Well, everyone, the season is less than a month away, the Blue-White scrimmage is on our doorstep, and I’ve been plugged into the CTB interview circuit as well as a gamut of podcasts, polls, etc. That time has come to start focusing on the upcoming year – what we’re hearing, expectation setting, and what likely needs to happen to reach our maximum ceiling. The below will be my best take/speculation on framing this year’s team through the lens of last year’s performance and the pending changes to the roster.
Run It Back?
“UVa returns their top 6 scorers and all of their starters!”
“Okay, but they were an NIT team last year – is that a good thing?”
I’m sure most of us have heard this line of discussion most of the offseason. While true, some of it is a bit misleading. Our 6th leading scorer was Francisco Caffaro and his 4.3 ppg. One consistent thing about players in a CTB (and Mike Curtis) program is that they almost always show improvement and development between seasons. This team wasn’t bad last year but it was inconsistent and fatally flawed. The obviousness of those flaws should be reduced with another year of player development and team cohesion. Among last year’s core returning players, Franklin, Gardner, and Murray will have more experience within the defensive system, and Beekman, Franklin, Shedrick, and Murray all seem like they still have a large opportunity to take strides with their individual development. Polls around the country have evolved throughout the offseason, initially having us as unranked or around the 25 slot, now starting to see some movement to the 16-18 range. Some of this evolution has been cited as buzz from ACC coaches stating that they believe we will compete with UNC and Duke for the ACC title again this year; a testament to the value of continuity and experience within a CTB system. But the limitations among the returning 6 will still be there and so, if this team is going to reach its maximum potential, it will need to rely on some of the new faces within the team to enhance the final product. Let’s get into it.
Confronting the Underlying Problem
If you ask most UVa fans, coaches even, what the underlying issues with last year’s team were, they would likely respond either with shooting, or that it was our worst defensive season since the very first years of CTB’s tenure. In fact, in a recent interview with Jon Rothstein, CTB took a question about the defense last year and pivoted to talk about their struggles shooting prior to responding to the defensive part of the question. In all of the in-game, post-game, and offseason interviews I’ve seen with CTB over the years, normally he’ll take a question about the offense and first discuss their defense prior to responding to what was asked (if at all). This is the first time I can ever remember him pivoting away from a defensive question to give an answer about the offense. We know that coaches like to control the narrative around their team, and CTB is no exception. There’s a lot to be gleaned from how they respond to questions. I have a feeling that CTB uncharacteristically driving the discussion toward the shooting problems is because he feels like that’s the issue most likely to be improved this year. Ben Vander Plas joining the team, the Isaacs both offering range from outside, Franklin spending the offseason working on his shot with Justin Anderson, Taine getting more PT in natural positions, even Shedrick’s reported improved range (including his 3 point shot!) all seem like options readily available and on the table for this year’s squad.
He then responded to the rest of the question about the struggles on defense by discussing the athleticism at the 4 position. He talked about Isaiah Wilkins, Akil Mitchell, Mamadi Diakite, Hunter, Key, players with elite athleticism and the ability to protect the rim. He talked a little bit about continuity and system familiarity, but it was a relatively muted topic compared to how he went out of the way to highlight that skillset for that position. I believe he chose to respond in that way because he believes that the defense is still going to be a struggle this year because it lacks that specific skillset. It’s very true. Of the returning group, only Shedrick offers that level of athleticism and rim protection that the others did, and he can’t always be on the court/is not playing in that power forward role. At its peak, the national championship team had Diakite AND Hunter on the floor. The team the following year had Huff AND Diakite (and Key!) on the floor. Some of the earlier dominant years had both Akil Mitchell AND Darion Atkins; Mike Tobey AND Anthony Gill…
So what’s the real issue in all of this? I would, and have, argue that size and athleticism have been the largest contributors to both of these issues. With Clark at SG, Franklin at SF, and Gardner at PF, we were considerably undersized ALL of 2-4 last year. Yes, it absolutely hurt our shooting that Armaan Franklin dropped from being a 42% three point shooter to just under 30%… but I believe, as I’ve highlighted previously, that it’s possible, even likely, that having opposing Small Forwards defending him instead of Shooting Guards contributed toward this. Kihei shot the three at a quality clip of almost 35% last year; but there were many times when the offense worked to generate a shot for him that he either couldn’t or hesitated to take because of that size discrepancy at the SG. I highlighted this in my piece evaluating the pros and cons of his return. Both offer similar issues at those respective positions on defense, where the size they’re giving up creates more comfortable looks for opponents via their close outs, struggles with physicality on drives and elevation on shots, and creates added challenges with team rebounding, help defense, etc.
