Overreacting to Italy

What a week! There were pictures of breathtaking scenery, architecture, and food. Hoos fans were living vicariously through the first-hand accounts abroad and, oh yeah, there was also basketball.

In their first time playing against international competition, the team developed chemistry with some old and new faces, potentially experienced some over-confidence beating up on lesser teams, and suffered a reality check loss prior to rebounding to defeat the same team dramatically in extra time. It was basically the exact plot of The Mighty Ducks 2.

Ostensibly, this was an incredibly productive and valuable trip to build team chemistry off of and to learn lessons headed into the new season. It’s been a tricky one to analyze from the outside-in. With only highlight clips, we’re left to piece together the happenings through starting lineups, box scores, firsthand recounts, and post-game interviews. The dramatic difference in levels of quality of opponents also adds another layer of confusion, as does the nature of these being exhibition games where the coaching staff’s primary goals aren’t game outcome, it’s team cohesion and evaluation. There’s a reason this one’s called, “Overreacting” because it’s really just that – trying to take what we can from a small, obscured, and incomplete data set.

That being said, speculation is the name of the game and I do think there are take aways for fans from these games, so below I’ll just dump some thoughts that came to mind when thinking about the reporting over the week.

Rotation Choices

The decision to rest three players per game to allow for a more fluid game was one I really liked. Not just because it allowed for games to more similarly reflect how they’ll be managed during the season, but because it gave some hints at where players stand. The first game, against easily their lightest competition, CTB chose to sit Clark, Murray, and Caffaro. This was a confidence building game. Not much point in playing Clark, the team’s most experienced and mentally resilient player. I believe this game was chosen to let Beek get cooking a bit, as well as Shedrick, who was able to get some run without as much need for Caffaro to spell him. It made a lot of sense to play all of the young guys here, as well. I was surprised that Taine Murray was selected to be the third man out, would have expected Franklin or Gardner here given their respective experience. My initial (and remaining) thought was that this was a sign that Taine wasn’t viewed as much of a priority. It could mean that they wanted to see him against the best possible combination of competition that they could, but over the span of the games it did seem like he’s already squarely behind Isaac McKneely on the depth chart.

In the two games against KK Mega Basket, easily the only truly quality competition they faced, it looked like they tried to play most of their “A team” in the first contest, and then place a lot of pressure on all of their younger players in the second contest. Interestingly, it was the game against our returning core that the Serbian pro team ended up running away with and the game against the youngsters that we won, but more on that to come. That being said, I think the lineup choices when viewed holistically point toward CTB leaning toward Beekman, Clark, McKneely, Franklin, Vander Plas, Gardner, and Shedrick being his core rotation with Caffaro, Murray, Traudt, Dunn and Bond being primarily reserves (Caffaro getting more PT than the rest). At least, that seemed like the plan coming in.

Some quick notes: Isaac McKneely started two games – the only freshman to start any. In the first game against KK Mega Basket where they likely played what would be their starting lineup of choice, Vander Plas started at PF over Gardner. Reportedly their worst stretch of play (considering their competition) was the beginning of the second game against Orange1. There lineup there was Clark, Murray, Franklin, Gardner, and Caffaro; which turned around quickly when the bench of Dunn, Bond, Traudt and Shedrick got into the game.

Player Thoughts

Reece Beekman – I think Reece is has been, and very likely will again be, the best player on our team. He continued to be a menace on the defensive end throughout the week and it will be a surprise to me if he’s not the ACC DPOTY this season (he should have been last). He’ll probably be the best PG in the conference when all is said and done and when evaluated on the total impact he has on a game. The shift to make him the primary ball handler last season seems to have helped his growth on the offensive side as well. Encouragingly, he completely took over the last KK Mega Basket game until the final stanza. There weren’t many games Beek was putting up 20 points last season, but here he was against likely multiple future NBA draft picks. The biggest thing I’ll be keeping an eye on with him is just how much his three point shot has improved but, more, how willing he is to pull the trigger when he’s open.

