We’re almost exactly a year away from the birth of this site (officially), March 23rd, 2022, where I did a deep dive on the Virginia bench players “The Three Ms” to make sense of their respective playing time. One full year, an entire offseason, and reviews of almost every game in the 2022-2023 season, we’ve come a long way! This has gone from something I just started for fun to get back into writing and to unchain from limited characters and high-level takes, to something that’s been supported and embraced within the UVA hoops community. Very cool, and I’m very appreciative for everyone who’s given these lengthier discussions their time, interest, and engagement. So, we’re going to keep building on it!
I decided not to write a specific review of the Furman game, at least not immediately afterward. I may revisit for some stuff focusing on returning players for next season once we know who those are. For now, we do not fully know what this team is going to look like and so, first, I’d like to review the season in two ways and with two articles. In the first piece (this one), I’m going to examine some of the thoughts and opinions that I held over the past year about what the teams should do or what I’d like to see from them. I’m going to determine whether or not I still agree with them, partially agree with them, or feel like I made an error and then, most importantly, what broader lessons/takeaways I think can be learned as a result. That established, I plan to write a subsequent piece highlighting the things I think we could/need to change to help improve the program’s recent performance in the offseason/prior since basically the championship season. This piece will be clip-free, and will mostly just be scorekeeping/drawing conclusions from the previous topics we’ve discussed this season, but I’ll try to link to articles that spend time focusing on my point, where able.
So, without further ado, let’s get into it:
Gardner’s Playing Time
After the Wake Forest game I wrote this in conclusion:
“I do think that far fewer Gardner minutes is correct. He doesn’t offer the defensive impact of the other two and that’s compounded by him actually being the worst of the three when it comes to providing quality spacing within our Triangle and 5-Out offenses. The offense he does bring is often harder to come by, less efficient, and at the expense of higher quality opportunities created elsewhere on the team. I think you use him more as a situational player now – if we’ve tried the other two (Dunn and Shedrick) and the offense is still slumping or stagnant, or even just if BVP is struggling with his shot again, see if you can put Gardner in there, give him some isolated touches, see if the jumper is falling, etc. As an alternative to the main plan not working, have his offensive style/game as a back-up.”
Now, this was after the Shedrick reduced playing time, BVP having gone through a stretch of being on fire vs. Miami, UNC, Wake, etc., and CTB going through the process of shifting our main offense entirely from Sides to the Inside Triangle. Teams hadn’t yet figured it out, BVP’s back wasn’t bothering him, and we had just witnessed Dunn play 30 minutes at the 4 vs. Wake and the offense still come alive to the tune of 76 points on the road, immediately following the 78 points they’d just scored at home vs. Virginia Tech. All of those points in that quote above are correct, I feel, but the conclusion was wrong. I failed consider the following:
Scheme and performance permanence. The Inside Triangle was a look that Virginia had shown plenty in previous seasons, but not really much since the ’21 team with Murphy, Hauser, and Huff. It looked like a well-oiled machine and was cooking for a while such that it looked like the way forward. They had found something and it seemed clear to me, at the time, that BVP and Dunn, then, were the primary solution and that you should rely on Shedrick for his defense, when necessary and to command defenders. Gardner seemed like the odd man out, or, back up strategy when things weren’t working. The problem was, I underestimated both how much of an impact defensive adjustments could have at slowing the offense down, and how much BVP’s shooting could/would decline with a combination of injury and, just consistency issues. Similarly, a lot of these issues that I pinpointed for causing Gardner performance issues were also a result of who we were playing alongside of him, the offensive fit, and just fluctuating form as it comes and goes throughout the season.
The issue wasn’t with Gardner himself (although the matchup-specific/form part WAS very relevant and cropped up again later against Duke in the ACC Tournament and against Furman, attempting to cover Slawson on the perimeter/having a cold shooting day), the issue was with personnel pairing, which I didn’t identify until later. BVP and Gardner BOTH had a lot to offer, and both had their moments when they really did. We saw BVP shine in the Miami game, the first UNC game, the Wake game, the first Duke game. We saw Gardner start to put up some hefty numbers in losses toward the end of the season, but really shone in the N.C. State game and in the ACC Tournament vs. both UNC and Clemson. The thing about all of those games, when you think about them, though, is that the majority of their time they WEREN’T playing together. Against Miami and Wake and Duke BVP played at his best alongside Dunn. Against N.C. State, UNC, and Clemson, Gardner primarily played at his best alongside Shedrick or, sometimes, Caffaro – and that trend was consistent on both sides of the ball. They both had times where they were exactly what the matchup needed, but almost never at the same time (the Syracuse zone was an exception to this).
