Opportunities for Improvement in 2023 Part 3 – Playing Time

Welcome to Part 3 and the final installment of this offseason series reviewing opportunities for improvement. Part 1 about our redshirting strategy and Part 2 about our use of the transfer portal can be found in those respective links. Today I’m going to focus on a fairly loaded topic: playing time. The topic is loaded because it’s probably the issue that draws the most ire across the UVa fanbase along with the most ardent defenses. After all, we’ve been one of the most successful programs in college basketball over the past 10 years, have a championship to our name, and are just coming off of a share of the ACC regular season title. As/is, it’s working pretty well! That being said, success does not preclude the idea that there are areas for improvement and even teams consistently near the top should always be looking for ways to do so. Our system, discipline, and player development, especially at the guard positions, are the heartbeat of our success. Our lineup selection and player utilization has ranged from genius at times, to stubbornly sticking to our comfort zone in others. There’s a lot that goes into these decisions and we know many of CTB’s trends and tendencies. For this, I’m going to focus mostly on last season and how it relates to these themes, but will also touch on some of the historical trends that are relevant in contrast with current recommendations. Some of this is going to be adjustment to actual strategic lineup utilization, and some of it is going to be adjustment to approach re: how we distribute playing time. Again, this will be one of the few pieces that I don’t join with video. It will be based on having watched and analyzed the film from all of the games – if I reference some of the points that I made in previous articles, my recaps of games from last season (or broader pieces) can be found on my home page. As such, I won’t be going deep on many of the individual decisions because we’ve already done so, but will be referencing some at times in relation to broader themes, which is really the point – looking ahead. And off we go!

Current Preferences

Before we dive into recommended changes, let’s first establish trends and tendencies that CTB has embraced over the years with regard to how he manages his rotation. This way, we have a baseline from which to navigate.

#1. Ball Handling. CTB heavily skews toward playing at least two players capable of being the primary ball handler the majority of the time. Due to their collective size and shooting, this trend became more obvious/painful over the past few years as we relied heavily on both Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark as bulk minute loggers for the team. But, prior to that, we had Clark and Ty Jerome, Jerome and Devon Hall (who was recruited as a PG), Hall and London Perrantes, Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon… you can even go all the way back to Jontel Evans and Sammy Zeglinski. The truth is, there really hasn’t been much time durint CTB’s tenure he hasn’t played two players capable of playing point guard for large chunks of time. It was just harder to notice this trend until recently because players like Brogdon, Hall, and Jerome had the size to be hybrid-style players capable of playing the 1-3. But his desire to play Kihei Clark on the championship team despite the other talent on that roster and his determination to keep Beekman and Clark on the floor together as much as possible over the past three seasons has brought that trend to light.

#2. Continuity matters, but especially in the frontcourt. CTB’s ability to teach the Pack Line Defense and the reliance of his players to continually improve within the system has trended toward a reliance on playing those who have experience within the program over the years. This is true across the program but more so in some areas. For example, recently Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman were both able to earn starters minutes a freshmen. Isaac McKneely was able to earn over 21 minutes per game off of the bench, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy both played around a quarter of the game in their first season (Guy closer to half) prior to taking on bulk minutes starting in their second. A lot of this merges with point one regarding CTB’s preference for lots of ball handlers. Frontcourt players, on the other hand, have not seen the same level of immediate contribution in their freshmen years, even among our best players. Between the requirements of playing hedge defense on the perimeter without fouling and, at times, the complex rotations and double teams required in the post, frontcourt players have seen a longer amount of time prior to getting significant run. This has, at times, kept players with ostensible talent and athletic gifts on the bench for other more seasoned players. Mike Tobey is an older example of this, never averaging 20 minutes per game in any season but coming on strong with more utilization to close his senior year in 2016. But, more recently, both Jay Huff and Mamadi Diakite backing up Jack Salt during the championship season despite Huff’s metrics being through the roof and the upside of Diakite which was relied heavily on during the tournament run. Now, interestingly, in more recent years players who have transferred through the portal have seen immediate heavy run. Players like Ben Vander Plas and Jayden Gardner have been quickly thrust into the starting lineup to play large minutes despite never having played in the system before. This shows a (I believe correct) tendency to play guys coming to the team through the portal, which we talked about in the last piece, but also that CTB IS willing to sacrifice system continuity in certain circumstances, most notably when the players in question have experience playing and succeeding at the college level. Which brings us to point 3…

