team along.
His importance was made even more apparent after he bowed out of the James Madison contest with a hamstring injury early only for Virginia to struggle to a victory. Hopefully, the 11-day break will give him enough time to heal before No. 1 Houston visits Charlottesville on Dec. 17.
Patience, composure and three-point shooting only when necessary
Three-point shooting is a double-edged sword. If it works, you are witnessing a Baylor-esque win and a barrage of points within the span of a couple minutes. If it fails, you are left helpless to find any other options outside of the old, chuck-it-up-and-pray strategy that often befell the Cavaliers in 2021. This season, it’s largely a balanced offensive attack which has defined the Cavaliers’ eight wins. The patience which embodies a Bennett-led offensive unit has paid dividends — when you consider Virginia’s comeback against Michigan, the Cavaliers only attempted eight three-pointers and converted half of them, with the bulk of the production coming from Beekman’s drives and the frontcourt’s finishes near the rim.
To score at least 70 points — with only 12 of those coming from the three-point line — provides reason for limitless optimism in Charlottesville. Rest assured that the Cavaliers will once again have matchups in which they may turn to Franklin, Vander Plas and Clark for three-point production, yet they have already proved that a wise shot selection may not always result in the most exciting of plays. I won’t exactly go there, but the improvement of the offense reminds me of the 2019 unit — which always found a way to put the ball in the back of the net.
If the Cavaliers continue to play their brand of basketball, this team will be a hard-out in March.