The Final Season
My good friend on Twitter, @Xavier_Venom, (better known as "Cuts From the Corner") said on his blog CutsFromtheCorner.com that the end of this year was the "end of an era." I agree with him. I think it IS the end of an era: The Post-Championship Era. This tournament season is the final season of that era.
The Championship Season was the culmination of an arduous Climb To the Top. It was an epic struggle against great programs and their allies in the landscape, facing PR campaigns and rule changes against our style of play, vicious negative recruiting, and a culture that minimized or excused away our victories and trumpeted our defeats as indictments of the system. It began in December 2013, and has been referred to by StLouHoo as "Peak Bennett Era." The 2012 recruiting class laid the foundation for the Era and the 2016 class brought it to its triumphant climax.
Kihei Clark was part of that Championship Team, but he was a supporting player. It was not his team, just the way Ryan Dunn and Isaac McKneely are part of this team but it is not their team. It is Kihei's team, and he is the defining player of this era. This post-season is an opportunity for the era to end on a high after overcoming challenges from the outside world.
The Hoos have had an up and down season, starting off with a series of impressive victories and climbing as high as #2, then being brought to earth by current #1 Houston and scuffling through some tough stretches in conference play. As most Tony Bennett teams do, they grinded their way to a lot of conference wins and ended up at the top of the table - this time in a tie with Miami - who beat the Hoos in Miami early in the season. As with most Tony Bennett teams, the suitability of this team to postseason play is a mystery.
At different points in the season, the Hoos have looked like a team that can go deep in the tournaments, and like a team that is destined for early exits. Undersized across the board and athletically-challenged in the paint, they are vulnerable to matchups. More than most teams, their fate is going to be tied to the paths they are given.
What gives me some optimism for the NCAA Tournament is that these Hoos have done best against teams that don't know them well, teams that were not well-prepared for what they want to do. Returning to those opponents could help the team return to that level of play. That is also where the Return of Sides can give the Hoos an edge in the ACC Tournament.
The Return of Sides
Those who have followed my work down the years know my general feelings about the Blocker-Mover Offense that Tony Bennett calls Sides and I call BM. It is an offense developed by Dick Bennett a long time ago, where players have prescribed roles and move in prescribed patterns, making a series of reads and reacting to the defense. NFL fans have heard of "read-and-react defense" - Sides is a "read-and-react offense." You run your patterns and if the defense does this, then you do that. If the defense does that, then you do this.
Because it is an offense predicated on taking advantage of mistakes and making the right decisions, it works best when run by an experienced team against inexperienced, by a disciplined team against undisciplined, by a team that knows it intimately against a team unfamiliar with it. When given those conditions, it negates talent and can help an underdog compete with and defeat a team with superior talent. It is ideal for a mid-major against a P5 team, or a team from the bottom of the league against the teams at the top. When you're "just another game" or even better a "trap game" opponents don't put in the preparation and the focus they do when you're the #1 team in the nation.
And therein lies the rub (what does that even mean?). When your opponents have seen it a dozen times, when they have lots of film on it and coaches experienced in preparing teams to defend it, when you command their full attention and the players approach playing you with focus and discipline, it becomes easy to defend. And if you are trying to run it with a young, inexperienced team against that opponent? Forget it.
In the last five or so years, Bennett has gone away from a sole or sometimes even predominant reliance on Sides. It wasn't really part of the offense for most of this year. They relied on the "Three-Man Inside Motion" offense that the 2019 team ran so brilliantly, where two players stay out on the wings and the other three run a motion offense in the middle corridor of the floor. For most of the year it worked great, but then when February rolled around and things got serious, it broke down. Teams adjusted. Film was out. Tendencies were scouted out. The good looks were harder to find. The structural weaknesses of the team were exposed and exploited.
Then, before Clemson came to town, after a particularly bad stretch of games with two near-losses to the bottom teams and two losses to decent teams, Tony made a strategic move than usually I would greet with dismay but that in the context of this season I believe was brilliant: he reintroduced Sides as the predominant offensive set.
By bringing Sides out of mothballs, he recreated the conditions that give it the greatest chance of success. Clemson's Brad Brownell has of course seen Sides before, but his team had not. There was no substantial film to watch. He would not have prepared for it. His team was at a disadvantage. Then Louisville came to town, with a coach who had never coached against it, and players who had never seen it. They were precisely the type of team Sides was created to exploit, and the offense hummed. The Hoos topped 70 points for the first time in weeks.
Bringing it out when he did was great. The Hoos got live game action playing it while still not giving future opponents much film to work with. UVA's ACCT opponents are going to be at a disadvantage in preparing for it because none of them will have a chance to focus on UVA before the game. BC or UNC will have played the day before and will have had to prepare for each other. If Clemson is next, they will have the benefit of the earlier game, but their pre-tournament focus has to be on their first opponent. If the Hoos get to the final, they will match up with an opponent that has not seen Sides all year. If that opponent is Duke, it will be against a coach who has never prepared a team for it (assistant and head are two different jobs).
