Gentle readers, this was my favorite victory since the National Championship! It wasn’t the most dramatic (@Duke in 2022 or Vs. Syracuse in the ACC Tournament in 2021), and it wasn’t the most eye-opening (vs. Baylor and Illinois in Vegas this season), but it was the most cathartic for me. The whole breaking the streak against UNC in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro was part of it, sure. Ostensibly ending this version of UNC’s chances at a title and sending them to the NIT was another. Consider, we were disappointed in our NIT appearance last season and we had three new starters and Kody Stattmann (no hate, I wrote some about how his lineups actually were better than some others, but we have to admit his upside was capped) was our 6th man. UNC just likely got relegated to the NIT after returning 4 starters from a team that made the National Championship last year!
But it was also such an uplifting win because of what’s been going on with the team. BVP injuring his hand (looked like the pinky and ring fingers were wrapped, to me). Him being out for the season is a gut punch for us and for him. He came to UVa for this very opportunity only to get injured the night before, which has to be crushing. That being said, watching his genuine excitement and joy from the bench as his teammates played well was such a beautiful thing! Like, it’s easy to tell when a bench player is feeling sorry for themselves or isn’t engaged in the game, or is pouting (thinking about Jabri right after Reece hit that game winning shot vs. Syracuse). And, honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed BVP in this case not to have been fully mentally there given how recently it happened. But, that just wasn’t the case. He was downright glowing, pumping up his guys. He and Dunn were the first there for Shedrick in the locker room to put up the logo on the bracket. It was really touching to see. It makes me all the more grateful for the culture and the guys that CTB gets in the door without compromising talent. I’m very grateful for BVP and his joining our team this year!
But also what a comeback for our big guys. Papi was strong and mobile and active. He looks now like he was clearly bothered more by the foot earlier in the year than we knew, and that he’s feeling better now. That’s huge. Dunn wasn’t the most impactful I’ve seen him but had the huge block and logged quality minutes, especially when UNC went smaller. And Kadin… what a redemption game for Kadin even just in scoring 4 points. They were emphatic points and his defensive presence was fantastic both in guarding the UNC bigs, blocking 5(!) shots, and doing well boxing out. That was the kind of impact that I’ve been trumpeting all year; but he did clearly seem reinvigorated with the opportunity; playing better really than we’ve seen him since the Houston game. I spend the vast majority of the time on this blog talking about what we see and what I would like to see on the court in any given game. CTB says that his top goal is to win every individual game, and I approach this analysis the same way – what could help us win every individual game along with what could we focus on for future games. That being said, what this blog doesn’t get into is the levers a coach has to pull and look at off of the court. We don’t have that level of insight or analysis. I will say, and perhaps I’ll focus on this more after the season, that CTB does seem to demand more out of his players with the highest physical upside. He creates a culture of Unity and Servanthood with the team as a self-sustaining support system, with the flip side of it being that challenges (UMBC loss, losing playing time, injury, etc.) are a tool to help develop players once they get through it. Those Shedrick dunks. The reaction of his teammates being so genuinely happy for him after the game. His being selected to speak to the media and his thought process there, while hearing CTB talk about how proud he was of him on a national stage… those are moments that stick with someone and hopefully are moments that he will harness into performance moving forward. So, just a little note that while I’ll almost always discuss things tactically, X’s and O’s, strategically what we need to see on the court, there’s certainly another element to all of this. And, for the record, I’m not saying this to agree with how Shedrick’s PT was handled this year, I still don’t, BUT I do think there’s an added element to all of this that might end up being better off for both us and him. When the CULTURE of your team is right, you can withstand some of these kinds of things and be stronger for it; and that’s all CTB, his pillars, his character, and the character of his staff and the players he brings through the doors.