Gardner WAS a player who ran into matchup issues, and those were exacerbated when playing alongside BVP, but the correct conclusion wasn’t to play him fewer minutes no matter what and use him as a back up option. The correct conclusion would have been to start/plan to give either the lion’s share of minutes depending on the opponent/matchup and then rotate minutes accordingly, but still mostly having them back each other up. For example, BVP could have gotten the start against Duke (if heathy), maybe even alongside Dunn, to pull their 7-footers out of the paint and allow for better offensive spacing. Gardner could have gotten the start alongside Shedrick vs. Clemson to punish their non-PJ Hall forwards defensively, etc. When there are players with really high ceilings in some games and really low floors in others, the best solution isn’t to limit that time, it’s to try to find the optimal opportunities as aggressively as possible.
I wrote this about Isaac Traudt in my preseason preview article:
“My biggest worry is Isaac Traudt. It’s going to be REALLY hard to keep him off of the floor and the best versions of THIS year’s team will likely involve him being integrated some amount of time late in the season. Occasionally running BVP, Traudt, and Shedrick all at the same time is something I’d love to see us try and could have some very effective application. I would bet against his usage to the extent that I am hoping for, though.”
After the NC Central game I also wrote:
“That’s Clark at the point, Franklin and IMK at 2-3, Gardner at the 4 and BVP at the 5. At the time NCCU didn’t have their 7-footer on the floor so it seemed like a good time to give it a look, but we gave up an open three pointer, an offensive rebound, and then 6’8″ Daniel Oladapo posted up with multiple people around him like it was easy and drew a foul. IMMEDIATELY after the end of this possession CTB sent Caffaro back into the game and this was the only defensive possession we saw all game without either center on the floor for us. Personally, I’d still like to see what a BVP/Traudt 4 and 5 would look like (maybe on Friday with Papi playing for Argentina?), but it’s clear at this point that we’ll primarily have one of our true centers in any given lineup, especially if they’re playing this well.”
Firstly, just a call back to literally the first game of the year noticing the defensive liabilities of playing Gardner and BVP at the same time (!!!) but, also, how a healthy Papi and Kadin were playing well enough that it kept Traudt off of the floor in that game, leading to the redshirt decision.
After the redshirt decision after this game, outside of this site, I wrote that while I was disappointed we wouldn’t be using him this year, I was excited to have a full additional year of Traudt; especially if we weren’t going to utilize him as I’d hoped.
That feels pretty naive now, in retrospect. Firstly, and I won’t spend much time speculating on this because, who really knows, but the transfer portal is a tempting, gaping, maw. For a player like Leon Bond, who was recruited with significant line of sight into the idea of a redshirt, you can hope with somewhat more reasonable confidence to avoid that prospect. For a player who is not expecting that outcome, sees a game’s worth of playing time distribution, and then makes that decision (ostensibly not discouraged by the coaching staff), that’s a much more plausible temptation, though. Hopefully, Traudt will see the very clear path to playing time and need on the program starting next year and will parlay his progress this season into success in that role… but counting on that feels like a very risky proposition as many players build on that program loyalty/determination to stay by playing together and forming that bond in game situations.
