vs. Louisville 3/4/2023

Well. This game against the Cardinals looked much better than the last, primarily as a result of increased Dunn (and Caffaro??) minutes, along with the shift back to the Sides offense. Many of the same trends over the last few games were on display, including the perplexing decision to keep Kadin Shedrick on the bench, despite emptying it in a game where you’d have thought he could have gotten some run/back into the flow. It would appear that the staff has made their decision there, unless they’re going to decide to make some dramatic changes IN the postseason when they didn’t against the worst team in the conference. That seems unlikely unless their hand is forced. The best case scenario is that we’ll need him and he’ll show out and earn more time, etc. but, given that that looks increasingly unlikely, we may have to dedicate an offseason article to this one.

Meanwhile: Senior Day! In the spirit of five different players who saw time this year graduating and potentially leaving as seniors (Armaan could return, the others either can’t or have said they won’t), and in the spirit of the team sharing another regular season ACC championship, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to make this review entirely one of gratitude, focused primarily on those five players and then highlighting a cool development that might be a saving grace if we are still stubborn about this Shedrick thing. Watching this team play live in Vegas (and again on film), watching the way it gutted out a win at Michigan with Beekman injuring his ankle, watching it play the #1 team in the country still, in two-loss Houston close despite Beekman’s hamstring being newly hurt, my perspective on what this team’s ceiling was changed from the offseason. We were truly playing like one of the best teams in the country at that time. Watching us continue to deal with nagging injuries in BVP and Beekman and continue to keep our best rim protector/runner off of the floor has changed that view for me. That being said, if you had told me coming into the season that we’d be co-ACC regular season champions, be a top 10 team most of the season peaking at #2, and that two of our first years would play major roles on the team and look like electric pieces for years to come, I would have been thrilled. And that’s exactly where we are now. Maybe the upside now feels more like what it did coming into the year, but I’m grateful for the accomplishments that have gotten us here so far.

Okay! So, I’m going to highlight an aspect of each of these five guys game that I feel is either under-appreciated, something they’ve improved, or just something I’ll miss about having them here.

Kihei Clark

Gotta start with Kihei! After this season is over I’m going to write a piece (as I hope to every year) looking at lessons learned. What did I learn from the season that I either didn’t know or didn’t properly emphasize previously. What did I get wrong? What did I get right? Kihei will surely be in both of those categories for several reasons this year, but mostly because it’s surprising, to me, how much room for improvement one player can still have from year 4 to year 5. He took his offensive game to the next level and it really was incredible to watch. So much so that those who, I feel correctly, were concerned about the double-edged sword of playing him so much coming into the season, ended up pretty quickly realizing that he’d grown so much offensively that there was no question how valuable he was to the team this year. He improved his shot, he improved his ability to take his man off of the dribble, and he improved his finishing around the rim but, for this, I’m going to focus on an element of his game that he’s always done well, but the one that I’ll miss the most: His precision and creative passing.

This clip below is the one that made me know this is the trait I was going to pick. Such a classic Kihei pass. He uses the pump fake to get by the perimeter defender and to draw the interior defender off of the bounce. Then everything about his body language says he’s looking to fade away from the basket or through to the other wing. He holds the defense through his eyes and this body language and then sneaks the perfect pass beyond them to Dunn for the dunk. Pretty and effective.

We’ve probably seen this next clip below a hundred times over his career here. It’s a nifty blowby on the baseline, drawing a defender and kicking a pass all the way to the opposite corner for an open three. In this case, bonus points because it’s Beekman and he sinks it. But the thing I love about this pass is that it could have easily been stolen by the lengthy 6’8″ Devin Ree (#0), who is there, attempting to pick the pass. Clark keeps his feed wide, though, more toward the baseline itself (he often throws this so that it crosses the baseline) allowing Beekman to catch it with his shooting hand and keeping it out of reach of the defender. How often do you see other players across CBB attempt this pass only to have it picked off by the help side crashing down. This is something that Clark has mastered with ball placement.