Now, back to what this blog chiefly focuses on, the strategy element of everything that’s been going on. Clearly this team’s ceiling took a hit with the BVP news. The team we saw against Baylor and Illinois, for example, the ability to go super big as we did against Michigan, the ability to go Smaller Ball spread with Dunn as we did against Wake, his defense against Duke… all of that will be sorely missed. The best version of this team always included BVP as a Swiss-Army-Knife of sorts and he was the most flexible piece who allowed us to play a variety of different ways. That really hurts. But the reality is, that we were no longer utilizing him in that way. Rather than a unique piece who could offer a lot of flexible solutions, we were locked into playing him a large chunk of the game alongside Jayden Gardner. I’ve written a ton of words about why those two didn’t pair well (as 4 and 5, there was some intrigue when they were rarely at 3 and 4). This isn’t a knock on either of their respective games; it’s just something that CTB decided was best (likely because they were our two best individual post players so the concept was to just play your best guys), even though the results indicated otherwise. The fact is, we’re a much better defensive (and offensive) team with, at a minimum, Dunn and/or (healthy) Papi or Shedrick on the floor because of their physical presence, their length, their screening, their finishing around the rim, etc. Recent developments have now forced us into this reality (aside from the Gardner + 4 guards lineups we did actually run some this game, but just at the end, defense for offense, when we needed to shoot free throws, which I loved). We really can’t avoid having improved size/athleticism on the floor now, which raises the floor of this team. We no longer have those moments where we’re just being overpowered on defense or are FORCED to send double teams on mismatches (we still send some but they’re far more effective), allowing for passing/playmaking. And, as a result, we just turned in one of our best performances of the season again.
I just want to be very clear again. We are a worse team with a lower ceiling with BVP hurt. He, especially when his back wasn’t flaring up, was a great player for us this season who did so many things well. At times (Duke, second half vs. Michigan, second half vs. Miami, second half of the first UNC game, Wake) he was our best, or at least our most important, player! BUT, the silver lining is that since we weren’t splitting he and Gardner’s time or utilizing him often as that plug-and-play 6th man, and since we were playing most of our games undersized for 30+ minutes per game which WAS directly contributing to our (comparatively) poor play in February, this development has pulled us away from those specific pitfalls. CTB does almost everything amazingly but, on occasion, he gets locked into an idea of something that’s good that isn’t actually working or isn’t our best option.
So, all of the above coming together: BVP’s grace, Shedrick and Papi’s re-emergence, the rest of our guys especially Beekman, Franklin, and Gardner seemingly being in great form, watching this team come together through adversity while playing some of their best basketball… all of that has me very optimistic and proud of this team right now. Encouraging, uplifting, feel good… you name it.
Okay, that being said, let’s look at a few things of note from the game last night:
Like: Team Defense with A Big
One of the issues with Small Ball on the defensive end is that, even though both Gardner and BVP are good defenders for their size, that “for their size” caveat is needed. In the first game against UNC, both Bacot and Nance were out, so Smallest ball with 4 guards and BVP carved their smaller lineup to pieces, which was a big part of the vision being implemented more firmly. In the second game @UNC, though, they had both of their bigs. Nance went off in that game for 22 points on great shooting, initially starting from open looks on the outside and eventually building his confidence into just shooting over Gardner on the inside. This was predicated, though, on the attention that Bacot was commanding on the inside against BVP. We would send doubles and rotations SO aggressively but Bacot could see over them/pass out of them, which created a bunch of open looks, which is a big reason their shooting % was so high. In this game, that was entirely different.
We started with Caffaro on Bacot this time with Gardner on Nance. Now, we haven’t talked about Caffaro as much over the span of the season because he hadn’t gotten much run and had looked bad when he had. I immediately recall Quinten Post, Hunter Dickenson, and Coleman Hawkins all having their way with him in a variety of different ways. But, remember, there were a few games at the VERY beginning of the season where Caffaro looked quite good, then we heard about a foot injury and he looked much less mobile on the floor and his playing time diminished after that. Over the past few games, it would appear that the foot feels better, because Caffaro has been far more active and looked far more quick/strong. We can see immediately with the clip below in the first possession of the game. Watch Caffaro bumping Bacot throughout and jockeying him for position in the lane. He hedges effectively but, more importantly, allows the rest of the team to play full team defense of their own men without immediately conceding a catch in the post and requiring a double team. At the end of the possession, he gets a hand on the attempted entry pass to Bacot, forces a deflection and scramble, and still has the awareness to contest the shot as the ball goes to the corner to force the miss with his length.