The other, less speculative reason this was incorrect, though, is that we could very obviously have used Traudt on the floor this season. Still regarded as “the best shooter on the team” by those around the program, with size at 6’10” that neither Gardner nor BVP offered, he could have been not just an insertion for BVP’s injury, but a valuable part of the rotation throughout the season. Imagine his shooting paired WITH BVP against Duke, allowing a true 5-out and forcing Filipowski and Lively away from the bucket. Imagine him paired with Gardner when BVP wasn’t shooting well, or in troubling defensive matchups like when UNC had both Nance and Bacot healthy. Imagine the added length that putting him alongside Shedrick could have offered while still providing that shooting prowess. The options were plentiful and, at times, completely necessary. This might have meant less time for BVP and Gardner. It might have meant less time for Dunn, although hopefully he would have gotten more run at the three, which would have, in turn, meant less time for any of Clark, Franklin, or IMK (depending on what was needed). All of that would have been worth it, IMO, to bring along this player who has such immense potential and whose development would have raised our ceiling both THIS year AND in future years. The way we allowed McKneely and Dunn to play/grow into their roles this season we should have absolutely done with Traudt, even if it meant less playing time for some of our veterans on the roster.
Of course, it’s still possible that we get 4 years of Traudt from here – but he IS also a player with NBA prospects/aspirations who, even if he doesn’t leave for a different program, is likely going to be working toward the quickest path to that goal. So, counting on his longevity with the program/being happy about the redshirt because of that possibility/eventuality seems like a mistake. The transfer portal and NIL are game changers. This isn’t the same environment as when Jay Huff or De’Andre Hunter redshirted. There are 606 players, at this moment, in the portal! When it comes to players as naturally talented as Isaac Traudt, we can no longer count our chickens that they’ll be here down the road and need to both engage them in the present AND benefit on the floor by getting them playing time throughout the season. I hope that the only detriment to the program that comes from this is just not having Traudt available in this year’s postseason, but I’m also going to be updating my lens for upcoming talent like Gertrude and Buchanan and, assuming both are healthy, am going to be looking/rooting for them to get some playing time next year.
I’m not a trainer and we’ve seen the serious impact of injury (Justin Anderson, De’Andre Hunter) over the years. Nevertheless, this isn’t football and so I find myself always both underestimating the odds of injury impacting the season AND underestimating how much of an impact they have when they do crop up. This goes back to the Traudt redshirt discussion as well as the concept behind playing a deeper rotation (especially when you have the talent to do so). But, it also is relevant in terms of just how we think about player performance.
Francisco Caffaro is a great example. He looked GREAT to start the season off. In fact, I wrote the following after the very first game of the season:
“The story after the first 30 minutes or so was how good Papi looked when he was on the floor, especially offensively. 10 points in 10 minutes is some significant pop off of the bench! Surely this is the kind of game that you have to take with a grain of salt as ACC competition is going to have more collective length and be more bothersome, but I really liked his activity and aggressiveness….
I have quite a few caveats with this one around variance, but it did seem like he had improved touch and purpose when he got the ball around the rim. Similar bull in a china shop energy this year but with far fewer broken dishes. Given that it does finally seem like the bulk of the playing time is going to go Kadin’s way rather than the 1a/1b situation we saw last year, it’s great to see that those minutes may be of more value than previously anticipated. The jury is still very much out, IMO, but this was cool to see.”
Much later in the season, though, after he hadn’t gotten much run and then Quinten Post torched him in the first game against B.C., I had the following to say:
“CTB primarily played Dunn with Shedrick in this one, which was effective, but I still prefer a Dunn/BVP pairing and I do like a Gardner/Shedrick pairing for the same reasons the Caffaro pairing helped Gardner’s matchups but without the liability of Caffaro on defense (which we haven’t focused on but Caffaro got absolutely torched by Post both inside and outside).”
I’d basically written him off entirely at this point, associating both his playing time and his poor performance on the floor as static representations of his ability. But, as we saw later after the BVP injury, toward the end of the season, Caffaro got a couple of starts and had some very good minutes as a screener, much better defensively, and as a more explosive finisher around the rim.
So, what gives? Some of it was just limited opportunity, but most of it was pretty clearly the foot injury that he was dealing with starting a few games into the season. We learned about it early on, and then we didn’t hear about it much thereafter, we just knew that he was playing through it (or not playing at all). Given our rotations and how he looked in the middle of the season when he DID get time, my inference was that, if he was healthy enough to play, that was his baseline as a player. But, seeing how dramatically different he looked at the end of the year (and how that favorably matched up with how he looked at the very beginning of the year), that clearly wasn’t the case.