And then this last clip below is downright masterful. Not only is that bounce pass through the tightest of windows to find he cutting Dunn, notice how once he gets into the lane and jump stops he waits for a beat to allow Dunn to come open, rather than trying to force the pass in rhythm. It’s a little thing, but so many players feel the need to do something with the ball at the conclusion of their move. Clark has the savvy just to wait a beat prior to threading this needle.

There’s a reason that after playing the most games in program history this is the record that he toppled. There are a lot of different elements to his game that have grown and that can be debated and that require context; but he’s always been fantastic at reading defenses and finding a man with a creative and well-executed pass. It puts a ton of pressure on a defense and creates some beautiful plays out of nowhere. That will be what I miss watching the most!

Armaan Franklin

The most underrated part of Armaan Franklin’s game is his rebounding. The primary role he’s played on our team, alongside his arrival with Jayden Gardner, has been that of a scorer. Last year, it was more the midrange game off of curl screens and subsequent drives to the hoop. This year, he’s regained his outside shot and has been instrumental in finishing in close to the hoop through the Triangle offense and also off of dribble penetration. But, despite being undersized at 6’4″, Franklin has played the SF position all year… aside from the times he’s actually played the PF position in Smallest Ball alongside BVP at the 5. These small lineups have been able to be effective where they have, in the largest of parts, because Franklin has offered such incredible physicality and rebounding for his size and position. He’s role is so important that, in our Small Ball lineup with Gardner at the 4, BVP at the 5, and Beekman and Clark in the game, we are 27.8 points better in adjusted team efficiency between offense and defense, per evanmiya.com, (+20 vs. -7.8) when Franklin plays alongside that group vs. when McKneely does. Similarly, we’re 21.6 points better (48.4 vs. 26.8) when Franklin plays alongside Dunn and BVP in “Smaller Ball” lineups with Clark and Beekman instead of when McKneely is paired with the same group instead. Some of this is just that Franklin is a better player at this point in their respective careers as a Senior, which makes sense. But really, it’s most about the physicality and rebounding that he offers to those smaller units. I was commenting on social media about how he’s one of the best rebounders for his size I could remember us having and a couple of folks brought up Devon Hall. A great and accurate comparison, I thought.

Here’s a great example below. We’re in the Small Ball lineup, playing Sides, with the ball rotating around the outside. Beekman takes a few dribbles toward the paint, kicks it back out to Clark whose man is obstructed by a Gardner screen, and Clark fires a three. Meanwhile, Franklin has cut baseline and pops out on the other side of the rim, unboxed. But here’s the impressive part. #24 is Jae’Lyn Withers, who is 6’9″, 5 inches taller than Franklin. They’re both in position to contest the rebound, but Franklin reads it so well and elevates so quickly that he’s able to go and get the ball immediately while Withers is left lunging for it. From there, Franklin just turns and confidently finishes with a little turn around push shot over a contest. I can’t overstate how impressive this play is despite it looking like the ball just came to him. He had to assess, react, and go up high to get it SO quickly to make this possible. Really pay attention to how much slower Withers reacts to the ball coming off of the rim. Franklin being able to play this BIG is a huge thing for our team, especially when we force the small issue, but also when we’re playing bigger. It’s really just a boon at any time.

Here’s another clip, this time on defense. Louisville was hitting the glass HARD at this point and had just played volleyball over Gardner and BVP for a big dunk on the previous possession. This time they’re on a run out and follow up a miss around the rim with another offensive board but, after the second miss, Franklin is there to swallow it (and get hit in the face). He’s the smallest player of the five around the rim by 2 inches to Gardner and at least 4 to everyone else, and he’s the one who ends up with the ball (and it’s not a long rebound he tracked down). Good stuff!