Very quick refreshers/illustrations of this point against high quality competition, like Duke:
Kihei guarding Keels, giving up so much size, getting backed down the court despite his pressure, giving up an easy post up, and Caffaro not being quick or springy enough to recover to try to block the shot.
Roach simply dribbles for a little bit and then elevates over Clark for the three. First, Keels uses his size to post, and then the much smaller Roach can still simply elevate and shoot. In both cases, Duke doesn’t have to do much to generate a quality look, it simply comes from their comparative stature. As an aside, Jay Bilas remarked shortly after that shot that Roach had previously been 2-10 from three but took that one with confidence, highlighting how and why teams shot hotter against us than they did in normal contests last year. It’s easier to shoot with confidence when you don’t worry about your shot being blocked.
In fact, many people remember this Duke loss for Clark shooting out of his mind in the first half, but the Blue Devils were able to stay in the game and, ultimately win, by consistently exploiting the size mismatch with Clark and Gardner on the other end, compounded by the fact that we didn’t have many guys with the length/spring to do much about it help side. It was a stark contrast. We had a player playing at his absolute ceiling offensively while they created normal, easy shots, and won.
All of these factors I’ve touched on previously and at length for both KC and AF. So instead of rehashing those discussions, today I want to spend some time looking at that third piece of the puzzle, Jayden Gardner, in relation to CTB’s comments about an elite defending Power Forward and within the offense in general.
Who Is Our Best Player?
I was listing to the Streaking The Lawn podcast the other day and they were fielding mailbag questions; one of which asked both who is our best player and who needs to be in order for us to be our most successful. They were musing about how this was a little bit of an indirect shot toward Gardner, who was our best player last year, acknowledging some of his limitations and fit into our system on both sides of the ball.
In thinking about this, I started to (okay, this is for narrative purposes, I had been thinking about it all offseason) question… was Gardner actually our best player last year? He was our highest scorer and received All-ACC Third Team honors, so by those measures he was but, when you look at the full picture, I’m not so sure. Both Gardner and Franklin were our highest volume shooters by design and by necessity. Garnder took just over 25 shots per 100 possessions, over a quarter of all of our shots by volume (Franklin took just over 23 per 100 with the next closest among starters being Kihei at 16 even). He played the third most minutes on the team behind the Point Guards and, when you think about it, we actually had the fewest viable options to replace his presence on the floor. When Jayden was sitting, you either had Caffaro/Shedrick doubling up with an over-sized lineup that clogged up the paint, or you had Kody Stattmann (or Taine Murray even!) playing out of position at small-ball 4. We should have looked at Igor Milicic much more here, but that’s a story for the first blog I wrote and a ship that’s long since sailed. Point being, the team had practically zero depth behind Gardner last year. Furthermore, the team just straight up lacked scoring options. Really only he and Franklin could (or were willing – Beekman could have more often) get their own shot with reliability. Despite all of this, Gardner finished behind both Kadin Shedrick and Reece Beekman in offensive rating in terms of points produced over 100 possessions. His PER was second on the team, behind Shedrick, and his Box Plus/Minus was third (behind Beekman and Shedrick). Gardner might have been the team’s highest scorer but, surprisingly, he was not tops at offensive facilitation. Defensively, on the other hand, his rating of 103.2 points allowed per 100 possessions was only ahead of Clark among the starters and his Defensive Box Plus/Minus was dead last among the starters at .2.
