Let’s pick up right where we left off after showing out against the tournament favorite, facing off against a talented Illinois team who just staged a strong comeback against UCLA, and whose fanbase packed T-Mobile Stadium. This had the feeling of a true road game, with stakes. One which we closed out with a 13-0 run until the final seconds of the game. Illinois was a challenging and yet entirely different opponent than Baylor. Rather than the more traditional 2-big offense that Baylor ran, Illinois primarily ran a 5-out, weaponizing their shooting and mobility. We also did not have the shooting performance from outside that we did against the Bears, and yet never wavered or appeared short on confidence. Let’s get into it:
Over-Arching Like #1 (Cont’d): Tournament MVP Reece
Beekman played great against Baylor, but this was the game where he really made his case as the Tournament MVP. Simply put, he dominated and completely took over the game down that final stretch. It was great to see him coming into his own as “the guy” and there were more than a few signs that torch had been passed that I’ll discuss. But even though the final stretch run was so impressive, he really dominated throughout, scoring, facilitating and, most impressively, holding Terrence Shannon Jr. to 9 points on 4-10 shooting from the floor. Shannon Jr. was averaging over 24 points per game coming into the contest and had just absolutely lit up UCLA for 29 just two nights prior.
As many have before him, however, he found rough sledding against Beekman throughout the game. So much so, that he was full-blown passive on offense by the end of the game and Illinois didn’t go to him to try to break their closing drought.
This is the introduction that so many get when squaring off against Reece. They try to force the issue on the drive but Beekman is so good at back pedaling so that he’s not fouling with the body while still tying up the ball. Here he had extra help over the top with Shedrick touching the ball. An eye-opening start to a game in the wake of getting whatever he wanted against UCLA.
Shannon’s got 3 inches on Beekman so a little later he tries to back him down in the post to assert some control over the game. Wildly ineffective. Not only can he not gain any push, when he spins toward the baseline Gardner shows with a little help as well. Reece is in perfect positioning throughout and forces a terrible shot.
This time on a kick out Shannon once again attempts to drive and this time it’s a straight turnover as Beekman not only strips it but knocks it off of Shannon out of bounds. I can’t stress this enough – Beekman is 6’3″, Shannon Jr. is 6’6″ and Beekman is just suffocating him.
As the game wore on, Shannon got increasingly passive around Beekman and Illinois had to look for offensive opportunities elsewhere. The above is much later in the game in the second half where he tries again, and again turns the ball over. Shannon Jr. turned the ball over 6(!) times in this one, the biggest of which came during the big run at the end which we’ll discuss in a second. But I’d like us all to marvel at these because not only did he take one of the most prolific scorers in college ball to this point in the season – this is probably the best on-ball defense we’ve seen in the CTB era. Some of the best we’ll ever see at the collegiate level, in my opinion.
He wasn’t just locking down his man, though, he was still creating opportunistic plays jumping into passing lanes and breaking out the other way.
I mentioned in my first review of the season that I didn’t like that he was gambling so much. I’d like to retract that objection. Turns out, he was just finding his rhythm! It did still cost us a bucket or two in this tournament, but the reward far outweighed the drawback. There is so much layered into this play. For one, he’s still guarding Shannon Jr. who is all the way in the opposite corner from where the steal takes place. So, Beekman’s anticipation and aggressiveness is fully on display as he’s nowhere near his man when he jumps this ball. But, also, SHANNON JR. IS CHILLING IN THE FAR CORNER! He’s not involved in the play at all and you can see how, after his lack of success testing Beekman throughout the game, they stopped running as much offense through him and instead parked him in the corner to spot up. Illinois is trying to lessen Beekman’s defensive impact and still unable to! Then, not only does Beekman lead the break the other way, he’s the one who keeps the ball alive on the offensive rebound to get it back to Shedrick for the dunk. The man was omnipresent.
Throughout the game Beekman was more aggressive about calling his own number on offense. Like here:
Once the offensive rebound kicks back to him he works his way into the lane and lulls the defense to sleep by making it look like he’s going to bring it back out prior to exploding to the hoop for the finish.
Back to that confident three-point stroke as soon as his man went under the screen. In any previous season (and likely still part of the Illinois scouting report) defenses could cheat under ball screens when Reece had it. No longer.
So, he set the tone throughout, but it was really over the last 3:30 or so where he just completely took over. I’m going to talk about lineup diversity later to showcase some of the team defense during this stretch, but it’s worth noting that Illinois hardly ever went to Shannon Jr. during this 13-0 run. He was fully neutralized at this point. They tried most everywhere else. Meanwhile, Beekman was our offensive go to and just seemed to be everywhere. There live, it just felt like he was radiating determination.