Because of the late season switch to Sides, UVA will get to replicate that early season/NCAA Tournament lack of familiarity in its ACC Tournament opponents. At just the time of year where offense becomes most important, Bennett's strategic adjustment has given his team's offense its best chance to shine.
Peak Tony Bennett
This segues nicely into my next topic: Coach of the Year. Tony has reached the point in his career where he has almost no shot at winning Coach of the Year no matter how well he coaches. His excellence is baked into expectations. It is accepted as baseline - and your baseline performance does not win you Coach of the Year. Ask the Ferret. Virginia was picked 3rd in the ACC precisely because of the expectation of Tony's excellence. Look at Virginia's roster and compare it to five or six other ACC rosters and you would not pick the Hoos to be at the top of the league. But because Tony Bennett is the coach, everybody says, "He'll get the best out of them."
And he did. This has been so far one of Bennett's best coaching jobs. He has bounced back from a subpar season again, like he did after 2016-17, his other worst performance as Virginia's coach. Much more than he did last year or in 2016-17, Bennett coached to his personnel. He went with an offense that fit, that made things simpler for new players and at the same time allowed his best and most creative players to create. He relaxed his obsession with defense, trading defense for offense and accepting that his personnel's strength was offense. He made the best of his rotation and consistently got his best players on the floor.
Jim Larranaga or Jeff Capel will win ACC Coach of the Year, and they are not undeserving. Capel should be the favorite given Pitt's preseason status (picked 14th). Jon Cryer will get a push from the media. Bennett will receive no serious attention, but make no mistake, he has done a great job this year - even for him.
If you had asked for my opinion before the season began, I would have told you that I would prefer to go with Isaac Traudt, Ryan Dunn, Leon Bond and Isaac McKneely alongside Reece Beekman instead of Ben Vander Plas, Jayden Gardner, Armaan Franklin and Kihei Clark, taken my lumps this season, then ride that group to a national title next year. My expectations for the veteran core was lower than the media's. It is a group with serious limitations if you look at it conventionally.
I underestimated this group. They have used their strengths to overcome their limitations more often than not. They have, as Tony Bennett teams almost always do, answered all the questions "Yes" - which kind of goes back to the point above. I was unexcited by Vander Plas coming on as I just saw him getting in the way of Traudt. I hoped Kihei and Jayden would move on because of their unavoidable limitations (height) and the limitations I saw them putting on the team's ceiling. I thought Bennett would rely too much on them instead of other players.
Boy was I wrong. Kihei has had by far the best season of his career, getting rid of the tendencies that persisted even into last year. He is living up to his promise as an on-ball destroyer, getting under dribblers more and not letting them shoot over him as much as they could previously. He has lived up to his belief in himself and without him, this team would not have been as good as it is. He has made the team better in part because Bennett did what I thought before the season he had to do if this team was going to go as far as it could: hand the keys to Reece Beekman. It's Kihei Clark's team, but Reece Beekman is driving the bus. I am very happy for Kihei.
The emotion with which Jayden greeted his Senior Day is why I will always love him. Though he came as a transfer late in his career, he ends it as a Hoo. You just know he will be seen at the JPJ every year for decades. Whatever he ends up doing in his career, he will remain a member of this community. I appreciate that. I also appreciate the way he stepped back when Bennett relied more on other players, and the way he carried this team when the offense stagnated. I appreciate the way he has gotten down in his stance and gotten down on the floor. He might be undersized for his game, but his heart sure isn't.
Vander Plas might be Virginia's MVP this year. While his three-point shooting gets the attention, it is the other parts of his game that win the games. He can drive, post up, create and make all those heady plays. He also rebounds pretty well, is a pretty good hedger, and has the hands of a cutpurse. His willingness to let loose the three despite not being a high-percentage shooter even helps by forcing a big to come out of the lane. He, like Gardner, has been quick to go to the floor for the ball.
Finally, I want to express my appreciation of Armaan Franklin. He has been a bit of an enigma to me during his time here. He shot 42% from three as a sophomore at Indiana, which was obscene, after shooting 27% as a freshman. During his time at Virginia, he veered back and forth between the 42% shooter and the 27% shooter. His first year here he ended up closer to Freshman Franklin, while this year he has ended up closer to Sophomore Arty. Early in the season I thought he looked like an NBA player. In ACC play as he has gone through cold stretches and struggled to hit bunnies, not so much. But regardless of how well the ball has gone in the basket for him, Armaan always plays with such great energy at both ends of the court, attacking the game with relish, and has been willing to hoist shots like he believed the next one would go in.
Franklin is our "X factor." If he plays in the tournament at the level he did in Vegas, the Hoos will go far. If they do go far, it will be largely because Armaan Franklin looked like an NBA player again.
I want to end this piece by giving Armaan's mom India a shoutout. She has been one of the most pleasant, enjoyable people on Twitter (@Indii5000) these two years. She's a fun follow and she makes the day better. She is enjoying herself so deeply that it carries you along. She is a wonderful addition to this community, and I am so thankful to have her. Give her a follow. You will be glad you did.
There is more to come, but I will save my last two points for another article.
March 6, 2023