#3. Trust is king and heavy lay the minutes. You’ll often hear people talk about players getting into CTB’s “Circle of Trust.” Basically, players who are going to play the bulk of the game no matter the matchup or how they’re playing (aside from the occasional foul situation; CTB will sit guys after two fouls in the first half almost universally). Kihei Clark was a great example of this as a player who, after winning a championship in his first season, never played fewer than 33 minutes per game in any of the four following years. The same has been true for Beekman, who played 29 minutes in his first season and hasn’t played fewer than 32.5 since. I would say that this past season these were the only two players who fell into this category. You could argue that by the end of the season Jayden Gardner fell into this group as well, but all of Armaan Franklin, Gardner, and Ben Vander Plas, while being heavily favored and regularly playing around 30 minutes per game by the end of the year, all were still given reduced time on occasion based on what was going on within any given game.

After the “Circle of Trust” you have the core rotation, which CTB typically likes to tighten up by the time the team reaches conference play to be 5 clear starters and 2-3 rotational bench players who can be leaned on more heavily or not, depending. In fact, you have to go back to the 2016-2017 season – Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome’s freshman years – to find a year when we played more than 8 guys over 10 minutes per game (we did it with 10 guys that year NOT counting Austin Nichols!). He used to do it more frequently prior to then, but has consistently tightened his rotation since then. This year, there were some guest appearances by Taine Murray and Francisco Caffaro, but it was mostly Beekman, Clark, Franklin, McKneely, Dunn, Gardner, Vander Plas, and Shedrick. The year prior, it was just 7 guys – Clark, Beekman, Franklin, Stattmann, Gardner, Shedrick, and Caffaro. The year prior to that, despite COVID impacting player availability, it was just Clark, Beekman, Morsell, Woldetensae, Murphy, Hauser, Huff, and McKoy… and so forth. Simply put, the idea is to have your best guys on the floor as much as possible.

#4. It’s a feel thing. We know that CTB makes the totality of the lineup decisions and he does so through his own intuition. Yes, he has access to metrics and data, but he trusts his own eyes first and foremost. How are guys practicing? How developed are individual players? What skills and traits are they displaying? How prepared are they and do they function within the system. What does his gut tell him? And, first and foremost, he has always said that all of his decisions around playing time revolve around the concept of who can best help them win THAT game now.

So, that’s the groundwork and some relevant background and, for over a decade, it has consistently produced results such that we have become one of the most successful teams in the whole sport. But, given some of the changes to the college basketball landscape we’ve talked about in the previous two pieces, and in happenings over recent years, there are a few things that I would recommend that we tweak moving forward.

Lineup Compatibility

There are many different reasons that CTB makes the decisions that he does around who to play and how much, some of which I’ve just mentioned but are certainly not all-inclusive. What he doesn’t typically do is focus much on lineup compatibility/redundancy. When he thought that Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark were his best two guards in 2021, he played them the bulk of the minutes, even though we needed shooting from the position and Tomas Woldetensae was available and shooting well over 40% from outside that season. Similarly, this year, when he liked what both Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas brought to the table, he started them together and played them together a lot, despite the fact that the pairing was very bad together and that both players and the team played at their best when paired with other members of the frontcourt. Now, contrary to what you might believe considering most of what I do is comparing the tape with the data and trying to make sense of whether or not they’re showing the same story, I do not want CTB to be a heavy metrics guy when it comes to his lineups. Metrics are a useful tool, but they do not always tell the full story, and are often hard to parse when looking at short term trends over longer term data. There absolutely has to be a huge human element to it of seeing/feeling how guys are playing, who is ready and who isn’t, along with the creativity that comes with that.