In the next clip, below, we see Caffaro again just making it hard for Bacot to even get the ball in position. Actively denying the pass to the post (and we saw both he and Shedrick doing this all night long when Bacot was in).
Here’s a look now with Shedrick in, below. He starts fronting Bacot successfully, then hard hedges out front off of a ball screen. Gardner does a good job tagging on the back end and Shedrick is quick to recover into fronting position again with Bacot, forcing Nance to switch the court after catching the ball. Shedrick again fights hard to front Bacot as he crosses the lane and the ball has to swing back the other way again. Eventually UNC sets up a pick and roll between Gardner and Beekman and Beekman does a great job deflecting the ball with active hands when Nance attempts to flare into the corner. Love gets the deflection, though, and uses this opportunity to gain space and drive the lane. But Shedrick is there to contest at the rim, Love has to jump stop, slowing enough to let Beekman back in the play, and Beekman strips the ball for the steal. If you need to, go back and look at some of the penetration that UNC got against us in the second game. You’ll notice in these clips that we’re able to cover more ground and commit more resources to defending the whole floor, not just sinking them into the interior.
Here’s another clip, below, where we do actually send a double team. Bacot is able to catch the ball in the post against Shedrick and attempts to start backing him down. What I like about this is that Gardner doesn’t immediately have to leave, he waits until Bacot has his back turned and starts making his move. Sensing the double team, Bacot turns away from it baseline, but Shedrick does a good job of holding up physically and his reach/presence make sight lanes much harder than with a Dunn/Gardner or BVP/Gardner double team. Bacot has to make a desperate pass while falling out of bounds and Beekman and Clark do a good job reading the pass and shading their men, with Clark being right there for the steal.
Another look, this time with Caffaro back on the floor. At this point in the game Caffaro has already taken a charge on Bacot (the play before) and Shedrick has blocked a shot and forced a jump ball that lead to a turnover (earlier, not featured). So, UNC is attempting to look elsewhere to generate offense at the moment because going inside to Bacot isn’t actually an advantage at the moment. Here we can see Gardner’s MUCH improved perimeter defense and how he’s actually able to defend Nance quite well when he’s not so concerned with helping on the opposite post. These two, consecutive hedges are things of beauty. He’s so quick to show and recover twice in a row… really just brilliant positioning that I probably can’t over-emphasize enough. He then recovers back to Nance and forces him to take a turn around midrange jump shot with time running out on the shot clock. It misses rim entirely and we get the shotty violache! I was SO impressed with Gardner’s defense on this play and, again, it was because he was able to lock in on his own man without there being a mismatch down low.
Another great look at this at the end of the half. Love gets Clark on him (to this point it had been entirely Beekman who was locking him up) and attempts to take advantage by pushing the ball full court and using his size to finish. There was a play just like this against UNC in the second game where, I believe it was Davis, was able to take advantage of full court momentum and create at the rim. Here, though, despite Bacot attempting to shield him back, Shedrick is there to block the shot and end the play/advantage.
There are many great defensive plays I’m not showing but, you get the point, the defense was just able to match size with UNC and was much more effective. This last clip I’ll show below is actually with BOTH Shedrick and Dunn on the floor. The cool thing about this play (aside from just how awesome that block was!) is that Shedrick is the one drawn away from the hoop playing hedge defense from the pick and roll. Davis makes a very nice pass to Nance in space with momentum toward the hoop, but it’s Dunn coming from help side to protect the rim with the monster block. Usually, Shedrick is the one playing that role, so it’s very advantageous when he can also benefit from that kind of help and when you have multiple players capable of erasing shots/advantage.
Very quickly, I just want to contrast some of these clips above with some of the times we had both Gardner and Dunn on the floor. This is still solid, especially because we did it exclusively when Bacot was out, but it’s also the closest thing to Small Ball that we could go to now (aside from some 4 guard lineups which we did use, but mostly just to break the press and shoot free throws late). Dunn is a very good rim protector as we just saw in the previous clip, but he’s still not as big as Shedrick or Caffaro lengthwise or sizewise. In this matchup we played Gardner on Nance still, with Dunn playing off, but when Nance rolls to the hoop and gets the ball isolated on Dunn, he’s able to use his size, strength, and body to play through Dunn for the hoop and the harm.