We saw the same thing with both Beekman’s hamstring and BVP’s back throughout the entire season. These were nagging injuries that only heal through extended rest and through which they played for most of the season. Reece would look great one night, making explosive play after explosive play against N.C. State, or in the first round of the ACC Tournament against UNC, but other nights he would look tentative and hampered. I found myself wondering why he was having so much uncharacteristic trouble staying in front of Duke players in the first matchup prior to it dawning on me just how variable that injury could be game to game.
We saw BVP with the back brace as far back as the Houston game when he went 0-7 from the floor and 0-6 from three. It seemed like a situation he’d conquered as he heated up throughout the early part of conference play, only to see it flare up again dramatically down the home stretch. Now, it’s impossible to tell JUST how much any of these guys were impacted in any given game, but it’s a good reminder that lingering injuries can do just that, and the variance associated with player performance (and team performance as a result) isn’t necessarily indicative of how they’ll play moving forward on any given night.
So, generally speaking, reactions around player and team performance need to be mindful of player health. Now, whether or not we were correct to keep pushing through some of these injuries, I can’t say. The sizeable rest certainly seemed to work for Caffaro by the end of the year, but we likely didn’t think we could afford to rest Beekman or BVP in the same way (although I think we could argue the BVP case, given our performance after his injury).
Mixed Bag (Partially Correct and Incorrect)
Coming into the season I spent most of my focus talking about/hoping that our roster flexibility would allow us to often play bigger. I wrote an article about utilizing Franklin as a shooting guard more often. I wrote in several pieces about the possibility of playing BVP at the three on offense and Gardner at the three on defense. I wrote at length about how our roster compression and combined team size was a problem last year. I thought of Dunn as exclusively a 3 in my preseason discussions (and still think he’s better suited there, long term). Now, I think that a lot of these options were under-explored this year, likely somewhat as a result of the Traudt redshirt, but also in general. We saw Gardner, BVP, and Shedrick play together for significant time against Michigan, to great effect, but we didn’t see it often thereafter. We never saw any dual center lineups, we didn’t even see that much Dunn at the 3. All of these things, I believe, had moments where they could have been an improved solution, this year and we didn’t give them enough opportunity.
What I didn’t even consider, though, and what CTB taught a masterclass on for the entire middle chunk of the season, was how effective playing Smaller Ball could be. No, this is not an endorsement of Gardner/BVP at the 4/5, but it’s an appreciation for some of the very small lineups that did work throughout the season that I would have never thought. For example, with Nance and Bacot out, we used Beekman, Clark, McKneely, and Franklin (I lobbied for more of him at the 2 and he ended up playing way more minutes at the 4 than the 2!) alongside BVP to great effect, and then did the same thing to great effect against a large FSU team the following game! Against Wake and Duke we played three of those guards alongside Dunn at the 4 and BVP at the 5 to great effect. Attempting to come back late against Pittsburgh and Furman we utilized all four guards with Shedrick at the 5, a lineup that also worked (Franklin turned out to be our best defender against Slawson, even better than Dunn!) well. At the end of some games, even, we ran the four guards alongside Gardner at the 5 for free throw shooting!
There were things that we could have tried but didn’t, but there were also things I would have never expected that we could try that were very effective at times (but also that we couldn’t get away from at others). To me, this highlights the importance of matchups, who is playing their best, and the element of surprise. We shouldn’t get locked into what has to be or into thinking about the team in any one specific way but, rather, be open seeing what is and isn’t working in any given game and adjust accordingly; while being open to trying new things to see what might be available for the bag of tricks. It also undersells how much more physical that Armaan Franklin played this year and how improved he was as holding his own on the glass and scoring in the paint against the same, larger, competition that he faced last year!
Kihei Clark’s Return
Before the season, I wrote a piece here about whether or not I wanted Kihei to return, and why. I concluded with this:
“Do I think we should be rooting for him to return in 2022-2023? Hypothetically, the answer is yes. If he and CTB were willing to play him as a true backup to Reece, maybe 10 minutes a game max in most games and then scale those minutes situationally against certain opponents… then, absolutely! He’s an ideal Swiss Army Knife piece that can solve so many questions and his presence in the locker room with the incoming Freshmen would be so valuable…. We also don’t have that level of ball handling slated to join the roster in case Reece fouls out or needs a rest, etc.