If CTB had been too plugged into metrics, Kihei Clark would never have seen the court time that he did during the championship year and that absolutely would have cost us if he hadn’t had those reps/experience during the Gardner-Webb game, the Oregon game, and the Auburn game. In fact, the Kihei case study in that season is actually a great example of how we could approach more freshmen that I’ll make later on. If he had been too plugged into metrics, he wouldn’t have found the 4 guard and BVP lineup that he did earlier this year and he NEVER would have played Gardner and Dunn together, which started out as a terrible pairing but improved as the season went on (across a small sample-size). No, CTB would never, and nor should he, have a wholesale change to that approach… but he could use it as a sanity check sometimes. A pressure test, if you will. Because, even though we do not want a formulaic approach to lineup construction, over the span of a full season, there was a huge gap between most of our frontcourt pairings and the one we gave the most minutes to.

That’s definitely not nothing, and it was for the reasons that the tape showed – the lack of interior defensive resistance combined with their offense being individually more threatening but not complimenting or augmenting each other (and if you haven’t read my work throughout the season and think I’m being brief about this, check out some of my individual game reviews, I covered this topic A LOT so I’m trying not to belabor the point). So, even if CTB’s philosophy is to generally play the best individual players and the ones he thinks are most polished, experienced, ready, tough, etc., this sense of, “how are they actually working together?” has to be given scrutiny more often, IMO. Sometimes two players can be among the best 5 guys on your team but do not create the best 5-man lineups together. Sometimes the guy who isn’t necessarily as game-tested or polished offensively, or even as aware defensively, still offers a combination of traits that fit better with what the rest of the team needs in the lineup. Did Mamadi Diakite know the defense as well as Jack Salt in 2019? Did he screen as well? Was he as physical? As experienced? No, but getting him into the staring lineup and riding him was exactly what we needed to unlock that championship run. Similarly, were Beekman and Clark probably our best individual guards in 2021 in a vacuum? Almost certainly. I’m sure they were pressuring the ball and being secure with it, penetrating the defense, creating shots for other in practice, all of the things that CTB loves in his guards. But because neither shot the ball well or willingly, teams aggressively sagged and helped on our all-NBA-caliber frontcourt. Was Woldetensae’s length and size on defense and shooting a better fit for that starting lineup?

It certainly seems that way. And yes, that example is three seasons ago but it’s very similar to the Gardner/BVP situation this year with regard to player preference over player compatibility.

So, this is the first area I’d like to see us adjust – putting more priority on player pairings and complimentary skillsets. Keeping certain players separated or together depending on their chemistry and output, and using in the data/information available as a way to catch extreme things that aren’t working in concert. Using the data available to catch the most extreme outliers in all of that which, frankly, does help to eliminate some unconscious biases, without using it as a key driver in all, or even most, decision making. I’m reminded of the article where Mike Curtis uses player biometric data science to help make recommendations for CTB. He doesn’t always follow them directly, but does implement their findings throughout. In the same way, keep lineup construction as an artform, but use these tools to help break tendencies that aren’t working as well as thought.

Basically, sometimes the best five players aren’t the best five together. Identifying when that’s true and prioritizing that theory.

Each Situation Calls For a Different Tool

Last year’s team was interesting in that we had a bunch of guys who did certain things incredibly well but who also had clear weaknesses. It was like a Swiss Army Knife of a roster. And, really, Reece Beekman (when healthy or at least healthy enough) was the only player on the roster who I would classify as virtually always being the best option to have on the floor in any situation. I mentioned the “Circle of Trust” earlier (which, for the record, isn’t a term that comes from the program, it’s just a term coined from the outside watching how it all plays out). The thing is, when you have players with clear weaknesses or when your bench is talented and capable, or both, the former of which we’ve seen and the latter which we’re increasingly trying to move toward, you’re better off limiting the number of players who you treat as indispensable. We haven’t been doing this.