And here in the clip below, you can see that when they’re playing their own small ball with Nance, when Gardner gets screened off on the pick and roll, if Dunn is outside on the wing, there’s really not a good opportunity to stop the roll. Now, Beekman could have sagged off more aggressively here to try to cut down that pass, but it’s this kind of mismatch that can be created that we used to see far more often in these kinds of matchups.
Basically, in this matchup, our least effective defensive matchup because we were a little too small, in Dunn and Gardner, was the most effective defensive lineup we were using in the second game vs. UNC. Hence the dramatic shift in our ability to clamp them down.
Dislike: Clark Contests
It’s been a little while since I’ve highlighted this issue because it’s been a while since it’s been such a targeted issue. When teams were finding their biggest mismatches inside, that’s where they were targeting, and our perimeter defense was mostly giving up points, when they were, as a result of either the opposition playing through the post to create advantage, or of not having much help with rim protection. What I’ve noticed over the years is that Clark struggles to defend two specific types of players: big, physical players who are comfortable getting into the lane and finishing, and good shooters who also have a confident handle. It’s the reason why, against Duke for example, he’s better placed on the larger Tyrese Proctor than Jeremy Roach, because even though Proctor is bigger, he’s not as confident just elevating and shooting as Roach is, and his handle isn’t good enough to reliably get close into the lane to finish against Clark (especially if we’re playing bigs more now). The problem with the matchup against UNC, is that both of their starting guards, RJ Davis and Caleb Love, are confident either taking the ball to the hoop OR elevating and shooting over Clark. If you think about Davis specifically, he’s only 6’0″ himself, so he’s used to looking for his shot over players who are normally taller than he is. When he has someone on him who he knows isn’t likely going to be able to get a piece of his shot, he plays incredibly confidently. We saw this in the first game when they didn’t have either big men, saw it a little bit when they needed offense in the second game, but not as much because of their interior advantage, and saw it a lot in this game because, with our bigs playing such good defense, their only reliable offense was through Davis.
Just a couple of looks at this. Here’s one of the team playing really good defense collectively. Shedrick is bothering Bacot who eventually gets the ball. Gardner does come to double (we weren’t always and normally were late), which is effective and UNC has to back the ball out. Davis on seeing the double, cuts to above the nearby elbow looking for the ball, and bailing Bacot out with the pass. But, from there, all he does is take a few dribbles into the lane and elevate for his shot. Clark swipes at it which, I really like him being aggressive trying to get the ball on the way up in these situations and do think he’s improved there as the season’s gone on, but can’t do much to bother it. This was Davis’s first shot of the game and appeared to get him into a rhythm…
… because he was taking shots like this one, below, with confidence shortly afterward. This is, again, offense that has really amounted to nothing otherwise. We’ve defended well, so Davis just decides to take the ball, make a cross-over, and elevate confidently from deep.
He makes a couple more over recovery contests, this being one of them below in the second half. This is a tough position because as Love starts to drive baseline and Franklin attempts to recover, Caffaro drops to help. Clark is put in that position of tension help side, which is the least natural for him to fill. He has to decide between attempting to deter/bother the pass to Bacot, and staying near Davis. He comes down in front of Bacot and Love finds Davis, already feeling it, and Clark’s recovery to contest has no impact on the shot.
Davis got another off of a screen, had some more success going to the rim (against IMK as well), and ended up going for 24 points in this one, mostly against Clark, some drawing fouls against McKneely. But, in this last clip below, we see Beekman now switched onto Davis with Clark on Love. Love had not hit a field goal to this point in the game and Davis was scorching hot but, immediately, this happens:
There really isn’t that much space there, Love is just looking for/hungry for that shot because he knows that he can shoot over the contest. It’s just drawing Clark the littlest bit on the drive and then kicking out to Love for bombs away.
