vs. Clemson 2/28/2023

Well, I was on the road and unable to devote the time needed to clip the game, but I did watch it in full to accompany my preliminary watch. So, this review is going to be in a different format with no clips. Is this really a “Cut” from The Corner, then? To be debated.

As we head into Senior Night, one game before the postseason begins, I thought it would be worthwhile to go through the players on the team and discuss their “form” or, how they’ve been playing very recently. I’ll talk about the players in the context of what we’ve seen from them this year and what we’ll need from them to be as successful as we can be in the ACC/NCAA Tournaments. Who have been near the top of their game (or where it likely can be this season), those who have areas they’ve been better at this season but who are on point in other areas, and those who are either out of form or who aren’t likely those we want on the court much in March. Again, this is just about current form so it’s mostly looking at Clemson and with some resonance from the previous game or two if there’s been a trend, with the goal of assessing what needs to happen for us to hit our ceiling during this crucial stretch.

Top of Their Game

Jayden Gardner – Gardner is playing his best basketball right now, likely as a direct result of having so many more shot opportunities over the past several weeks. This game wasn’t his most efficient shooting performance, but he still converted several midrange looks by quickly being ready to shoot upon catching the ball, and got himself to the line, where his FT shooting has much improved upon his early season struggles. I still don’t think we’re at our best when Gardner has to be the primary offensive option, but it’s good to have him dialed in. At the very least, the element of his offense offers us a decent floor to fall back on if we struggle and, at best, is an added element to defend when we’re clicking in other areas. What’s more, though, is that Gardner has really increased his energy and impact in the rest of his game as well. On Tuesday, he was one rebound away from his second consecutive double-double. He’s gotten his yearly average up to almost a steal per game – his highest total since his second year at ECU against worse competition. He’s playing physically and with a lot of activity and mobility on defense, at times even being asked to guard players MUCH bigger than he. And, although I’d love to minimize the amount this happens, it’s a testament to him that he can at least sometimes be successful. He’s been quite successful when placed on the oppositions second largest player, which was not always the case last year. I immediately recall the loose ball in the UNC game that he dove into their bench to save from going out of bounds. That’s the postseason-level of hustle that we need and that he’s now providing.

Ryan Dunn – Speaking of postseason-level of hustle, Ryan Dunn has been everywhere when given the opportunity, of late. On Tuesday, though, he found a good chunk of offense to compliment his defensive presence. The explosive alley-oop to break the early game dread that was starting to sink in, the offensive put back, the rhythm three at the end of the shot clock, the improved free throw shooting… it was all a very encouraging sign that he’s ready to contribute some offense to accompany his versatile defense. And it WAS versatile. His mobility and active hands got blocks and strips that transitioned to offense the other way. Dunn was THE biggest bright spot against Clemson and brings with him a lot of hope that, if he’s ready, we may have a defensive solution to a lot of different trouble players who can also provide spark plays, not just on defense. Given where his skills are, this is probably about as well as we can expect to see Dunn play this season and it’s coming at the right time.

Isaac McKneely – We still need to be careful who we play with McKneely. His pairing with Gardner, BVP, Clark, and Beekman is our worst five-man lineup that we, at all, commonly use. It comes down to a compounding athleticism issue where Franklin’s strengths in those areas better compensate for the frontcourt pairing. That being said, McKneely has improved the totality of his game over the course of the season buoyed by the consistent reps he’s been given. As a result of the way defenses have been playing us, he had also recently impacted by fewer open looks from the outside and worse shooting as a result. On Tuesday, however, he only needed two three-point attempts (making 1) to rack up 12 points. He was 4-6 from the floor, otherwise, hitting midrange jumpers and also scoring at the rim, even through contact. Despite starting off the year cold, his three-point shooting is almost at 40%, and he hit one Tuesday off of the bounce with lift that showed confidence in his ability and role. His ability to contribute as a complete offensive player and not just as an outside gunner is going to be crucial for our future prospects where we need alternative offense and in response to teams switching screens on the wing to deny shot attempts. It’s still possible we could see him completely catch fire from outside a game or two, and I’m holding my breath hoping for that kind of game, but Tuesday marked the best of his current ability to adapt to a defense’s system, and is likely ideal compared to what we can reasonably expect.