For example, CTB was going to play Kihei Clark 30+ (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 middle of the court was open, his ability to pressure the ball when he had shot blockers behind him and when his man wasn’t primarily looking to pull up off of the bounce, his ability to distribute and take care of the ball, his improved ability and willingness to pull the trigger from outside (especially earlier in the season) – all of these things were valuable this year. Illinois, both FSU games, JMU, VT at home, NC State, both Clemson games – all games where he was a huge part of the team’s dominance on both sides of the ball. But there were many other games, especially @Miami, @Louisville, @B.C., the 2nd and 3rd UNC games, the ACC Championship against Duke, and the Furman game where he either wasn’t playing well, wasn’t shooting well, or was being taken advantage of on defense by his man (or all of the above). In these situations, CTB needed to be willing to identify the mismatch and adjust by pulling him out of the game and riding a bigger defender or a hotter shooter, etc. Instead, he’d ride Clark like he was irreplaceable and there is an opportunity cost to these decisions. There were times when playing McKneely and Franklin together for large stretches without having to play four guards to do so would have been more valuable. There were times when playing Dunn at the 3 for longer stretches could have helped to solve a tricky defensive matchup or simply would have bolstered our interior defense without having to take out one of our front court players. Tying ourselves so extremely to one guy no matter what limits the other options we can employ.

Clark was always the most extreme example of this and really is the only player aside from Beekman whose minutes never really seemed to fluctuate much no matter what was happening. Everyone else saw their minutes ebb and flow some throughout the year to greater degrees than others, but there were some similar decisions with other players like bringing BVP into the game to shoot a crucial late three vs. Houston when he was 0-6 from the floor, playing him 29 minutes @VT when he scored 0 points and was conceding a ton inside (and playing Shedrick 0 minutes), and keeping him paired as a starter with Gardner and giving them significant run together during that two week stretch at the end of February where we played our worst basketball of the season and he shot 7-25 from three and struggled to defend the paint (and Gardner was playing well on his own).

Similarly, we played Gardner for 34 minutes in the ACC Championship game when he wasn’t a big factor to score, wasn’t able to hunt his shot and was our least effective big defensively against Duke’s size. Until that game, he’d been playing great, but just kind of rode him for huge minutes because he had been playing well that tournament and was our main offensive option without BVP, despite the fact that he wasn’t able to be that in that game and his defense was hurting us.

Now, there were absolutely times where CTB played Gardner or BVP (and Armaan as well who I didn’t talk about but who did see IMK play over him when his shot wasn’t there) less than their normal bulk. I’m reminded of the second halves vs. Miami and the first UNC game where Gardner barely played and of the NC State game where BVP only logged 19 minutes because Shedrick was playing so well on D.J. Burns – but there were also many times (which I wrote about in detail if you check my recaps) where either one of them was struggling or both were struggling when playing together and we still rode them. About half of the game was about as low as CTB was willing to go for either in most cases and that was rare. And Clark, well we basically just refused to sit him. His man could be completely going off, he could be really struggling to shoot from outside or to find space inside, both Franklin and IMK could be really hot shooting – it didn’t matter, he was going to be on that floor.

The point of all of this isn’t another referendum in detail on those specific situations, though. I’ve already covered them at length and none of those players will be on the roster next year. The point is we need to become a little more discerning about which players get a virtual unlimited leash and which don’t get much at all. Unless the player is a Reece Beekman type, Malcolm Brogdon, De’Andre Hunter – who are going to be almost guaranteed lock down defenders for you no matter how they’re playing on the offensive side of the ball – but who are pretty consistent on that side as well, we shouldn’t need to play them. Last year’s team wasn’t the 2021-2022 team where the options were so scarce, and neither will this year’s team be. If one of our key starters is shooting really poorly, or isn’t a good matchup with their opponent for whatever reason, most of the time we’re going to be able to find someone who can better provide what we need in that moment. Our roster may not be as experienced as last year’s team, but it is talented, and we need to be able to trust what’s working well and what isn’t within a game rather than gravitating so strongly back toward our comfort zone. For example, if Elijah Gertrude is smothering his man and playing well on offense in a game, let’s not pull him in order to get Harris or McKneely, or Rohde back in the game just because they’ve been more established over the course of the season. If Buchanan has been protecting the rim really well and been scrappy on the offensive end, let’s not feel pressured to go away from him/get someone else back in who might not be having the same impact but who has more experience. Let’s truly skew toward playing the hot hand; by which I mean the players who are impacting any given game the most on that day. With likely so many new faces this year, it seems like a great opportunity to embrace that.