However, given our history over the last two years of being unwilling to moderate his minutes, regardless of the need or situation, then I would be very reluctant. Can I really imagine a world where Kihei Clark starts four full seasons, returns for a 5th and doesn’t play 30+ minutes per game? I cannot. Beekman is a true star at the position with almost unrivaled physical ability who will continue to grow. We need him on the court as much as possible. Franklin thrives at the 2 and is much better suited for it, plus we have Isaac McKneely coming into the fold and I have no doubt we will want plenty of his shooting at times next year. We need those guys playing their natural positions. In order to continue to grow the roster and the program, we would need one of the heroes and most recognizable players in recent history to become a role player, and our coach to be willing to play him as such.
Like I said, it’s complicated.”
Now, if you were to check in with me about 3/4ths of the way through the season, I’d have said that I was dead wrong about this. Kihei was playing great and put together his most complete season as an individual player for us, and he did it on the back of some incredible offseason improvement! His shot, especially from three, was better and much more confident, his finishing was better, his ability to beat his man off of the dribble was at an all time high, his vision was as good as ever, and he was a true offensive threat in both our Triangle and 5-Out offenses. He’d take advantage of all of the open space around the hoop to blow by his man and finish or dish, and he demanded that his man not sag off because he’d become a reliable threat to shoot.
This highlighted, for me, a huge lesson learned in that, just because a player is one thing for most of their career (4 years, in this case!), there can still be significant improvement in any given offseason in their game, even in that last year. When you’re thinking about roster outlook, I think it’s natural to assume that younger players will make a leap, but it’s also better to approximate some improvement from even the most seasoned guys. One of the biggest jumps in our early season offensive progress was the improvement across both Kihei and Reece with their outside shot and their willingness to take it.
So, my initial thought that it was only good for Kihei to come back if he was played primarily as a backup to Reece and rarely at the same time together was incorrect. They often thrived together this year due to their improved offensive games which, again, was cool to see considering the past two seasons. There were plenty of stretches this year where Clark played like our best player, showed his savvy and clutch playmaking, and played a big role in winning games for us we might otherwise have not (first FSU game, JMU, first VT game, first Clemson game despite shooting horribly).
That being said, my fears ALSO came true and NOT because of KiHien (that was a lamentable decision/play but is also exactly the kind of situation where he’d come up big earlier in the year/his career and there’s zero chance you’d choose to have him off of the floor in that situation). The problem was, his play deteriorated toward the end of the year. Starting around the second Boston College game, improving for both Clemson games but, otherwise remaining quite poor, his field goal percentage from both inside and outside took a huge dip. He wasn’t able to finish as well inside with defenses adjusting to our scheme and he wasn’t hitting his jump shot with the same regularity that he was earlier in the season. In fact, starting from the second Boston College game, he shot a combined 29% from the floor on 62 attempts including 21% on 28 attempts from three, and played 33 minutes per game. Now, we know that Clark’s defensive efficacy varies pretty dramatically based on the opponent. Against a player like Chase Hunter, he was quite effective, but against players like Jamal Shead, RJ Davis, Jeremy Roach, etc., he struggled mightily and conceded a ton of points/opportunities.
And these were always my biggest fears, two fold:
CTB Consistently Failed to Moderate Clark’s Minutes Dramatically Based On Play:
The same rules just weren’t true for Kihei that they were for other players, really always, but especially from 2021 onward. Virtually every player (BVP was an exception as well, on occasion, and this was rarely applicable to Reece) would sit when either they weren’t playing well or their man was consistently getting the best of them. Kihei did not, at least not for more than a few minutes here and there. Everyone is naturally going to focus on Kihien vs. Furman, but Clark played 32 minutes in that one despite shooting 2-7 from the field and having fairly regular defensive struggles throughout the game. Meanwhile, Franklin only played 20 minutes and Dunn only played 18 minutes despite both being our most effective defenders on Slawson (and any other applicable match up) and both shooting at least 50% from the floor. Certainly conjecture, but I feel pretty confident that if you trade Clark’s minutes with either of those two (or a combination), we probably win that game comfortably. And that’s not saying that Clark didn’t do some things well in this one – he had 5 assists, he had a couple of very good defensive possessions but, on the whole, he wasn’t playing us to an advantage in this particular game where some increased size/rim over more time would have likely had a positive impact (because it was when it was on the floor).