Now, there were some times this game where CTB ran just one point guard with both Beekman and Clark getting rests, it just wasn’t that often. My recommended solution for this actually isn’t to pull Clark when this starts happening. He’s been too important on offense throughout the season and is one of our most savvy and clutch players. He, Beekman, and either Shedrick or Dunn are among the most efficient combos in the entire ACC when they play together. In most cases teams have a player who we can put Clark on who fits the mold of someone he can guard very well. Proctor is a great example of someone who he can use his quickness to force him to elevate and shoot from distance, and he’s not yet comfortable do that at volume. In this game, I actually might have considered trying him on Leaky Black some. The few times it happened, Clark just kept him from getting a dribble going and Black tried to shoot over him in the midrange and missed. If they tried to post him, we could send help or shift our strategy again. If that didn’t work, then I’d say we should at least mix and match more frequently on defense. Switch who Beekman covers every couple of possessions so no one can get into a rhythm and they have to figure out how to run their offense each time down. Another option would be to play Dunn at the 3 some with Franklin at the 2, for a few possessions, just to break things up and add some extreme length to bother their hot player.
In general, this is just something to be mindful of because, especially if our frontcourt defense is likely to be improved from here, this is going to be more often where teams try to get their points. Rather than letting one player really get going and to cook for 24 points, I think we should be very aggressive about showing hot players different defenders much more regularly in order to combat this without having to take Clark off of the floor for large chunks of time.
Like: Clutch Kihei (and Jayden)
And the reason my solution to the above isn’t “play him (much) less,” as it might have been in previous seasons, is because he IS so clutch and effective when leading the offense, even when his shot isn’t on and he’s not scoring. He facilitates passes, etc., but he was SO effective at both breaking the press AND salting away the game with free throws down the stretch. Between he and Gardner, who also has stepped up his clutch factor, they went a collective 9-10 from the free throw line down the stretch (and the miss wasn’t Kihei’s). This after the team has struggled with free throws over the last month or so. He was calm, poised, and did a great job both as the inbounder and as the designed guy to survey the press and make the right pass to break it. For someone who was having a pretty rough game both defending and shooting, he provided EXACTLY what the team needed to close things out.
As an aside, I really liked what CTB did down the stretch of this game, as he used the four-guard lineup with Gardner on offense, both to break the press and to shoot free throws, and then he’d bring Kadin in on defense either for Gardner or for one of the guards. It was a common sense but very effective application of those players in crunch time and it worked out really well.
Like: Beekman is “That Guy” Again
Ever since his hamstring injury, Reece Beekman has clearly fluctuated with how much his hamstring has limited him throughout the season. Early on, against Houston, he was obviously very limited. Most recently, the Duke game distinctly stood out as one in which he was limited, even his defense lacking a little pop/ability to keep players out of the lane. In the game @UNC (and many of those game surrounding) we noticed it in his inability/desire to finish around the rim. In general, when Reece isn’t feeling well, you’ll notice it by his outside shot being significantly off, his lack of explosive steals, and when he doesn’t test the defense in the lane as often, or looks tender/has trouble converting when he does. It’s gotten better at times, like against NC State where his spring and explosiveness were there and he had a ridiculous number of dunks (and that one crazy attempt at the end). He was clearly back to that last night, which was great to see. Beekman was all over the place with 15 points, 5 steals, and 5 assists. He was making explosive play after explosive play, finishing at the rim, generating pick 6s finding teammates, and completely locking up whichever UNC guard he was assigned to, usually Caleb Love who was held to 3-15 on the evening and most of those shots from the field were when Clark switched onto him. When Beekman plays like that – like Vegas Beekman, like first half against Michigan Beekman, we’re a different team.
Just a few examples in this game were really encouraging. Here in this clip below, he gets a ball screen from Gardner up top and just slices his way through the lane for a really crafty finish with his left hand over Nance, and through contact (should have been a foul). This is the confidence, separation from his man after the screen, and ability to avoid the block that we didn’t see in @UNC (remember how many shots they got hands on and how reluctant he seemed to press the issue).