There has been some chatter that his defense improved throughout the season, which is true, and that, situationally, he could be a lock down defender in the right matchup. His two games against Paolo Banchero were cited as examples of this, as Banchero scored under double figures in both. In the game at UVa, specifically, Banchero shot just 2-13 from the floor. This has been used as the shining example of both how Gardner’s defense improved and one time it all came together.
I went back and gave this game a detailed rewatch, focusing on Gardner the entire game, and I will tell you that, while there were some really good moments from him, like this:
This was not the individual lock down effort by Gardner that it’s made out to be. He played tough and with effort throughout; but he also had some mental lapses, some moments where his size was exploited, and UVa sent a lot of resources and help his way. Also, Banchero had a bad shooting night despite quite a few wide open looks from outside:
On the first play above, Clark does a great job helping to stop Banchero’s dribble, but both Gardner and Clark attempt to recover to Clark’s man and Banchero gets a wide open look from three, which he just misses. On the second, Gardner is flat footed and loses concentration/track of Banchero for a bit on the play. By the time the ball is kicked back out to him, Gardner’s isn’t there to close out on the shot despite basically standing in position the entire play. Again, Banchero just misses. Now, you can argue that Paolo wasn’t the greatest three-point shooter last season, but he was still over 33% and it certainly wasn’t in UVa’s strategy (as you can see throughout the rest of the game) to just give him those open looks.
He also missed some shots that he created that he probaly should have, and normally would have, made:
Yes, Gardner bumps him on his way up and disrupts the shot (you could make a strong argument that he fouled him), but Banchero still creates a blow by dribble and creates a layup that he normally finishes. At the very least, we’re fortunate to come away with a stop there, not get a whistle blown, and have Banchero miss one point blank. Certainly, it’s not lock down defense. This is lock down:
And yes, I’m well aware that not everyone can be Reece Beekman, but I wanted an opportunity to highlight that completely sick stop and I DO think it’s a good comparison in the sense that we know what stifling defense looks like vs. the previous clip which is unsustainable and much more often leads to points than not. Let’s remember that historically we’ve had players who can regularly do stuff like this at the position:
Duke was making a focused effort to play through both Banchero and whoever Clark was guarding this game. While it’s true that they were finding more (much) success targeting Clark, they still ran the rest of their offense through Banchero and he still had success creating for others as we attempted to adapt. In the second clip above where I’m showcasing the quality defense that Gardner played, you even get a quick glimpse of this at the end. Even though Gardner anticipates Banchero’s post move and does a great job to adjust to bother it, in doing so he expends so much effort that he falls completely out of position and Banchero has a free path to crash the glass. In this situation, Shedrick is there and we’re lucky to get the carom to deflect off of Duke, but on this play:
He very similarly does a great job anticipating and swiping at the spin, only to completely forget to box out one of the largest players on the court, who ducks right around him, grabs the rebound, and gets fouled. This counted as one of his missed field goals, but he still generated an offensive rebound and two points off of it.
Banchero wasn’t shooting well, and some of this was certainly due to a combination of Gardner and the fact that we were regularly double teaming him in an attempt to help/disrupt his rhythm. But he really didn’t have a problem getting a look if he wanted it.
Here he just jab steps a few times and shoots directly over Gardner despite not really creating much distance with his move. I’m struck by the parallels because this is really just the post player version of the move I highlighted earlier when Roach just dribbled a few times and pulled up over Kihei. It just isn’t very hard for these quality players to create these shots if they want them because of the size disparity. Here Banchero was not hitting on most of these, but we did see in the ACC Tournament how Brady Manek just went off shooting over Garnder’s contests in the first half. So much so, that they actually put Franklin, of all people, on Manek in the second half and it worked (but created other issues).
Scoring wasn’t the big impact that Banchero had on this game, nor was it a full showcase of the defensive issues that Gardner brought to the table.