This was similarly true for the Duke game in the ACC Tournament and both of the second and third UNC games (although he came up incredibly big with free throws at the end of that UNC game – which, you certainly would play him in those situations). But, in general in those games, he was not playing well and other players were offering more, but he never dipped below 32 minutes in any of them.
What we’ve seen in past seasons and was one of my big worries coming into this one is just that CTB could not help himself with regard to Clark. He was going to play him huge minutes no matter what. Earlier in the season, that was most commonly the right call as his play was elevated and his impact on the offensive side of the ball (and occasionally on defense, pending the matchup) made the team better. We did not adjust, though, when his play took a dip. And, honestly, when thinking about WHY his play took a dip… maybe it had something to do with the fact that he had played so many minutes throughout the season. Load management can be real, especially when you’re a smaller player.
The other area I was worried about this over this season is just the ability to get other guys time. McKneely got 21.5 minutes per game as a freshman, which is solid. Unfortunately, most of those minutes were at the SF position, which is the same issue that Franklin has been facing and I wrote about at length. Perhaps that will be an even added benefit to his game long term, practicing defending and getting shots off over these longer players, but it’s certainly not his natural position. Ryan Dunn got only about 13 minutes per game, and almost none at the SF position, which is likely his best fit long term. That number would have ideally been good earlier in the year, but there were plenty of games where more Ryan Dunn time would have been valuable on the floor and the increased reps certainly could have helped with his impact late in the season. Traudt, as I mentioned, redshirted because there just weren’t minutes earlier in the season with 4 other frontcourt players ahead of him; but the fact that we almost never went to some of the bigger lineup combinations BECAUSE of the chunk minutes in the backcourt causing roster compression helped to create a situation where there just wasn’t any time for him.
If you’re trying to be as competitive as possible, which we obviously were, then it makes sense. Given how Clark was playing for most of the season, it also makes sense. BUT, there were still plenty of games where we had comfortable margins and he STILL played large chunks of time. In the 27 point win over UMES, he played 31 minutes, in the 20 point win over Albany, he played 27, in the 18 point win over Georgia Tech, he played 31, even in the closer-than-it-should-have-been game against NCCU he played 34 – and his defense was the biggest reason they kept it close. Only in the Monmouth blowout did his minutes more resemble what you’d expect with a reasonable 20.
So, even if you accept the idea that we couldn’t get certain guys some more run in some of our more competitive games, there were still a lot of opportunities where playing time for other guys could have been very valuable, and those minutes still went to the 5th year point guard.
All-in-all, I would say that I under-estimated how much improved Kihei’s game would be throughout most of the season and how effective the team could be with both he and Reece playing alongside each other. On the other hand, I was still spot on in that CTB could not help himself regarding the number of minutes he sent Clark’s way no matter the circumstances, and that burned us both on the court and was less than ideal with bench PT. I don’t think, in hindsight, you can definitively say one way or another whether or not it was better to have him back or not knowing what we know now. I wouldn’t want to trade the regular season title and it’s very unlikely we get that without him. But, I certainly think the close to the season would have been stronger with fewer Clark minutes, and who knows what more minutes to our young guys (or an activated Traudt) would have done? What would have been best would have been to have him as a starter on the team and to rely on him when necessary, but also to have scaled his minutes back significantly in blow outs and in games where he wasn’t playing well/a good matchup.
Reece Beekman and Kadin Shedrick
Coming into this season I wrote the following about how Beekman and Shedrick needed to be our two best players this season:
“Even Ryan Dunn (assuming he doesn’t redshirt), whose offense will likely be limited to hustle plays, could be incredibly valuable as a defender at the SG/SF position unlike anyone else they have on the roster, but who likely will not be able to be utilized if Beekman and Shedrick aren’t more threatening/willing scorers. They unlock the rest of it, because if your two best defenders clearly become your two best players, then there isn’t anyone else on the team that you HAVE to play. You can mix and match much more willingly with the many varied puzzle pieces that this team will have.”