It remains to be seen whether or not Franklin will return next year. I obviously hope that he does as he’s such a good player and that would raise our ceiling, but what’s also neat is that we could likely (finally) see him more at the SG position next year when IMK is on the bench (as long as we don’t play two point guards between Beekman and Harris a ton, which isn’t something I’d rule out, knowing CTB!). Imagine THAT, above, at the SG slot with, say, Beekman at 1, Bond at 3 and Dunn at 4…

Ben Vander Plas

I called this out after the Duke game, but I still think BVP’s quick hands on defense are underrated. He often uses them to create big plays, like in this clip below on the trap:

But, even more commonly, quite often really, he uses them to get himself out of a situation where he’s either overmatched defensively or trying to recover to help someone else. The number of plays he just spoils, even if the other team keeps the ball, is notable. The next clip below we see this twice. First, he denies the entry pass into the post and saves the ball from going out of bounds. Unfortunately, he attempts a lead outlet pass to Reece but doesn’t see Ellis closing to pick it off. The ball goes back to James who attempts to take BVP off of the dribble, and had an advantage, but BVP’s active hands disrupt the ball as James is going up, which causes him to miss the open look and then knock the ball out of bounds while trying to grab the offensive rebound.

Last clip, and this one is probably a foul risk but, worth the risk rather than allowing the open look and it works out. Louisville basically runs a LONG ball screen action with Clark picking up full court. Ellis gets by Clark in the open floor and BVP is scrambling to get back into position. Throughout this, Ellis has the advantage on both and BVP is just able to get back in time, but his quick hands are able to rake the ball without fouling as Ellis goes up for the layup, resetting the play out of bounds and negating the advantage.

While I’ve written many words about the faults of the Gardner/BVP pairing this year, it’s not a critique of BVP’s defense to say he (and Jayden) have mostly struggled when played out of position at the five. That’s why it’s out of position! BVP’s quick hands (and savvy positioning), in fact, have allowed him to be successful playing up, from time to time, like when he shut down Filipowski. He’s a very good defender at the 4 when paired alongside some rim protection/bigger bodies to take larger players, and his quick hands and defensive ball skills are a big part of that.

Jayden Gardner

The most improved part of Gardner’s game from last year is his perimeter defense. He’s a quicker and more active player on that end this year. Some of that is just better knowledge of the scheme, but a lot of it seems to be improvement in agility during the offseason. Last year, he wasn’t nearly as effective at sliding/positioning when out on the perimeter.

Here’s a great look that reminded me (though in a much less clutch situation) of the block at Michigan earlier in the season. With Clark guarding Ellis, Gardner flat hedges off of a ball screen and actually appears to bait the shot by faking like he’s going to drop back in the lane. He then springs into a hard contest, actually blocking Ellis’s jump shot! This play ended up in a shot clock violation (though it was close!) as a result of the chaos created by this heads up (and mobile) play Gardner.

Here’s another look at him high-hedging. The hard hedge is something we’ve mostly gone away from since earlier in the season so far away from the hoop. It’s a defensive adjustment that we made based, primarily, off of personnel and getting beaten with footspeed on the back end. It’s also an adjustment we went increasingly to with fewer minutes for Shedrick, who got quite good at it in the offseason. This clip below was great, though, and a subtle part of the defense that isn’t paid much attention because, by design, it leads to nothing for the offense. Gardner flies up when his man attempts the ball screen, shows to deter the ball handler from taking advantage of it, but doesn’t get himself out of position. Watch how plastered to the hip of his man he’s able to stay as he dives back into the lane. That’s TIGHT, and very well done.

Last look below, this time helping, closing out on the perimeter, and recovering. This is an area where he really struggled last year. I’m having flashback nightmares of Brady Manek. His man, Withers is in the corner, and Gardner sags into the lane to help (along with BVP) on the drive. Withers can be a sharpshooter, but Gardner starts moving out to him for the contest prior to the pass heading in that direction, realizing that he drive had been stopped and anticipating the next pass. Defenders in this position are often especially vulnerable. If you don’t close out hard enough, the shooter will just shoot over you (especially if they’re three inches taller as Withers is with Gardner). If you run out too hard, they’ll just blow by you and it’s incredibly hard to change your momentum so dramatically to stay with them. If you freeze frame at 8 seconds, you’ll see Gardner has run out to Withers with his right hand high, but his left foot is already planted, anticipating the drive before it even happens. This allows him to both run Withers off of the three point line while still taking an angle to shut down the drive on the baseline, and using his strength/physicality (along with help from BVP) to shut the door on the opportunity.