Kadin Shedrick – If Reece isn’t our best player this season, I’m a firm believer that it will be Shedrick. He was already sneakily our player with the highest PER of anyone on the team last season. He also had the highest win shares over 40 minutes and the highest defensive rating on the team. His offense was mostly reliant on other players to create for him, and he was prone to foul trouble (his 8.9 per 100 possessions lead the team), which drew him some criticism. But his rim protection, length, athleticism, and ability to finish above the basket changed the dynamic of the way the team played last year. With Kadin, the criticism has been around consistency, so it should be encouraging to see that he was our most consistently impactful player during this stretch of games, scoring in double figures in all three of his games and saving his best game – 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 2 blocks for his best opposition. CTB said he’d never seen Shedrick look as good as he did in that game, which is not something he offers lightly. The thing that stood out most about the Shedrick reporting was that he went to his midrange jumper often and even hit a 3 pointer. Adding offense, spacing, and more strength to his game will be huge and he’s probably the player who will take the biggest leap from last season to this.

Kihei Clark – After being relatively quiet offensively in his first two games, Clark was the team high scorer with 23 points in the double-overtime revenge game thriller. By all accounts, he simply dominated the last OT stanza of that game along with 4 freshmen, enough so that CTB didn’t feel the need to put Beekman back in despite the fact that Beek had been the best player in the game until that point. Sure, some of that was probably trying to see how the young kids would react to the pressure against quality competition, but make no mistake, CTB was playing to win. The fact that CTB was mostly rotating Beek and Clark down the stretch AND that he was willing to stick with the hot hand and didn’t feel the need to pull Beek back in so that they can close together speaks to me probably more than anything else from the trip. I mentioned earlier that I think Beekman is the best player on the team. But Clark, in his own right, is probably a top 3 PG in the ACC this year and appears to be playing with the utmost confidence. Neither are good ACC shooting guards. The conversation throughout the fanbase has so often been surrounding Clark because of Beekman’s traits and impact, but if you asked me whether I would prefer to sit Beekman and play Clark rather than play both together for most of a game, I absolutely would agree without blinking and I think Clark, with the continual improvement of his game, would do great in that role. This game finally appears to be a sign that CTB seems more willing to lean on the situation and the hot hand… which would do us wonders. That being said, they did jump out to an early lead in the final game while playing together, as well. So even though by all accounts they were at their best when separated, potentially we’ll see them at their most compatible yet.

Armaan Franklin – In my last piece, I wrote about how much I wanted to see Armaan get more run at the 2. It doesn’t appear that this will be in the cards much, because even with some of the substitution patterns, both Murray and McKneely were slotted to SG while playing alongside Armaan. There has been some chatter that some of the bigs might play SF, but I couldn’t really glean from this week how likely that is given how much PT both Bond and Dunn were getting, but more on that later. I’m still very optimistic about Armaan this season, but I will say that he started every game he played and his impact appeared to be pretty minimal. He was on the court during the team’s bad run against Orange1, and he was an integral part of the blowout loss to KK Mega Basket and didn’t crack double figures a single time, despite being their second leading scorer last year. This is going to be one of those “wait and see” things, but my conjecture is that he’s still drawing SF most of the time which is still limiting his effectiveness. It should be pointed out that he sat out the final KK Mega Basket game and the team’s defense was significantly better with Bond and Dunn primarily getting those minutes at SF – and the squad found the offense in other places.

Jayden Gardner – My next piece surrounding last season is going to be about Jayden; but suffice it to say that he was by far and away our most effective and efficient offensive player for us last season, while being one of our least effective defenders. His defense did improve over the span of the season as he learned the system, but the challenges that came with his size as an ACC PF remained. Challenges effectively contesting stretch 4s (which was most exemplified against Brady Manek in the ACC Tournament), challenges giving up rebounds and deflections, the inability to employ effective shot-altering when supporting our also undersized guards… all of these issues were consistent leaks that were masked by his total stats and the fact that he was our only viable PF (who saw PT… neither the dual center lineup or playing Stattmann at 4 were it and Milicic didn’t see time). He was still our second highest PER player because of the value that he brought on the offensive end was worth it most of the time and the team struggled as a whole to generate points last year. I think we’re looking at a significant reduction in minutes for Gardner this season. For one, it seems like he’s behind BVP on the depth chart as he did not start the first KK Mega Basket game when we attempted to put our best foot forward. Secondly, he was involved in most of our worst defensive moments, like the first quarter against Orange1, and the whole of the KK Mega Basket Game (we gave up 92 points in that game in 40 minutes and 87 points against the same team in 2 OTs the following game when Gardner, Franklin, and Shedrick sat… and Shedrick’s not our defensive issue). And Traudt just seems too talented not to earn some significant playing time (more on him to come as well). This might be a situation where his offense will be in less demand so we’ll defer to size more frequently. He’ll certainly get his run and time, but I think it’s distinctly possible that he comes off of the bench in some games, and is played primarily as an offensive fire starter when we’re struggling. He played almost 33 minutes per game last year, I think it’ll be more like 20-25 this year.