As an aside, swap “SG/SF for “SF/PF” and that sounds just right for Dunn, but what I underestimated for him was just how ready and impactful he could be in that regard. He wasn’t just someone we could utilize for some defensive pop, he was a player who was going to force his way onto the floor, even if it was at the PF.
That being said, this was a pretty accurate statement. Beekman’s improvement on the offensive end, specifically his shooting and willingness to shoot pre-injury, his explosiveness in the lane when healthy or feeling pretty well, his playmaking for others, all were the x-factor that pushed this team forward when he was at his best. We saw it at its pinnacle in Las Vegas and in the first half of the Michigan game, and we saw flashes vs. N.C. State and in the ACC Tournament against UNC. It’s a shame he got hurt, but he was consistently our best player throughout the season and we were at our best when we were at our best.
I’ve written many more words about Shedrick this year, but we were also at our best when he was at his best – and we got to see that both in Las Vegas, against Houston, and throughout the postseason. His three games in the ACC Tournament and game against Furman was the best four game stretch of his career, in my opinion. The biggest problem this season was that his offensive game did not develop in the same way that Beekman’s did. Now, we heard about it from Italy and secret scrimmages, and we saw flashes of it earlier in the year, with him even hitting a few threes. His free throw percentage jumped about 9% from last year, indicating that his shooting had improved when illustrated in a controlled setting. He was also a good passer all year out of the post and within the context of the offense. All of that being said, his offense was, mostly, once again limited to hustle plays and finishing opportunities at the rim created by other players. When he got the ball in the post, defended one-on-one, he would command attention, but rarely was he a threat to create offense for himself. That was a skillset that was sorely missed, and is likely the biggest explanation for why he saw the dip in playing time through the second half of the season (along with some rebound and foul rate issues).
Now, I’ve written a ton of words about why I disagreed with that decision and how we were a better team with him on the floor REGARDLESS of all of that. I think that the playing time reduction likely cost us some games directly (Miami, Pittsburgh, @VT) and, generally, created some issues that we struggled to navigate throughout the season. But, I will say that his play after coming out the other side of that stretch of sitting was markedly improved over any of his other games this season outside of the Baylor, Michigan, and Houston games. There’s a lot of speculation that would need to go into the “why” behind both the decision to sit him (which I’m sure I’ll get into at a later time in some way or another) as well as the factors behind his play throughout the year, but for now I’ll say this: I believe that I was correct in who we most needed to be our best, I was incorrect in that Kadin was able to develop his own offense (hopefully a huge/increased focus this offseason to develop a back-to-the-basket game), was correct that we were at our best when he was getting significant time, was incorrect that the reduction in playing time would hurt his game when he got more. A real mixed bag there.
I’ll say this – if Kadin returns, which I both hope that he will and think that he should, if he can replicate his level of play in the postseason game-in and game-out and add to it an ability to create his own buckets, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with and so will this team. If Reece returns and is healthy for a full season alongside him… lookout!
Taine Playing Time
At the very beginning of the year I speculated that Taine would be more of a factor competing for time at the SG position, but after watching the first game of the year, I quickly said that I didn’t think he was ready for many minutes because of his defense. During and after the Miami game, I wrote about how negatively impactful his time in that game was here. And, while he had some feel good moments later in the season vs. Clemson and his defense had clearly improved to the point where there wasn’t anything glaring like there was earlier in the year, I think this was spot on. At worst, he struggled to defend and gave up easy buckets. At best, he held is own on defense but still never shot well nor created much on offense, nor made a compelling case to play him over Franklin, McKneely, or even Dunn. The fact that he got more time as the season closed was a bit of a head scratcher that I attributed more to running defenses at full speed through a re-implemented Sides offense. His 11 minutes against Furman weren’t bad minutes (although he did have a bad turnover), they just weren’t very impactful minutes and you couldn’t help but think that, like with Clark, more Franklin and Dunn for their athleticism and ability to contest Slawson/the perimeter and also score on the inside would have been helpful.