Playing for the Present AND the Future

This last one I think would actually be the hardest for CTB. With regard to the previous two, I don’t think he has any fundamental disagreements, he just wouldn’t always agree with the assessments. For this last opportunity, I do think, at least to this point in his career, he disagrees with the philosophy. Nevertheless, with the modern basketball landscape it’s something I think we need to account for in our playing time. The future always has to be now, at least a little bit.

One of my friends recently wrote to me, “Minutes are the highest currency in college ball, even higher than NIL (actual currency) in a lot of cases.”  He was spot on. As talked about in my transfer portal piece, if guys who can be logging big minutes somewhere across the college basketball landscape either aren’t playing at all or are playing very sparingly (especially in the case of older players), then the risk of losing them to the portal is very high. We just saw this happen with a borderline top 50 freshman and an athletic former top 100 recruit who had spent close to a combined year starting for you. Now, we talked extensively in that article about how there are some players you are fine with losing and can either upgrade or at least tread water within the portal. These are not the guys I’m talking about here and you don’t need to change anything philosophically about how you play them. But when there are high upside guys on the team who you have long term plans to utilize and want to keep in the program, you have to carve out some minutes to accomplish that. Now, I’m not saying that you have to get your freshman 10 minutes in the Conference Tournament or anything like that, but I am saying there’s a significant opportunity to shift both toward expanding our rotations and toward using some minutes over the course of the season as developmental time.

Currently, we’re about as far away from this philosophy as I can imagine for a modern program and there’s two main ways I think we should shift. For one, I’ll use our game against Maryland Eastern-Shore as a case study from this past season. There were a couple of other games that fit into this mold but this was the most glaring for the purposes of the example. It was the first game immediately AFTER the preseason tournament championship in Las Vegas, so it wasn’t a tune up nor needed as a “get right” game. We ended up winning 72-45 and the contest was never in doubt. And yet who led us in minutes that game? Kihei Clark, with 31! Reece Beekman had 28, Franklin had 27…. Jayden Gardner played 25 minutes and went 12-15 from the floor for 26 points, completely feasting on the under-sized interior of UMES. Now, Gardner didn’t have the best tournament in Vegas and this was a good opportunity to get him some confidence back, but it was also not representative of most of the competition he’d be facing the rest of the season and he certainly didn’t need 15 shots in the game. Clark was a 5-year veteran who had encountered just about every situation under the sun and was coming off of a quality performance against Illinois. Giving him just over 3/4ths of the minutes of a game where we were ahead by 18 at the half against a Quad 4 opponent… why? There was nothing about that game that was at risk and there was nothing about giving Clark those minutes that was likely to improve your team down the road. Those are the perfect kinds of opportunities to give Ryan Dunn more than 12 minutes, to give Isaac McKneely (who hadn’t been playing well in Vegas) more than 12 minutes. This year that will be the perfect kind of game to try to get Elijah Gertrude and Blake Buchanan some time at scale. Use those opportunities to develop, reward, and engage your guys who won’t see as much run throughout the year.

That seems like a pretty easy shift for the games that are basically no contest, but we still need to give our guys we want to retain long term a taste of quality competition as well, to see what it’s like at game speed, to keep them engaged, and because there are going to be times when players with that level of talent rise to the occasion. For freshmen, no matter who is ahead of them on the depth chart, no matter the opponent, even just 5-10 minutes a game, more if they are playing well and impacting the game, would go a long way toward bringing their games along and showing them that they are part of the plan. Work them into at least one rotation in a low leverage situation per half, give them a feel and an opportunity to flash, and be confident playing them longer if it’s going well but, if not, the total time commitment wouldn’t have to be much. They’re still being given game opportunity against quality competition and they’re still part of it.