This is a really cool set after a time out. It’s the beginning of the run and it’s a designed play after having gone down by two points with 3:30ish to go. Notice we’re 5-out here, something we started running during the Murphy/Hauser/Huff season and hadn’t brought back last year because we didn’t have the personnel. The play is designed just to isolate Beekman on Skyy Clark for Illinois, and then Gardner dives to the basket when his man comes down to help. This is made possible by our small ball lineup which I’ll highlight later, but I imagine any of our guys would have been designated to dive if their man came to help. Beekman finds Gardner who draws the foul and goes to the line. Sweet look made possible by the trust in Beekman’s ability to finish around the rim and see the floor.
Now this was THE play of the game:
He picks Shannon Jr.’s pocket yet again and turns the defense into offense with the runout and STRONG finish at the rim through contact. When this happened live I was sitting right there in that corner just off-screen in the lower left. This finish was athletic and strong, but what you can’t really see from the broadcast is just HOW fired up he was. When he’s sitting there on the floor he full on exultantly pumps his fist and shouts to the crowd. Having watched Beekman over the years, this was new. Sure, he’s had big moments and expressed that joy during those. This was different. This was defiant. This was feeling himself. This was when the superhero in the movie looks at his hand after realizing the extent of his powers. It was incredible to see him own it like this. And you just kept seeing it:
Remember when Shannon Jr. attempted to post Beekman up to take advantage of the size differential and had zero success? This is Beekman posting Shannon Jr. up in a 2-point game with just over 2 minutes left and hitting him with a sweet up and under. Later on, he used this to draw attention and find Franklin for some assists, and hit clutch free throws down the stretch. Simply took over the game. I’m telling you now, if he goes on to have the season that I think he will, we can look at this game as the moment it fully clicked. Remarkable to be able to see it happen.
Phew! Alright. Going to talk about some smaller things now prior to wrapping with my second larger point.
Like: Kihei Setting The Tone
In my article discussing the pros and cons of a Kihei return, the biggest pro that I highlighted was his leadership and ability to rise to the big moments. The guy is completely unflappable. This game was such a good example of that because he came out of the gates just firing on all cylinders. It set the tone for the rest of the team and created good vibes from the jump. He scored our first 7 points, and only needed 5 the rest of the way. But it was great because since he was playing with so much confidence and breaking the ice, there was no hangover from the Baylor game and no visible nerves from the rest of our guys. I mean, this was the first play of the game:
And this was our second:
The first one is just a confident shot off of the first open look of the game with a hard contest from a much bigger man in his face. The second is an opportunity that came after patient offense, seizing an opportunity that came from them having to respect his shot after the first play. Then not long after we got this:
It was clear that Illinois was not planning on giving him as much defensive attention early in the game. They weren’t helping on his drives, they were focused mightily on denying Franklin the ball (got away with a ton of holds when he was cutting off of screens), they were also worried about Shedrick’s size as that has been the biggest vulnerability of their team thus far. Clark made them pay not once, not twice, but three times to start the game which killed their ability to cheat and set everything off on the right foot for everyone else.
Bonus clip: he even got this really nifty steal sagging into the lane from help side to negate a good back door cut, which was great to see because taking up space help side is not one of his strengths, generally. Very alert play coming shortly on the heels of his early offense. The first five minutes of this one saw Kihei at his best.
Dislike: Leaving The Backdoor Open
They played such a good game this is one of only two things worth calling out. We played very good defense the majority of the game, but there were a few instances where Illinois got easy buckets either via backdoor cuts:
The first one just taking advantage of no one in the lane from the 5-out and catching Beekman unalert, the second one taking advantage of Franklin’s aggressiveness toward the passing lane on the wing.
Similarly, on a couple of occasions they also punished our hard hedge. Their would-be screener would fake a handoff to a ball handler like he was going to pass and screen, prompting our big to begin to hedge. Their big would then keep the ball and turn to the hoop, with a WIDE open lane for the finish:
Good coaching and something they’d obviously scouted. When you force the hedge enough, eventually there’s the ability to add this wrinkle effectively when our bigs react prematurely. While all of these plays were more effective against us because of their 5-out system and the mostly clean lane, it’s definitely something to be aware of and to clean up moving forward. I’m sure our future opponents (especially those in the ACC familiar with our system) will attempt to test this.
Like: Overpowering On The Glass
We got 9 offensive rebounds in this one, which isn’t an outrageous number. But considering that we played small ball a good amount, it was noticeable how much trouble we were giving them when our bigs were in the game. Illinois is not a large team by and large and they play with finesse. So it was good to see Caffaro, BVP and Shedrick (and even BVP and Gardner at one point) be able to punish that and convert second chances into immediate points:
The second clip, especially, we just look huge compared to their lineup, and are terrorizing them accordingly. Of note, BVP was SO active here. He wasn’t shooting well from outside and still impacted the game in so many positive ways. More on that to come.