Here’s one of several different types of examples I’ll use to illustrate this. Banchero gets the ball in the post vs. Gardner. As we often did when he got into the paint, Virginia sent Shedrick to double and help. Now we know that this is not abnormal for our defensive system normally. CTB LOVES to send aggressive double teams into the post and then have the team rotate while the post player attempts to pass out of duress. But we didn’t see nearly as much of that this season from UVa and this is why. Banchero can easily both see and pass over Gardner (not to mention that Armaan loses confidence in his rotation. We didn’t see much of the post double this season because it’s very hard for Gardner to impact the sight lines and passing lanes of the bigs he is doubling (and because we didn’t have the length among our guards to disrupt the passing lanes, either). They did it more often in this game in an attempt to compensate for Banchero, which lead to issues like the above (more to come later). Banchero had 5 assists in this game, more than half of his entire team’s total.
Here Clark gets beat off of the dribble by Roach, who denies a screen to create a completely free path to the basket. This example perfectly illustrates what CTB is referencing in his interviews about the lack of the athletic defending 4. Any defensive player is going to find this situation unenviable as Gardner has to try to force Roach to make a mistake and/or contest his shot without making a pass to Banchero easy. We can imagine a player like Diakite or Mitchell playing this – probably attempting to bait Roach into thinking that the shot was open and then recovering quick enough to block it. But Gardner is just overwhelmed and really has no chance. It’s all he can do to stick with Banchero and make a token swipe toward the ball. Roach finishes easily at the rim, entirely unbothered.
This one was a really rough example. Duke posts Franklin with the 6’5″ Wendell Moore. Shedrick doubles him into the post and, together, they’re able to make him escape dribble and pass back out to Banchero, now open because Gardner has switched onto Mark Williams. Beekman rotates off of Keels who Banchero finds. Pause the video at 47:48 with Banchero about to pass to Keels. Gardner is still guarding Williams and Shedrick is still coming out of the double team, farther away from Keels than Gardner is. The preferred rotation here is probably Gardner passing Williams back to Shedrick, as they would naturally once the double team ended and, as the closer defender, running out to contest the three. However, this doesn’t happen. Gardner stays put and Shedrick sprints past him, through the paint, to contest the jumper on the far wing. Shedrick’s body language looks confused so I’m pretty sure the rotational mistake is on Gardner here but, either way, the glaring issue is that Gardner is in a good rebounding position from the moment he makes the switch until the shot is taken. Despite this, Williams just uses his size to easily go over him for the board and then go back up with the finish at the rim. Yes, Williams is 7’1″ and Gardner has switched onto him – but it’s a huge challenge for team defense collectively when your Power Forward doesn’t have much of a chance at boxing out the opposing team’s Center, even when in perfect position to do so.
Brief Pause To Put It All Together
I’m working toward a broader point here about the perception of Gardner’s role on the team in 2022 vs. what I think it should be, but I wanted to take a quick pause to unify some of the points I’ve made about how our being undersized at 2-4 this past year caused so many collective team defensive challenges. A few of these sets against Duke made this point in neon lights so here are the ones that really stood out to me:
If you pause at 21:39, you’ll get mad because Shedrick just took an elbow to the face and it wasn’t called. But you’ll also see a lot of what I’ve been talking about this summer in action. We’re doubling Banchero with Shedrick because we feel as though we don’t really have the option to leave him alone that deep in the paint against Gardner. On the backside, Mark Williams is wide open and, despite Kihei dropping down from the help side, there’s very little that he would be able to do if Banchero attempted to pass it to him. If Banchero had turned baseline instead of back toward the paint, he would have been looking over Gardner and would have easily seen this pass, potentially even throwing a lob. Instead, Banchero turned into Shedrick but got a pass out to the 6’6″ AJ Griffin, who Franklin both loses and then just simply isn’t long enough to contest effectively. Three distinct size pain points illustrated on one defensive possession.
Another example of Duke playing through Banchero and him facilitating. This time he draws the double team from Caffaro as he slowly works Gardner into the paint. Clark literally plays this as well as he can, lingering with Mark Williams enough to discourage the pass and then sprinting out to contest his original man, Roach… but his contest just isn’t enough to bother Roach’s shot. To be clear, not only was Roach unafraid of being blocked; if that was Beekman or Franklin with the same distancing, I don’t think he’s even able to take that shot, but he certainly would have been less comfortable doing so.