Ben Vander Plas – BVP had a pretty poor stretch of games shooting by all accounts. He did hit a big three in double OT in the final game. He also started both KK Mega Basket games and played a significant role in that turn around. CTB didn’t seem concerned in the least with his shooting from a long term perspective, and I don’t see any reason to be, either. If anything, his range and size offer the first of multiple quality options we’ve had at 4 and gave the team improved spacing through which to play. So, despite him not actually playing that well by his standard, his presence had an impact. There has been some chatter through the ranks that the coaching staff ARE, indeed, looking at whether he can be effective at SF, or if there’s some mix and match options for him defensively to get on the floor in a three big lineup. I think people are going to be surprised at the amount of run this guy is going to get this season and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he’s a starter by the end of it, or even the beginning.

Francisco Caffaro – Much was made of Papi starting over Kadin in the second game against Orange1. I think that was simply because he’d sat out the entire previous game. That being said, the way Kadin played, Papi is likely going to be playing clean up this year, spelling foul trouble, jumping in to become an enforcer, to give some fouls, defend in very physical matchups. I don’t see another situation where he gains the starting role through the middle of the season, that ship has likely sailed. He won’t be needed to play spot PF often, either, as there are too many good options to turn to now. But, in spite of that, this appears to be the best and most skilled he’s looked. He reminds me of Jack Salt in that championship year where, by the end, he didn’t have to be called on often because the options around him had started to live up to their potential, but there was still a role for him to play, albeit a reduced one. That’s what I expect Papi to be this year, a pure backup center to Shedrick but a fairly solid one.

Taine Murray – I don’t think we should entirely write Taine off just yet. He had some pretty solid offensive outputs and some decent playmaking. The problem is that he already seems to just be behind Isaac McKneely despite having a full additional year under his belt. That was probably his best in road to playing time on this team – the SG/SF position (depending on Armaan) assuming his experience in the system and scoring could keep all of the freshmen at bay and Clark wouldn’t eat too many of those remaining minutes. But if IMK is already getting the nod (and accounts of their play seem to corroborate that) then Taine is likely going to be on the outside looking in with regard to the core rotation.

Isaac McKneely – Our first freshman discussed is also the only who saw any time starting, and started two games (one in the absence of Clark and Murray in Game 1 and one in the absence of Franklin in the last). Rumors about this incoming class were that he was going to be the most polished, prepared, and likely to challenge for immediate playing time. Certainly nothing going into this tournament has dispelled that notion on his end. His shot making was apparent, and he was the team’s third leading scorer in the win against KK Mega Basket. Notably, he filled in for Franklin at SF at the start and put up 15 points. The team didn’t seem to miss a beat defensively with him on the floor, for sure, as their worst total performance in that area was the one he sat. It takes a lot to crack CTB’s rotation as a first year, but don’t be surprised if IMK does just that, carving out 15 minutes or so.