Now, in execution, this wouldn’t necessarily be a huge shift. A player like Ryan Dunn could easily be the model. There were definitely times this past season where it felt like Dunn could have been leveraged more than he was, but he was still given the opportunity to flash in most every game, often he really did, and sometimes he was given large chunks of time as a reward for that play. But, the mindset behind this was not to give him development minutes to see what would happen, it was because CTB felt as thought he was the best option in those moments. Similar to how IMK played over half of the game this year, and both Beekman and Clark started and played more than half of the game in their respective freshmen seasons. A lot of that comes back to that ball handling piece that we talked about earlier, these guys, Beekman and Clark especially, weren’t really eased into their roles, they were thrust in to large chunks of time because CTB thought they were already the best options. What I’m recommending is not that (or at least not JUST that). What I’m recommending is that we treat our most talented young guys who we want to keep long term as we did Dunn this season EVEN if CTB doesn’t think they’re the best option at that point in time. It’s a subtle (but I think huge) cultural shift from “prove it and then play” to “prove it through playing.” Now, that doesn’t mean you play them 30 minutes in any specific game like we did Dunn against Wake Forest, etc., it just means you carve out a little time to allow them to flash, potentially build some momentum, realize the level they’ll need to reach to earn more time, and that ALSO there’s the chance they’ll get more run if they do flash. This might mean there are some moments where they look lost or make a mental error, but remember, there were plenty of times this past season where both IMK and Dunn looked lost or made a mental mistake. Heck, there were plenty of times last year that Jayden Gardner looked lost or made a mental mistake. And, yes, there may be an occasional game that we lose on razor thin margins where we did not play well when one of these guys was in the game – but it’s not like that doesn’t already happen sometimes due to more experienced players just not playing well themselves or from us keeping a bad matchup in longer than we should. If we lose one game because one player didn’t play great for a 5 minute window, that might be a cost that we have to accept for the longer term benefit of building the experience of that player and growing him longer term with the program. Furthermore, there may also be times where they rise to the occasion and provide that spark to help make a run and win a game. Keep in mind, it’s not like these kids aren’t incredibly talented, that’s why you’re giving them this time to begin with. Buchanan more than held his own against a floor full of 5-star freshmen. Gertrude (assuming his knee heals in full) is one of the most explosive athletes we’ve had. There’s a return that you can build into this investment certainly long term, but also sometimes short term as well.

It’s kind of funny going back to Kihei Clark’s first year, he was kind of brought along like this, even more aggressively so, although this wasn’t the rationale for it. There were plenty of games throughout the regular season where he had big moments and contributed in a huge way (VCU game, anyone?) but, generally speaking, we were better when he wasn’t in the game throughout most of that year. It ended up not mattering that much because that team was so talented anyway. And CTB trusted him, gave him time, and increasingly relied on him such that he was both prepared and set up to succeed when we needed his skillset the most, which we absolutely did throughout that NCAA tournament. There were no less than three games we probably would have lost without him, and that’s not even counting the one he made “The Play” in (which I don’t actually count as one we probably would have lost without him but is definitely one we would have lost if he wasn’t on the floor at that moment!). Now, the minutes don’t need to be that extreme especially on a team so loaded, and the rationale behind doing this was not what we’ve been talking about, but the actuality was actually very similar to what we’ve been talking about; giving a player who might not immediately be our best option to win the most games by the most points some time on the floor up front so that you can benefit from their talent later on. Point being, find some time for the new guys who offer the most upside, even if it means some small short term trade-offs.

Now, with regard to more experienced players, this Shedrick situation really was a unique one, but one that may come up more often in the portal era. They treated him throughout the second half of the season as a player who they were comfortable moving on from, only to try really hard to keep him in the program once the season ended. This was strange because normally once guys crack the rotation enough to be starters, you don’t see their time get slashed so dramatically, and certainly not if the goal is to keep them (which, I’ll reiterate, we know that it was after the season). I was listening to a popular UVA podcast a little while ago and they made it sound like it was just obvious why he wasn’t playing, going as far as to say that he clearly didn’t make his teammates better. This was both incorrect metrically and via the tape as I’ve outlined in detail. We know that when discussed directly, he was advised that it was more of an issue of liking what they saw in Small Ball rather than a direct issue with his play which led to his confusion given how things were going. On one of his podcasts, Jeff Goodman said matter-of-factly, that they sat him to see how he would respond, didn’t like how he responded, but then found that they needed him/he played well down the stretch. To me, this seems like the most plausible explanation. They were testing him, thought they could get more out of him, gave him a short leash but then eventually had to rely on him and, when they did, saw him play the way they wanted him to. Although I disagree with both their determination and how it was handled/the leash given, I’m not here to go down that rabbit hole again today.