Dislike: Shedrick Picking Up Offensive Fouls
His first was a flagrant for putting his forearm into the face of Skyy Clark. It’s unclear if he knew the player behind him was so small or if he just didn’t care. Either way, it was a bit of an awareness issue. And then a little later he got this one for dribbling through the chest of Shannon Jr.
When this play happened live, I saw the side angle and it probably could have been a no-call and a travel instead of a charge. That being said, it was much more of a charge than a block. You could just see it coming. Shedrick was clearly trying to exert himself over the smaller player but didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do. He didn’t really have a plan it was more, “I’m much bigger than this guy, he can’t stop me.” Problem was, he just turned and dribbled right through him. The thing is, as will probably be true of most matchups, Shedrick was a nightmare for Illinois to navigate, and you could see it during the first part of the second half where he just took over the game on both ends of the court for quite a few possessions back-to-back. The silver lining is that him only playing 20 minutes (and Caffaro struggling to stay with the much quicker Hawkins) made the small ball strategy clear, but we need him on the floor more than that in the future and can’t have him picking up multiple offensive fouls, especially when it’s the result of him pressing to try to exploit such a positive matchup.
Like: BVP’s Passing
When he played for Ohio he did this all of the time, so it’s no fluke, but watching the vision and his ability to flip the court so quickly is impressive. It wrecks a defense’s ability to aggressively rotate or double team and often creates offense out of seemingly nowhere.
These are just a couple of the many examples. Franklin misses this one but it’s a good example of how quickly he hits the skip pass when a shooter’s man is sagging into the lane. This was a great look.
Ramp the degree of difficulty up on this one as he’s turning away from his defender in the post and lasers one to Beekman who is able to exploit the rotation to get to the rim and draw the foul.
This was my second play of the game and it was electric. It also came after BVP overpassed on a fast break rather than attempting a layup, which resulted in a turnover. Illinois pressed what they thought was their advantage and Caffaro got a quality block – but who is there to recover the ball? BVP has hustled like crazy to get back into the play after his mistake and then has the awareness to immediately identify that Beekman is still behind the defense. This went from being a potentially big momentum play, to a gaffe, back to being a huge momentum play which, compounded together, made it seem like an even bigger deal than if they had just made the basket to begin with. Historically, UVa hasn’t had the need for or placed much value on a great outlet passer to start a fast break. That might change this year and BVP is the man for the job.
Over-Arching Like #2: Lineup Diversity (cont’d)
In the Baylor game, we mostly always played with a traditional big and then BVP stepped up as the stretch 4. Franklin and BVP went off from outside, Kadin had a game, Dunn played some quality minutes…. It was great. We’ve discussed. This game was very different. Shedrick, who was a quality matchup, had 2 fouls most of the first half (which we know CTB traditionally sits and did so). Initially, we subbed in Caffaro to replace Kadin. He had a few good moments utilizing his huge size advantage over everyone on the Fighting Illini, most of which I showed above. The problem was, he was often left guarding Coleman Hawkins, the 6’10” fluid ball handler who is shooting over 40% from three on the season. And that led to situations like this:
Now, Hawkins missed both of these looks, but they were wide open and he lost Caffaro with ease. As I mentioned, he is a good shooter from outside, so we were pretty lucky these didn’t fall. CTB must have agreed because after this last clip he pulled Papi immediately and mostly limited him to playing later when Dain Dainja (best name ever?) was on the floor.
From here, CTB turned to the “small ball” lineup of Clark, Beekman, Franklin, Gardner, and BVP, which was brilliant. On the surface, it felt counterintuitive. Illinois has struggled against size all year. But with Shedrick in foul trouble and Papi’s mobility a liability, this proved to be the perfect solution. Gardner, who has struggled in the midrange so far this season, had the ability to be effective close to the rim against Illinois where against Baylor that was mostly a non-starter, and both he and BVP’s mobility allowed the entire defense to better respond to the 5-out style.
Here’s one example. That’s BVP stopping Sincere Harris cold on the fast break attempt and forcing him to reset their offense. He would have been Caffaro prior to this situation and that likely would have been a drawn foul.
This was a cool defensive possession. Illinois had brought the 6’9″ 270lb (!) Dainja into to the game ostensibly to try to punish our small ball. We’d given Beekman a quick breather with IMK on the court. McKneely does a pretty good job staying with Shannon Jr. and Franklin helps on the drive while still recovering to contest his man’s shot. BVP and Gardner basically double box-out Dainja for the board.