Isaac Traudt – Eye opening is how I would describe Traudt’s play this week. It’s been mostly assumed that, while Traudt might get some time, he’ll likely have to wait a year behind BVP and Gardner while learning the defense. If CTB is notoriously slow to give minutes to young players, he’s even more so with young big men. But Traudt was impactful not just on the offensive end (with a team leading 19 points against Orange1) but on the defensive end as well. Whenever he entered the game, the team seemed to get a boost, even when it was spelling tenured starters. He stretched the defense, he hit the glass aggressively and effectively, especially on the offensive end, his length bothered on defense. In the last KK Mega Basket game, both frontcourt starters from last year were out in both Gardner and Shedrick (who was the player of the week), Traudt primarily held down the PF/C position with BVP and Caffaro over a full game and 2 OTs, and we went from losing by 19 to the same team, to winning by 7; a 26 point swing. It’s going to be really hard to keep a player of his caliber and with his traits off the court, even if he make some mistakes. I’m fantasizing now about a line up where he, BVP and Shedrick are all on the court at the same time and we just dominate with size without giving up any of the shooting. Furthermore, in situations where Shedrick is tired or in foul trouble, CTB could opt to play BVP and Traudt at 4/5 instead of Papi, which would open up the floor entirely. Traudt is ideally situated for the PF role, but there is a lot of overlap in his skillset with BVP, and playing him at 5 is not out of the question in some situations. Preconceived notions aside and, even knowing how slow CTB is to put young bigs out there, I think it’s going to be really hard to keep this guy off of the court. It just seems like the overall team result improves when he’s out there.

Ryan Dunn – A little over-excitement was generated when it looked like Dunn went off for 8 points in the first quarter against Orange1 but it turned out that he finished with 2 points for the game. His offense is raw and is going to need development – there were accounts of several instances of him having a wide open 3 point shot and deferring. But, there’s all of the potential in the world here and, of note, the defense seemed to thrive when he was in at SF. This run of games likely reinforces the idea the Dunn won’t get a lot of run this year, but if he doesn’t redshirt, there does seem to be a very real role for him as a rangy and athletic defensive stopper at the SF position – a skill set that we’ve been lacking since the loss of Braxton Key.

Leon Bond – Coming into this set of games, there’s been discussion over whether or not Dunn or Bond were more likely to redshirt, if either. Those in the know seem to believe it’s Bond, and I don’t think anything about last week changed that assumption. Similarly to Dunn, Bond has some refining to do with his offensive skillset. He’s a physical, athletic defender, but doesn’t offer as much length as Dunn. That being said, a lineup with Beekman, Dunn, Bond, Traudt, and Shedrick (or something similar) will be a defensive nightmare for future opponents. In the second OT against KK Mega Basket it was Clark, McKneely, Dunn, Bond, and Traudt who suffocated their opponents and, eventually, pulled away. So, it certainly appears like what Bond and Dunn are giving up on the offensive end, they’re making up for with their defense, but Bond appears to be the most without a role at the moment. One thing I wanted to specifically mention, Bond grabbed a TON of rebounds last week, which point to plus size/athleticism for his position, good awareness, positioning, and hustle.

In Conclusion – Final Takeaways

Given all of the above, there weren’t many surprises over the week on any large scale. The biggest, I would say, were Shedrick’s jumper, the freshmen squad playing better against strong competition than the team with Franklin, Gardner, and Shedrick, and the extent to which Traudt obviously adds value on the court despite still having so much to learn and grow into.

This team is much deeper than last year’s squad, but I think it’s important to point out that it’s not just deep, most of the players all bring unique skillsets that should allow for some creative mix and matching and there should be an answer to most questions the opposition asks. Need to break a press? Close out a game? Match up against elite quickness and ball handling in the backcourt? Trot out Beekman, Clark, and Franklin/McKneely in your backcourt. Need to stretch an opposing defense? Put Beekman or Clark with McKneely, Franklin, BVP, and Traudt and play 5 out. Want to play the pick and roll without clutter in the middle? Put Beekman/Clark with three of Franklin, McKneely, BVP, and Traudt and set your on ball screens with Kadin. Getting killed by an athletic wing or big guard? Bring in Dunn. Need an offensive spark or want to exploit a smaller or slower front court? Bring in Gardner. Need some size/physicality? Play three of Shedrick, Caffaro, BVP, Traudt, and Gardner. Need someone to give some fouls and amp up the energy? Bring in Caffaro (and maybe even Bond).

Unlike last season when there were only 7 guys we even trusted to be on the court, none of whom were overly complimentary with each other. This year we should have a unique option for almost any situation that we encounter, and the crazy value/upside that our young guys bring into the mix. Overreacting to last week, and perhaps the most important aspect of it, CTB seems more willing to trust that. As always, but even more now, I can’t wait until November!

One response to “Overreacting to Italy”

  1. That was an excellent recap. I really liked the candid appraisals of all the players and potential lineups. A few surprises in there too. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

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