Room for Polish

Reece Beekman – It’s really hard to figure out the Beekman situation or which injury he’s playing through on any given game. Is his hamstring still an issue? Did he hurt his hip against Duke? The uncertainty and fluctuation of what’s going on with his health makes for some wild swings in how dramatically he’s able to impact a game. There are times where he’s looked downright ginger against both Clemson and UNC, especially when needing to bend low, change direction, and go after loose balls. But, on Tuesday, there were many times where he did look like his old self, jumping passing lanes (4 steals!), blocking shots (2!) and, encouragingly, hitting shots, once from three, and one pull-up off of the dribble. When Reece is ailing, it’s most obvious when he’s trying take someone off of the bounce, but it also rears its head with his willingness to take and ability to make shots, as well as in how oppressive he is on defense. I would say that on Tuesday the level of explosiveness with the ball was still absent, but the defense and shot making was much improved from the games prior, which was an encouraging sign. At the end of the day, the closer we get to early-season Reece will absolutely alter the trajectory of this team no matter what happens anywhere else. We may not get completely there this year; there’s still much room to get to that point, but if he’s trending more toward that than away from it, that’s a good sign.

Kihei Clark – Let me start with this: I think that was Kihei’s best defensive performance of the season. For one, he wasn’t put in a ton of off-the-ball rotational situations, but he gave Chase Hunter fits despite a 5-inch size difference. What I liked most about it is that he was very aggressive going for the ball when Clemson attempted to take him on the drive; ripping two steals and creating at least one other loose ball that Clemson recovered. Often in the past, when he gets taken in the lane he’ll use good technique and go straight up; but that’s not often very effective at contesting a shot, especially in that close. This game, he was incredibly active with his hands at all times, trying to pick the ball on the outside, getting his hands on it when they were going up with a shot, generally just making everything less comfortable. This was great to see and I hope he continues playing that way to close the year – aggressively targeting the ball when teams attempt to take him off of the dribble so that there’s less of an opportunity to rise up cleanly over him. Offensively, teams are making a huge effort to clog the lane on his drives so that he’s not getting the same open looks that 5-Out and the Triangle were generating for him earlier in the season. The scouting report has adjusted, so I think it’s safe to expect that won’t be as much of an option for us to close the year. That being said, he did still get into the lane well and create opportunities for others. His 6 assists, mostly through Sides, and solid foul shooting were positive contributions on that end of the floor to accompany the quality defense that he played. Where he is clearly off of his game is with his shot. I’m not sure if it’s a confidence issue associated with not being able to get as much rhythm in the lane or if it’s something else entirely, but it wasn’t just the 0-7 result. There were many additional times where he had open looks that he would have launched earlier in the year and, instead, he hesitated against Clemson, allowing his man to close out. It looked like 2019-2021 Kihei from a shot-trusting perspective. This is a concern because one of the big reasons the offense was so effective earlier in the year was that both Kihei and Reece were willing and able to take advantage of opportunities to bomb away from deep and punish any defensive rotation that came up short. During this recent offensive funk, these two have been often given the room to take these shots with defenses preferring to play off of them more in support against their drive. While Beekman is showing signs of working out of this, this is where we most need Clark to improve down the home stretch. His return to shooting form will open things up in a bunch of other places.

Armaan Franklin – I think Armaan is getting pretty close to getting bumped up into the first category. I’ve been incredibly impressed with Armaan this year. I wrote in the offseason that I’d love to see him get prolonged time at the two this year. Instead, it’s gone quite the opposite. Because there’s almost no time two of Beekman, Clark, IMK aren’t on the floor, Franklin always becomes the de facto SF and has even played the PF at times in Smallest Ball. As a result, he’s still regularly paired against players much larger than he, which has almost certainly limited the full scale of the impact that we could see from him. That being said, he’s still shooting the ball at almost 39% from three on the season and he regularly finds other ways to score when teams (as they often are now) try to take that shot away from him. Despite the missed bunny early in the game, he had several good finishes around the rim on Tuesday, including a nifty drive where we were almost in a four-corners style look (I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one to see if it comes up more often) and finished with his off hand after cutting through the lane. He always plays so much bigger and more physically than his 6’4″ stature, and his presence on the floor is absolutely key to any of our lineups hoping to tread water when we don’t play Dunn or Shedrick. The only reason that I include him here now is that he DOES have the ability to absolutely take over a game, as recently against Duke, and teams are very clearly adjusting to take him away as their biggest offensive focal point, which is working at least to some degree. UNC regularly switched Nance out on him to contest potential outside shots and he still ended up with 14 but a good chunk of those came at the very end of play as they were trying to salt away the game. B.C. aggressively switched onto him and limited him to 4 points and 3 rebounds where he previously went for 18 and 7 against them earlier in the year. He’s shooting it fine at the moment (33% from 3 vs. Clemson with 12 points) but isn’t quite as aggressive about it due to the increased attention and hasn’t been as impactful as we’ve seen he CAN be (23 and 3 vs. Duke, 25 and 10 vs. Wake, 18 and 7 against B.C., 20 and 7 vs. FSU, 26 and 4 vs. Baylor). If other teams are targeting him as our most dangerous offensive threat, I’d love to see us make a concerted effort to get him matched up against some opposing shooting guards but, either way, even though he’s playing well there’s still a level that Franklin can get to that he’s not in at the moment and that would be ideal come tourney-time.