Here is one of the more electric plays of the game, in my opinion, and one that sparked a significant run where we went from trailing after some ineffective offense to taking the sizeable lead that we held, off and on, for the rest of the way. He reads this pass so well and his hand-eye coordination is like a blur – you really barely see it make contact with the ball as he knocks it into the backcourt for the run out. As a quick aside, when he passes the ball back to Caleb Love after the make and is talking to him, I love to see the competitive fire. Love talked to Beekman A LOT @UNC and you have to enjoy seeing ours not back down and give it right back.
It’s not just the finishing, you know he’s feeling well when he’s aggressive about hunting his outside shot, too. And here, he just ducks behind a screen when his man goes under and fires true, letting the bench know about it, too.
He made a ton of other plays in this game that I feel like I’m still not doing him justice, but this one where he motions Dunn to set the ball screen and just seems so effortless going down the lane for the finish in traffic stood out to me as being so similar to his pre-injury form. The elevation on the shot, the way he’s going much faster than he appears to be, the glide in his step without hesitancy. On the very next possession he set up this exact same formation but rejected Dunn’s screen to go the other way and drew a foul.
Beekman was easily our best player in this game, despite several other players playing REALLY well. That’s how good he was. He was completely suffocating – whoever he was guarding just disappeared, and he made plays for himself and others, and finished both at the rim and from outside. A true difference maker for us if he can maintain this form with the games so close together.
Like: Franklin’s Finishing
Franklin played a very good game himself, but I wanted to call out his finishing at the rim in this one because it was something UNC did so well to defend in Chapel Hill. We, including Franklin, missed some bunnies through their length and contests, and Franklin himself is almost always guarded by Leaky Black, a great defender in his own right who, at 6’8″, is much longer than he is.
He was only 1-5 from three in this one (although that 1 came at a huge time), but was able to take the ball to the rack often and confidently. Here’s one where the offense generates a mismatch where he gets isolated on Nance. The team smartly spreads wide, noticing this, and Armaan doesn’t settle for a jump shot, instead getting by Nance despite him attempting to sag, and finishing with a nifty scoop shot with his left hand.
This next one is just a great, physical, move inside against the much bigger Black. He creates some space with his pivot/shoulder and makes a tough finish over him, falling away.
And this one, below, was so huge down the stretch of the game in crunch time where he drives on Davis toward the end of the shot clock, takes contact that isn’t fouled, uses his strength to maintain his balance and concentration, and makes the running bank shot. Crazy tough shot given the circumstances, and strong finishing.
He had another against Black as well where he just kind of used his body to get into the lane and shield him off and made a strong layup. Really just wanted to highlight this improvement because it was such an issue in the previous matchup and both he (and Beekman) really stepped their game up at converting chances around the basket (likely also helped by the bigs drawing the attention of some of the shot blockers as well).
Like: Energy and Inside Presence
I talked about the presence of the interior defense for most of this article, but I also wanted to just really quickly call out the activity and presence that really all of the bigs brought to the table on offense as well. I’m not even showing Kadin’s alley-oop or Papi’s big dunk from the Reece assist!
But Papi punishing the offensive glass here:
Gardner benefitting from having much smaller players on him or switched on him, also punishing the glass in this clip below:
And this play, below, from Kadin was kind of the exclamation point on the game, but also sort of epitomized the change between the two games – presence defending the interior and presence punishing the rim the other way as well.
It just was so obvious what the added presence and great energy inside was doing for out ability to create opportunities, take advantage of easy looks, and to punish small mistakes, which was incredibly exciting to see.
As you may be able to tell, I’m pretty pumped about how we played in that game, for many reasons. I had planned on just writing recaps after, but was so excited I felt the need to start working on this immediately, as it feels like where we are now as a team has definitely shifted in a positive way from where we were prior to this game, even though we had been playing better the previous two. There’s a vibe now, with the team coming together and rallying around each other, with some players starting to round into form, and just the size and energy and physicality that we played with, dominating UNC inside, forcing them to react to us as opposed to vice-versa.
I’m very excited to see how it carries over tonight, how Reece looks on short rest, and how we play against another team fighting for its tournament life that just looked very good against a quality opponent!