I chose this as my last of these examples because sometimes you can learn about your vulnerabilities even when the outcome goes your way. This is a good and tough defensive possession. Clark deflects a pass early, Gardner forces Banchero to make a difficult pass, Griffin misses a shot, and Franklin (so tough!) rips the ball away from him to secure an incredibly hard rebound. But here’s another way to look at this one: Banchero, with 4 inches on Gardner, passes up a good shot to find Griffin, with 2 inches on Franklin, who creates a better shot and misses a finger roll. Then, despite being in good rebounding position, Franklin has to outmuscle Griffin for the ball because Griffin was able to use his length to tip the rebound to himself and almost secure an offensive rebound. We played very good positional defense on this possession and yet, simply because of that huge size gap 2-4, it was very difficult and took maximum effort for us to get the outcome we wanted while being pretty unfortunate for them that they didn’t get a relatively comfortable bucket. And that’s the crux of the entire issue. You don’t want the routine things to be so much harder for you than your opponent. It’s what leads to the swings in outcome and inconsistent play that we saw last season, and is also what caps your ceiling.
And Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Programming
Back to Jayden. The thing that I really want to emphasize is that this was his bellwether defensive game and is one that’s regularly pointed to as showcasing his upside in the right matchup. And, all-in-all, he did play well and it was an improvement from the earlier portions of the season. But the idea that this was still a plus defensive game from him in a vacuum I firmly believe to be inaccurate. UVa still had to sacrifice elsewhere to help on Banchero, he still made plays for his teammates, we were fortunate he did not convert more of his looks, and there were many plays that I showed where Gardner’s defensive limitations were hidden in the box score but were incredibly impactful on the court.
So, what about the offensive trade-offs? In both Duke games he scored in double digits – 17 and 16 points, respectively. His output in this game I’ve been highlighting was 16 points, on a 7-15 shooting clip from the floor (46%) compared to 8-19 (42%) @Duke. We needed all of these points, as offense was hard to come by. But many of these buckets came in a window of time in the second half when Duke put Wendell Moore on Gardner and moved Banchero to actually guard Beekman, in hopes of disrupting his playmaking, and most of the others came on him capitalizing on broken plays – deflections falling his way where he could swiftly sink the open mid-range jumper, the guards forcing so many rotations that he’d get lost in the shuffle and be able to convert. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely CRUCIAL that we had someone both willing to take and make those shots as they presented. Jayden remains, against any competition, a bucket in the midrange when left open. But he wasn’t able to create his own offense in matchups like this. When they did post him, which they tried early on, you’d get shots like these:
Those are both good moves, very much in his bag, but both result in very forced and off shots because he’s just being blanketed. He really wasn’t a threat to score one-on-one vs. Banchero and, while Banchero was probably the most extreme example of this, it was a struggle of Gardner’s all season long where, in some games, he’d feast in the post and, in others, they wouldn’t be able to use him in that way because of his size disadvantage. This issue compounded with the fact that Gardner’s game remained primarily inside of the three-point line (and, really, we’ve heard a lot about Kadin improving his range this offseason but if Gardner could have developed an outside shot, that would have been huge). When he would run into these kinds of challenges, he couldn’t then retreat beyond the arc and open up the middle of the court for Kihei, Reece, and Armaan. Instead, his presence on the inside would clutter spacing.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t include this play:
This is the play that effectively sealed the game for Duke. They’ve gone small ball with Banchero guarding Shedrick and vice-versa. We’re within 3 and need to create offense. Attempting to seize a moment where Banchero isn’t on Gardner, Kihei attempts to get him a pass in the high post. Unfortunately, 6’6″ AJ Griffin is able to get around Gardner’s body and deflect the pass, leading to the transition bucket the other way. This wasn’t a careless pass from Kihei. Gardner simply didn’t come to the ball aggressively enough and took for granted that he’d be able to secure it. It illustrates how a team like Duke can go small ball and it’s still not easy to make basic entry passes.