Out of Form

Ben Vander Plas – This is very likely a back issue. When you have issues with your core, it can be very hard to have any touch with your shots. Backs, like hamstrings, can be very finnicky, as well, which likely explains why BVP’s shooting swings are SO extreme as opposed to seeming like more normal variance. We saw this cropping up as far back as the Houston game and then when it’d get better, things would look much different like they did in the first UNC game, the Wake game, etc. Not making a free throw since the Duke game is extreme variance, more likely explained by something else; like the injury. That being said, the entire benefit of playing Small Ball, Smaller Ball, and Smallest Ball is that BVP is a stretch-5 who opens up the floor with his threat to shoot (and by making a decent amount of these shots). With him shooting as he has been recently, it defeats the purpose, and teams have caught on, being far less aggressive about getting out to him and, instead, choosing to help more regularly in the lane. He’s made some good plays, there was a quality drop-step and-1 against a mismatch, but he’s also not the kind of player to regularly exploit the size mismatch in the post, at least he hasn’t been with his back as it is. On defense, he’s still been able to hold his own at times against liked-sized players. He still has active hands, still positions himself well but, when tasked with guarding some bigger players, as we’ve seen recently with Quinten Post, Armando Bacot, and, Tuesday, PJ Hall, he has not been very effective compared to a little while ago against Duke where he WAS very effective against Kyle Filipowski. This could also be somewhat related to his back, but it’s also just very clearly a limitation of being played out of position. IMO, and this isn’t to blame BVP directly, but the recent development of his shot coupled with our insistence on playing him at the 5 instead of the 4 despite it all, has been the single biggest reason (among others) that we’ve gotten into the funk that we have. For this team to reach its ceiling, we absolutely need BVP to be healthy and shooting better. It gives us a ton of lineup flexibility (best with Dunn), but this is also a significant area of risk for us right now, especially if we do not adjust his playing time accordingly when his game is off. Against Clemson, we were at our best when Dunn was in the game for BVP, and yet we strayed from that in the second half until the very end of the game after all of the free throw misses. We’re going to have to identify and adjust to that need earlier in games if he is off.

Francisco Caffaro – It was discouraging to see Papi come off of the bench ahead of Shedrick in this one, full stop. There were multiple times that he got the ball in traffic near the rim and, rather than going up with it, he passed it back out. He drew a three second violation doing that very thing. He did a good job boxing out, made both of his free throws, and Clemson wasn’t able to exploit him in the pick and roll… but he still didn’t have success stopping PJ Hall offensively and, combined with his Jack Salt-like offensive approach (aside from better FT shooting, I was actually quite impressed with how smooth those looked!), it’s very hard to see how what he offered was an improvement over alternative options. If we’re going to stick with this line, I guess it’s better that we got some run with this now, but I can’t imagine much Caffaro time being a good sign for us over the postseason.

Taine Murray – I’ll say that, despite being surprised that he saw time, this was the best I’ve seen Taine look on defense. There were no clear moments where he was beaten badly off of the dribble or where his footspeed/change of direction was exploited. Some of that, I think, was opponent specific, but it also could have been improvement. I’d need to watch his time a few more times to know for sure. Either way, if he’s not lighting the world on fire offensively, which he wasn’t, then I don’t think he’s going to bring what we’re going to need when we could just play IMK there or even Dunn at 3. I will say, though, that compared to the last time we saw him in game action (@Miami), this was a BIG improvement.

The Elephant In The Room

Kadin Shedrick – Kadin didn’t play at all, just like against VT. We did a better job, in general, without him this time around, but in an easier circumstance at home. It’s clear, to me, that there’s a very needed role for Kadin on this team, and I hope they figure it out in time for us to see him in the postseason. Our team’s ceiling is way higher with him playing as we’ve seen that he can… as I’ve spent many, many words discussing this year, so I’ll leave that at that, for now.

In Conclusion

All-in-all, this game was more like the second half of the UNC game. A marked improvement over the five halves preceding that, but still not at the level we have played this season and where we have the ability to play. It was interesting (and effective) to see us mostly return to Sides, despite not playing Kadin (he thrives in Sides), but also to see some of our younger players do well in that offense as well. We have one more game until we need to get it mostly figured out so… we’ll see. Next time with clips!

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