I think a safe conclusion, without rehashing the debate about his actual play this past season, is that if you do cut an established player’s minutes so dramatically (from regularly playing 25 minutes + earlier in the season to playing single digits and the occasional DNP), give them such a short leash, and don’t show them a significant uptick in opportunity after they do play well, then you can be pretty sure that you’re going to lose them. A scaling back of minutes could have been accomplished without taking it to the extreme that we did. But it’s clear that Shedrick played better with a longer leash, that we weren’t willing to give or try that for whatever reason, and that didn’t see what we wanted to see until the damage had already been done. So, if there’s a chance that you’re going to still want a player for the future or that there’s some stone unturned/unknown with their ability or how you utilize it, then you better exhaust exploring that before you make such a significant decision. And that, if anything, is the lesson I hope we learned here moving forward – you can’t make these decisions in a vacuum. It’s one thing to cut a player’s minutes to motivate or because other people are playing well – but if you’re going to make such an extreme cut to an established player’s opportunity for an extended period of time (especially when the alternative isn’t obviously better, in this case was actually considerably worse), do so knowing that’s probably sealing the deal that they move on and make sure that’s going to be your desired outcome. If there’s a good chance it won’t be, especially if the player’s ceiling is considerably higher than they’ve yet tapped into then it can’t be so jarring. The opportunity to earn the time back has to be greater, or the fall has to be less extreme, or both. Just like with giving freshmen some opportunities, future time signed with the program and the thought of future opportunity cannot entirely take the place of the present.

When ported to this season, I immediately think of talented players with transfer eligibility who will either be new in Gertrude, Buchanan, and practically Bond (but with more experience) or who got a taste last year in Dunn (I have no doubt that IMK will be locked into heavy minutes). I think of these incoming one-year players in Jordan Minor and Jacob Groves who should be major contributors to what we do. But, while I want to win as many games as possible this season and, once you reach the postseason all bets are off and you just grind what will make you win, I hope that we do not become so enamored with their experience that we don’t both play a variety of different lineups based on matchups/get our young talent some significant run throughout the year, not just at the beginning of it. Juggling all of those priorities is a challenge, but certainly one the GOAT is more than capable of managing should he deem it a priority to do so.

In Conclusion

I don’t think any of these recommended changes are dramatic nor difficult to implement. Basically, it’s preserving the meritocracy but evaluating it slightly more on a game-by-game basis. It’s putting a little more emphasis on lineup pairings and matchups with the opposition. It’s slightly expanding the rotation and more equally distributing some of the minutes to play the long game a little. In actually, the changes themselves wouldn’t necessarily appear to be that different. 5 or so fewer minutes for a player here, fewer DNPs for a player or two there, a little more variance in minutes logged by player on a game-by-game basis. The same system and the same culture could all still translate to include these changes. In fact, I would argue that this slight shift would be even more aligned with the 5-Pillars.

No, the hurdle would simply be a mental one for the coaching staff. But they have made some significant philosophical changes to how they work at various flashpoints over the years. I think it’s reasonable to both think and hope that between the evolution of the portal and how this past season went down, we can expect to see a shift, at least somewhat, across these three areas (including Part 1 and 2) moving forward.

Okay! That concludes the postseason review/wrap and, personally, I’m going to welcome looking forward to next season more concretely. My next four pieces will be detailed film looks at all four of our incoming transfers, starting with not-forgotten-to-me Dante Harris. Until then, thanks for reading, everyone!

One response to “Opportunities for Improvement in 2023 Part 3 – Playing Time”

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