Barring Taine becoming an absolute quickfire sniper this offseason, I’m not sure I see a good path for him next season, either. Assuming that Reece returns (a big assumption but I believe more likely than not), you’ll have all of: Dante Harris (we know CTB loves playing two point guards), Isaac McKneely, maybe Armaan Franklin, Elijah Gertrude (if healthy and not redshirted), Leon Bond, and maybe even Ryan Dunn competing for minutes at the 1-3. I might prefer Taine and a SG over running two PGs again but, otherwise, I think we’re likely going to be better off with all of those other options.
Frontcourt Playing Time
I’ll close with the topic I probably harped on the most over the season, which was the poor pairing of Gardner and BVP together. Metrically, this was proven to be true here:
But, if you just think about how the season unfolded, it was also clearly true. We played with consistent heavy Shedrick minutes through the Houston game, which was his best game of the season (when you consider the competition). The next game against Miami, he had a bad first half and sat in the second. We made a furious comeback in that half but mostly on the back of Dunn (who played the entire last 15 minutes of the game) and BVP playing together. Gardner didn’t play as much either. We continued with Shedrick getting a lot of time but, notably, Pittsburgh’s biggest push in the second half of that game was against the Gardner/BVP lineup, with the 4 guard/Shedrick lineup almost getting them back in the game at the end. Then came the UNC game which changed things. Shedrick had another bad first half and sat the entire second, in which we cooked the undersized/injured UNC team. But, again, Gardner also didn’t play almost the entire second half, BVP played alongside the 4 guards for most of that run. From there, we saw Kadin get fewer minutes, but the next stretch of @FSU, VT, @Wake, BC was all highlighted by significantly increased Dunn minutes alongside of BVP. We then played heavy Gardner/BVP minutes against the Syracuse zone, which made sense, but then we got the zero minutes from Shedrick and heavy Gardner/BVP game @VT, one of our worst performances of the season. We followed that up with a return to heavy Shedrick minutes against N.C. State, one of our best performances of the second half of the season (prior to the ACC Tournament). We then had a close game against Duke where we, once again, played our best with BVP and Dunn on the floor, prior to closing the regular season with six straight games of jamming Gardner and BVP together for max minutes and playing our worst basketball of the season. BVP’s injury hurt because we lost BVP and his ability to matchup against teams like Duke, but we immediately saw a jump in our play quality throughout the ACC tournament because we were back to playing big men in the lineup and were forced out of the Gardner/BVP pairing.
The lesson learned here is to continue to trust causality on the court via film break down supported by stats and not outcome driven narratives. For a long time there was the whole “we went on a winning streak after benching Shedrick” narrative as a justification for the BVP/Gardner pairing. Firstly, that winning streak was against weaker competition than we faced on the front end of the ACC schedule but, also, we were at our best during those streaks with the Dunn/BVP, and even BVP and four guard pairing during the very beginning of the implementation of the Inside Triangle. Gardner came on strong to close out the season as BVP’s back flared and he started to struggle, but at no time were they our most effective duo together for any extended stretch of time, as supported by that graphic above along with the many visible issues I documented throughout the season with regard to them playing together.
I’m going to draw most of my conclusions as some of these things apply to the program in my next piece. Generally speaking, they key takeaways from above can be similarly themed in this way:
#1.) It’s not as all or nothing much of the time regarding player performance, especially when injury, or just form, is in question. The truth is often found somewhere in the middle and things are going to naturally fluctuate over a long season. Physical limitations, on the other hand, and playing out of position, are more quickly assessed.
#2.) Lineup fit is a big deal and it’s correct to focus on it. It’s more important than just playing the most individually talented, or experienced, players. You can skew it in extreme ways to create unique advantages, but those situations are often circumstantial depending on your opponent and how individuals are playing. Success doing that is not regularly a long term solution, especially once teams get you on tape.
Okay, look for part two in a few days as look at all of these and apply them thematically toward the current state of the program.
2 responses to “Cuts Self-Assessment – 2023”
[…] offseason so far. Hopefully you’ve now read my self-assessment/lessons learned from 2022-2023 here. Building off of that, and what we’ve seen across the college basketball landscape both last […]
[…] (averaging 33) minutes really no matter what was going on in the game. I’ve written a lot (most recently in this piece) about how valuable Clark was at times this year. His ability to get inside and score when the […]