Now Clark and Franklin are out and Beekman and Dunn are in with IMK, but the 4-5 base of Gardner and BVP is still intact. This is an absolute defensive clinic from BVP. He hedges on a screen and then recovers in time to Hawkins. Giving up two inches, he stays strong in post defense as Hawkins tries to back him down. He swipes at and gets his hand on the ball, disrupting the shot. The ball goes to Mayer on the baseline so he drops down to help Gardner with a double team while still shading the passing lane so the ball can’t get to a cutting Hawkins. Hawkins then has to flare out and take a shot fading away at the end of the shot clock, which Ben recovers to bother and then returns to grab the rebound. What a possession! To anyone still wondering how BVP shakes out defensively, come back to this one.
Here’s one with Franklin and Clark back in for IMK and Dunn. Gardner guarding Hawkins this time shows on a strong hedge and Hawkins rolls to the hoop. BVP is in good help position to defend Hawkins but it doesn’t matter because Franklin has active hands and deflects the pass leading to a run out with Clark. Franklin meets a hard contest but Gardner stays active to grab the rebound and draw the foul.
Dunn back in, the quickness was fully on display with this group, which was very encouraging to see from Jayden regarding his perimeter defense. He doubled hard twice in this one possession and was very disruptive for the ball handler while still recovering well. He would have been in good position for the rebound too if Dunn hadn’t boxed him into the crowd!
Offensively, it allowed for quick ball movement, the ability to open up the lane, and gave Jayden some much needed juice on offense.
Mayer is a finesse player and Gardner just went to work with a classic seal and then drop step. The perfect matchup for him to thrive in the post and all of the space to do so as Shannon Jr. couldn’t afford to help off of BVP much for fear of his shooting.
But where you really knew CTB was loving this lineup in this game is that he stayed with it during the entire run at the end of the game, despite having Shedrick available for use, and it worked beautifully. As mentioned, Shannon Jr. has been mostly taken off of his game at this point so first Illinois tried to isolate Kihei:
This is always a threat and either of these shots could have fallen – but it was also very good defense forcing a challenging shot, and good supporting defense to gobble up the rebounds. Unlike Baylor who found success screening Clark and shooting over him, Illinois tried to isolate through Epps. The plays developed slowly enough Clark was able to get under him and make both shots uncomfortable. This will be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses but, having not found this fruitful, Illinois turned to their next option…
Dainja had a shooting % well north of 80 coming into this game and I believe he was leading the country among qualifiers. They attempted to isolate him against BVP but this time Franklin comes with the double team to disrupt the move and force a wild hook shot, which we cleared off the glass.
Meanwhile, we’ve already seen how Beekman was busy taking over the game on the other end of the floor, helped by the spacing of this lineup. And here’s another example of how all of that opened up driving lanes for others, like Franklin:
Again, really cool offensive set here. They’re in 5-out, made possible by the small ball. Beekman initially probes but doesn’t find something he likes. As he resets, both Gardner and BVP dive to the low posts simultaneously, drawing their men with them. Franklin then rotates up from the corner, replacing Gardner. As Melendez rotates with him, Beekman hits Franklin in stride who wastes no motion to drive straight into the lane in the gap vacated by Gardner. It was like a whirlpool effect pulling him straight into the vacated space. He was fouled, by the way, you could hear the skin slap loudly. This wasn’t free-lancing, you could tell it was coordinated by how abruptly both Gardner and BVP timed their dives at the same time. They were the diversion. It’s really cool to see some of the stuff CTB has been cooking up with the different groups. In fact, coming into this game, this lineup of the starting 5 but with BVP instead of Shedrick was one of our worst per evanmiya.com. After this game, it was our second best. That’s how big of an impact it had. Obviously, sample sizes are still small, but it’s encouraging to see this lineup shine in the right situation against the right opponent after previously not looking so hot. It highlights our ability to try different groupings, find the one that’s most effective, and then lean on it.
Okay, two more – now the outcome is becoming less and less in doubt. The lead is 7 with just over 30 second left, but there is zero let up with our guys. Franklin, so clutch with his help defense throughout this stretch, strips Hawkins as he attempts to drive on Gardner. Ball goes to Beekman who gets fouled.
I kept the clip going to show that end piece, though. Watch Kihei slap Beekman after the play is over, encouraging him. That’s leadership and that’s a passing of the torch moment. He came out firing to start the game but completely deferred to Beekman down the stretch and was excited for him when he thrived in the role. This goes back to the mentality piece I focused on from my last piece. This team just gets it, is bought in, and clearly supportive of each other and how their roles may vary. It’s a great sign. Speaking of that mentality….
Armaan Franklin took a charge up 9 points with 21 seconds left in the game and look how fired up they all were about it! I don’t think I could close on a better example or visual that that one.
This team is ready.