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What is wrong with Virginia men’s basketball?

Two Cavalier Daily writers explain the issues with the 2023-24 squad and why the Cavaliers are stuck in the mud

<p>Ryan Dunn soars for an electric slam dunk.</p>

Ryan Dunn soars for an electric slam dunk.

Currently sitting in a three-way tie for fourth place in the ACC, Virginia has fallen slightly behind the success of last year as the Cavaliers shared the regular season conference title with Miami. A 13-5 record is nothing to scoff at, but a 1-4 road record with four costly blowout losses is certainly cause for concern entering the gauntlet of ACC play. 

Virginia’s losses are especially frustrating considering it boasts the nation’s second best scoring defense — yet simultaneously presents the 331st ranked offense. The Cavaliers have reputable scorers in senior guard Reece Beekman and sophomore guard Isaac McKneely but are seldom able to rely on others to carry the load offensively. Holding an NCAA Tournament resume that would be destroyed with another blowout loss, the next month of play will be either a resurrection of March hopes or an indicting statement that the program is entering a potentially tough rebuild. Two Cavalier Daily writers assess below why Virginia is in its current position. 

A roster incompatible with the system

Michael Liebermann, Senior Associate: 

Virginia’s vaunted system depends on program continuity. It requires experienced players familiar with its intricate mechanisms, guys who have labored for years to reach mastery. This team lacks those players, a result of shifts in the college basketball landscape that have made player retention a difficult task.

The roster is loaded with inexperience, filled with players still acclimating to a system designed for maturity. Virginia has seven newcomers and only two scholarship players who have played more than one year under Bennett. 

The unique packline defense is confusing, bewildering to anyone accustomed to a traditional man or zone defense. Getting used to Bennett’s patented defense is a tedious process. So is mastering the unique offensive schemes.

The word “inexperience” gets tossed around with abandon, but this type of inexperience is specific. This type of inexperience concerns not just age or years spent playing college basketball. It instead refers to years under Bennett — whether a player has undergone the yearslong progression typical of Bennett’s greatest products. Few of the current players have.

The inexperience is not the fault of one individual. One could blame the current college basketball landscape, or the NCAA’s transfer portal, a formerly muddled process that was tidied in 2018 — triggering a mounting transfer wave. One could also blame the NCAA for removing the mandatory redshirt year in 2021 for first-time transfers, dismantling the greatest deterrent to transferring.

Without that deterrent, the offseason has essentially become free agency, a chaotic period of roster turnover. It has nibbled at Virginia’s ability to retain players and has made it harder to develop a core of stalwarts like the one at the nexus of the 2019 National Championship team.

This reality has dug pockets of gloom within a mercurial fanbase. The system, some proclaim, is outdated. This doomsday conclusion is extreme, if not totally unwarranted. The system can still work, but it requires player retention — an increasingly difficult objective. 

Virginia has, at the moment, the pieces of a future powerhouse. In McKneely, freshman guard Elijah Gertrude and freshman forward Blake Buchanan, among others, it has a young group that, with time, can mature into an experienced lineup. 

But that will all shatter if, disgruntled by lack of playing time, the young talent departs. It has undeniably been the recent college basketball trend, forcing some coaches to adapt. Bennett seems committed to defying this momentum, sticking to the system that has delivered a National Championship and two Naismith College Coach of the Year awards. Bennett’s system has worked throughout his time at Virginia, and it will continue to work. It may simply require more time than is left in this season. 

Inconsistency with a side of optimism

Connor Lothrop, Senior Writer:

This team’s youth is a real problem. Reece Beekman is the only returning starter from a year ago, and most other players within the program are either an underclassman or a transfer. Just 34.1 percent of minutes and 28.1 percent of scoring return from the 2022-23 roster.

That inexperience leads to a lot of inconsistency and mental lapses. Virginia lost their first four road games of the year by an average of 20 points, and the team seemed to sleep walk through large chunks of each. The team committed 18 turnovers against Memphis, an unforgivable number for a Bennett-coached team. Notre Dame ripped off a 15-2 run in the second half against a lackadaisical Cavalier squad. Wake Forest and NC State achieved similar runs late in the first half, and the entire second half of the Wisconsin game should be burned from memory. Virginia too often lets teams of a similar skill level go on long runs because those teams are mentally tougher.

Another issue was that during the three-week stretch where the Cavaliers lost four of seven and nearly fell to middleweight Northeastern, they completely lost the ability to shoot the basketball consistently. In those losses, as well as the Northeastern game, their three-point percentages were 26.1, 21.1, 18.2, 33.3 and 33.3. Modern college basketball is a three-point based game, and it’s hard to win when you can’t hit the game’s most valuable shots. Worse still, this was on a very low attempt rate of just 32%, nearly 10% lower than their opponents. Too often, Beekman, McKneely and Rohde are settling for long two-pointers, the least valuable shots in basketball — taking contested three-pointers or just plain missing open shots. 

The team shot much better when playing quality teams like Florida, Texas A&M and Syracuse and received all of the benefits of making three-pointers, like forcing the opponent to retort and opening up space for interior scorers. When misfiring, those benefits go away and Virginia is notably worse because of it.

Despite the inconsistency, the team’s floor is relatively high. Over their last pair of conference games Virginia vanquished archrival Virginia Tech in Charlottesville and finally got the monkey off their back by winning their first true road game of the year against Georgia Tech. Those two games have seen junior guard Dante Harris return from an early season ankle injury and graduate student forward Jordan Minor slot into the starting lineup. 

Both games were close and neither team is exactly the best in the ACC, but they revealed a blueprint the Cavaliers can use to succeed. First, Minor will need to continue to play a bruising brand of interior basketball — playing physical defense, rebounding and finishing passes from the playmaking guards. Then, the squad’s continuously stellar defense will have to be maintained. Virginia is ninth in the country in percentage of opponent possessions that end in turnovers. Continuing to take away possessions from other teams is vital to a team with as much shooting volatility as the Cavaliers possess. Importantly, the team’s shooting percentage also ticked up, with a bad game against Virginia Tech begetting a positive 11-23 performance in Atlanta. 

Virginia had a bad month. The last few weeks revealed a lot of flaws in the team, but this past week’s victories have restored some optimism. February road games against Clemson and Florida State, a visit from No. 3 North Carolina and a penultimate game at No. 12 Duke will make or break this team. They will need to win three of those four games and stay near-perfect against all other opponents to have a chance at seeing NCAA Tournament basketball. Otherwise, another year of disappointing postseason basketball looms in the form of the NIT.

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