This is just really solid technique and awareness throughout this possession, helping on a drive, recovering to a shot, and shutting down a drive; all through awareness and mobility that Gardner didn’t show with reliability last season. A huge improvement to be commended, and one that has allowed us some lineup versatility this season.

Francisco Caffaro

I’ll start with the guy who has gotten the least minutes among the group this year but who likely carries with him the most intrigue as we head into the postseason. Papi started almost half of our games last season at the 5 but saw his time get cut entirely for most of the year, primarily as a result of his mobility issues defending on the perimeter. We heard he was battling a foot injury most of the season, which certainly could have contributed. I’m wondering if the foot is feeling better now, as he seems much more mobile and explosive. I’ll highlight a neat aspect of this later but, for now, I want to focus on an aspect of his game that I’ll miss and that we’ve been missing often this season as we’ve played smaller: his Jack Salt-light screening (hard to fully replicate Jack in this area, but Papi’s the closest we’ve had since). This could be especially useful now with the migration back to Sides as BVP has been ailing.

Here’s a good look. Watch him this possession and you’ll notice he’s basically just turning around in circles screening anyone he can see. The offense is playing off of it though and, even though he’s stationary, the offense is floating around him. He gives Reece a look at a back screen, sets a screen to allow IMK an attempt to flare, sets a ball screen for IMK but then, after lulling his man to sleep perhaps, he rolls to the hoop after that last screen and catches a great pass from Beekman for the thunderous dunk. This should have been a free throw as well (and Caffaro has apparently MUCH improved his free throw shooting this year).

It seems like nothing but having that big body to run people into wears them down over time, and it’s also harder to fight through those screens, which leads to increased advantage created off of them. This is an aspect we’ve seen us take advantage of more through spacing this year (at least since the Triangle) and less through the heft of the screener.

The next clip below is super simple execution. Initially Caffaro sets a ball screen for Beekman but doesn’t really land it hard and more brushes off. Instead, he moves over to set a quasi-pin down, quasi-curl screen for IMK. Realistically, this could have been called a moving screen but it was pretty subtle, he didn’t initiate a ton of impact with the movement, but he’s big enough that you can see IMK’s defender get dislodged attempting to come out to him. Such a simple thing leaving such a good shooter so open. I’d have loved IMK to just take this three; but if he’s going to step inside the line, at least he got himself open, made the shot, and drew the foul. Most of this is really just Caffaro being big and leaning into the man in a subtle way at the right time.

Finally, this next clip below is just a little curl screen with Franklin on the baseline. It freezes Franklin’s man just enough and he curls it tight enough that it has to draw Caffaro’s man to help. Franklin wisely stops, pivots, and passes against the recovering man to find Caffaro who is open, and is able to dunk over the recovering contest.

That’s two in the same game, and we haven’t seen this level of finishing above the rim from Caffaro really all season. It’s not the same as being able to lob the ball up to Kadin, but it’s much more efficient than when Gardner or BVP are left to finish these kinds of open but also contested looks from bigger players. If we can get this kind of pop from Caffaro and his screening ability, in turn, can lead to some quality offense through Sides, it (along with Dunn’s play of late) might be the breath of fresh air that we won’t be required to rely on Small Ball in bulk, which would be huge, even if it’s not the ideal way we’re accomplishing this.

Either way, it’s good to see Papi looking fresh and getting some run to close his career!

Something Encouraging

Speaking of the above, I want to highlight a lineup that CTB used a few times in this game that had a lot of success. In the first clip, it’s Clark, Franklin, IMK, Dunn, and Caffaro, in the second it’s the same with Beekman instead of Clark. In both, only one of the point guards are on the floor and BOTH Dunn and Caffaro are, with both of the shooting guards/wings. This caught my eye because it’s one of the first times we’ve had plus length/size across most of our respective positions. Most commonly, we’ll either have both Gardner and BVP (both minus size at their positions) and both of Beekman and Clark (collectively usually giving up size to their positions. Give this first clip a look defensively:

We start the possession with Louisville transition already in progress. We get back well with IMK stopping the ball, and they kick it back out. Louisville doesn’t seem to know what to do for the first 10 seconds of the possession or so, with Dunn on their backup point guard, Fabio Basili (#11), due to transition and Clark on the larger Mike James. They rotate the ball around and eventually get it to the 6’8″ 270 lb. Sydney Curry (#21) in the post against Caffaro. Curry initially tries to face up and then back down Caffaro but Papi is far too strong and does a fantastic job of anticipating where Curry is going and moving his feet to get in position. After getting the ball dislodged a couple of times, Curry has to kick it back out to Basili with the shot clock winding down, but Basili still has the super rangy and long Ryan Dunn draped on him. Dunn is on him TIGHT. As a result, Basili cannot shoot on the catch and has to try to dribble to create space, with the shot clock expiring before he can even get the shot up. We’ve had a good number of shot clock violations on the season, but it’s been a while since I can remember us having one like this where another team’s two primary options down the stretch were completely smothered. It felt like old times.

This next clip below was in the second half now, same lineup but with Reece. The first cool thing is just how much more mobile Caffaro looks in the pick and roll. He initially does a good job staying with El Ellis while Reece recovers, while keeping a good angle to disrupt a pass back to his man, Curry. Dunn also does a good job tagging Curry to deny a pass (if you pause at 6 seconds you’ll see a good freeze of all of this) and Franklin is in good position in the lane with his man in the corner, as well. IMK has reacted well to the drive by coming up toward the elbow, off of his man in the corner, to offer additional assistance on the drive, while being poised to recover again to the corner. As Curry flows down the lane, Dunn passes him to Franklin, who is there as Caffaro recovers to him, as Beekman gets back into guarding position on Ellis. With no clean options, Ellis picks up his dribble and reverses the ball over to Mike James on the other wing with Franklin on him. James attempts to take Franklin off of the dribble to the baseline, reverse pivoting toward the middle of the lane after his initial drive. Caffaro takes this opporunity, with James’s back turned, to come across the lane for a double team, clearly surprising him and being huge enough to obscure sight lanes to the middle of the floor. Beekman ducks in front of Curry with Dunn and IMK in good position on their men. James bobbles the ball on the double and has to try to turn baseline to recover, dribbling the ball out of bounds.

Now, I don’t know how much of this lineup we’ll see in the future and how much, if any, of Papi’s playing time was due to Senior Day. But, given that he got into the Clemson game previously and that two Freshmen were featured in this lineup, I think this is something CTB was trying out. In fact, he kept this group together with differing point guards for a while and in multiple instances in the game. Our two biggest bigs (that are playing right now), and only one of the PGs; the defense was physical and, at times, oppressive like we haven’t seen this season, and the offense did not drop off because of Sides. Given that we’re likely to see UNC on Thursday, it’s great to see us experimenting with some longer groupings, and to see them be successful (albeit against much worse competition).

In Conclusion

I wanted to take this opportunity to exercise my Thankfulness for these guys and this program. It’s going to be weird watching this team without them, especially Kihei. He’s been a starter and huge minute earner for over a third of the time CTB has coached us! In a lot of ways, it’s going to be like starting over, even with several familiar faces (hopefully returning), but it’s also exciting to see what that will look like.

As I’ve said many times before, part of the fun of being a fan, at least for me, is the constructive/strategic contemplation along with analyzing what’s going well. But, as this season closes, there’s no better time to just fully celebrate what great work they’ve done this year, accomplishing the first of many of their goals, and elevating our play significantly from last year to this – paving the way for the bright future ahead!

One response to “vs. Louisville 3/4/2023”

  1. Always a joy to read. Agree it’s good to stop and appreciate this team (and this coaching job). It’s been a fun, if frustrating, ride. But that’s probably what most fans of the blue bloods say most years! Great to be at that level.

    That said, the Shedrick Saga fills me with dread. There must be something we don’t know. It simply doesn’t make sense to slam the door shut on him like this. Baffling and, I fear, highly detrimental to our postseason hopes.


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