I know that when I write break downs like this that it can feel like I’m piling on. That’s not my intent. Jayden Gardner is a very skilled player and, in the right matchup (this is very much what we mean when we say “matchup dependent”) can be a dominant player. But was he our “best” player last year? I would argue, no (3rd behind Reece and Kadin). He was our most prolific scorer, but sometimes that was a result of necessity given the make-up of the rest of the team. He brings some incredibly specific talents that can be wildly effective, but there are also trade-offs to those on the defensive side of the ball in most matchups, even despite his improvement over the season. I just looked at what most view as his signature defensive game of the year and you can still see that the leaks are plentiful and the full team had to funnel defensive resources toward his matchups, creating issues elsewhere. Against the best competition, the kind of teams that you’ll need to beat if you’re going to make it far in the NCAA tournament, his offense becomes less effective, less efficient, and isn’t something that you can turn to in order to create a bucket itself.
So, About 2022, Again?
With the above I’ve focused on the Jayden side of the story for the first time in depth (previously looking at Kihei and Armaan). Those clips highlighting our 2-4 issues defensively last year, were not unique to the Duke game. We ran into the same issues all year – and it was enough of a problem that CTB made the point to call out not having that athletic 4 on defense. So, when we hear national talk about returning our starting 5 and top 6 scorers, I do believe it is a double-edged sword. It is very possible that all five of those top returning players are the best individual players on our team, but I also very firmly believe that our exact starting lineup from last season is not going to be one of our better lineups this season except for maybe in some rare matchups against very small teams. If you look at that Duke game, Kihei Clark went off for 25 points and Gardner cleaned up for 16 – over 2/3rds of the team’s total offensive output. It’s fair to ask, without them, where does the offense come from? But, similarly, I’d wager that the same percentage of points created by Duke, if not more, were by looking for opportunities for whoever Clark was guarding, and then running the rest of their offense through Banchero to draw help and facilitate.
An ideal solution would be to find the offense in other places through the improvement of Beekman, Shedrick, Franklin, and the addition of Vander Plas, McKneely, Traudt so that you can start to add more plus, or at least neutral, defenders for their position into the lineup without losing the ability to score if Clark and Gardner are off the court. Perhaps just having to rely on one of them at a time and compensating elsewhere would make a big difference. Imagine, if you will, Ben Vander Plas on the same roster last year in that Duke game. BVP, whose game I discussed when his transfer decision was announced, is 6’8″ and will immediately have the deepest outside range of anyone on the program. He’s spent almost all of his career defending the post at Ohio, but there have been heavy rumors this offseason that he’s working toward being able to play either the 3 or the 4. Now, BVP is still not the rangy, bouncy, defensive 4 that CTB has been describing, but his 96.9 points allowed per 100 possessions was considerably lower than Gardner’s 103.2 while playing the same position. His defensive BP/M was 1.8 compared to Gardner’s .2. If we swap the two for a good portion of the game then, while it’s still unlikely we’d have been able to change our overall defensive GP, it’s likely that his length/ability would have incrementally made things tougher across the board, especially in a lot of the examples that I pulled above. Furthermore, let’s assume that Banchero would have been able to make BVP’s ability to score the ball similarly difficult as he did with Gardner – BVP would have been able to set up shop well beyond the three-point line, pulling Banchero out of the lane and opening everything up for the rest of the team. In some cases, especially in the second half when Duke made adjustments not to give Kihei open threes, maybe put BVP at the SF, shift Armaan to SG, and keep Gardner on the floor. You still have shooting at both wings, you have improved size help side, and even if Duke shifts their game plan to target BVP on the perimeter rather than how they were targeting Clark, he’s got 10 more inches to contest with and both Beekman and Franklin are still there to handle primary ball handlers. We would have had some additional options to try – most of which sound viable.
So Who Needs To Be Our Best Players?
The same two guys who were our best players last year – Reece and Kadin. But it can’t be status quo. It needs to be such an improvement that they can put more of the primary offensive burden on themselves (especially Reece) to allow for some of these other changes to happen – Armaan seeing more time at his natural SG, Isaac McKneely being able to crack the rotation at SG, BVP getting some run at SF, Traudt and his 6’10” outside in game even cracking the rotation for some potentially extreme shooting/size lineups. Even Ryan Dunn (assuming he doesn’t redshirt), whose offense will likely be limited to hustle plays, could be incredibly valuable as a defender at the SG/SF position unlike anyone else they have on the roster, but who likely will not be able to be utilized if Beekman and Shedrick aren’t more threatening/willing scorers. They unlock the rest of it, because if your two best defenders clearly become your two best players, then there isn’t anyone else on the team that you HAVE to play. You can mix and match much more willingly with the many varied puzzle pieces that this team will have. And this doesn’t mean there aren’t still big minutes and important roles for Kihei and Jayden, but it does mean, I believe, that the fewer minutes they have to play, the better situation the team will be in. This isn’t because they won’t be needed and won’t have huge moments/games/plays, it just means that if we’re having to rely on them less over the span of the season, other players with more upside are playing well and earning those minutes. This is an opinion that probably aligns with what I believe many fans have thought of Kihei for a while, but I’m not sure aligns with what most people think of Jayden.
What Will Happen?
Many fans feel pretty confident, based on CTB’s past tendencies, that we’ll lean heavily on our returning starters, mix in BVP off the bench, and then see where IMK and Taine Murray fit in; while big opportunity awaits for Traudt, Dunn, and Bond down the road. CTB IS talking differently in the media this year. Across multiple interviews, he’s mentioned being surprised that Kihei decided to return this year, and has specifically said that we likely won’t have to rely as much on both he and Reece. This is a strong tonal shift from the previous season. That being said, he’s also singled out IMK as the most likely first year to get PT because of the “need” at guard. I don’t think anything is set in stone yet, but I do believe that he’s signaling very strongly that he’s willing to explore his options fully. I don’t expect BVP or IMK to be mixed in, I expect both to factor strongly, even start at times. I don’t think that Taine is going to be the afterthought that many fans assume, and he will likely hold down the backup SF minutes that BVP doesn’t take. My biggest worry is Isaac Traudt. It’s going to be REALLY hard to keep him off of the floor and the best versions of THIS year’s team will likely involve him being integrated some amount of time late in the season. Occasionally running BVP, Traudt, and Shedrick all at the same time is something I’d love to see us try and could have some very effective application. I would bet against his usage to the extent that I am hoping for, though.
This isn’t just going to be “last year’s team: run it back!” Even just considering the addition of BVP, IMK, and player improvement across our highest potential guys, the options and blueprint change drastically. Our guys should be more rested. We’ll have more varied solutions for unique problems. The odds that we miss the tournament again are very low, and I think would be the biggest disappointment we’ve seen in CTB’s tenure. Realistically, UNC will probably win the ACC this year, but I think we’ll compete and have a strong argument as the second best team. In terms of expectation setting, my prediction is a round of 32, Sweet 16 type of season. What’s the ceiling? IMO, that’s going to entirely depend on how willing and able we are to mix and match this roster and go deep into our bag which, in turn, is going to depend on how tangible the continued evolution of Reece Beekman and Kadin Shedrick is.
We’ll start to see the first parts of the picture develop on November 7th!
So that’s where I think we are and I am looking forward to following all of it this year with you all. On a blog-related note, I plan to try to do a break down after most of the games this year, highlighting through video and discussion some of the things I liked and didn’t about each game and foreshadowing future games to come. Of course, I’ll also be discussing any random topics or happenings throughout the year. I’ll also be there in person for both of the Vegas games this season and will try to provide some perspective on that, at the very least, through Twitter (official CFTC Twitter handle is @Xavier_Venom). This will be the first time this blog has been live during a season – so thank you all for the kind words and chatter that have come with the start of this. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to keeping it going with you all! Go Hoos!