The Final Season: A Little Short

The Hoos late comeback came up a little short. It was a theme

I'm a coward. I admit it.

Duke was not the opponent I wanted in the ACC Tournament Final. I didn't want any part of the circus that would surround the game, or of the hostility and umbrage of Duke fans and allies, or of a team with Duke's quality with a mega-dose of motivation.

Several people challenged me on that, notably one Justin Anderson. Going up against Duke is challenging enough given their annual status among the 5 most talented teams in the country. It is an accepted principle in my world view that when a team with superior talent plays its best game, its opponent has no chance. Virginia excels at making teams play far below their best. It is what Tony Bennett's system is designed to do: give your team a chance to win by making the opponent play like shit. It usually works. But we've all seen times when it didn't.

Duke came into the game playing its best ball. Jon Scheyer has done a very good job coaching this team up. Unlike his mentor did for the last ten years, Scheyer didn't throw in the towel on getting his one-year superstars to play team defense with intensity and discipline. No zones because the man-to-man is hopeless. This year's Duke defense has been far more like the Duke defenses of the 1990s and 2000s than the Late Ferret Era defenses. All that talent playing with that cohesiveness and intensity is intimidating.

And Virginia was intimidated. I don't think the external bullshit was nearly as much of a factor as I thought it would be - perhaps because both coaches did such a good job of focusing their teams on the task at hand, and because the referees did, by and large, an excellent job of calling this game. But Duke was every bit as much of a problem as I had expected. They were focused and intense, they played defense continuously and aggressively. They executed. Their size and length in the post intimidated the Cavaliers, making everyone on the floor unwilling to put up shots within ten feet of the basket. The result was a lot of turnovers Virginia normally does not commit, because rather than taking shots they normally would, players were trying to pass the responsibility to someone else.

It was the first time this season that I noticed the team exhibiting a tendency that has been endemic to Tony Bennett's Virginia program, and that I have written about several times down the years: contact avoidance. I have long theorized that the main reason Virginia historically has a very low free throw rate is because the players actively avoid contact when they drive, often to the point of contorting their bodies and attempting circus shots. This team has, for the most part, avoided that and been more than happy to accept the contact. A related trait I have seen in some past years reared its head for the first time this season on Saturday:

Fear of the Shotblocker

One recent season, I don't remember which one exactly, I watched Virginia players act as if they were scared of getting their shot blocked. They would shy away from shotblockers, pass instead of shoot, or put up weak shit to try and get it around the shotblocker. I hypothesized that year that they were getting so many shots swatted in practice that they were traumatized. I am pretty sure we had Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff that year, and I think also Isaiah Wilkins. On Saturday, we exhibited that same behavior.

Dereck Lively is an excellent shotblocker and overall interior defender, and Kyle Filipowski is tall and long and also hard to shoot over. I get it. Getting your shot blocked is not fun and Virginia always wants to get good shots. But what Virginia exhibited Saturday is not the way to play against a shotblocker. It is not how good coaches train their players to face one. The only way to have a chance to defeat a shotblocker is to attack his chest. Take the ball directly to him.

It's like that girl you like. If you're too scared to ask her out, she will never go out with you. She will be in your head and you won't be able to stop thinking about her and you will come to have contempt for yourself because you just can't get up the courage to ask her out. You have rejected yourself. But if you ask her out, she might say yes. Maybe she likes you and has been waiting for you to say something. Maybe she just had a fight with her boyfriend and will say yes just to see someone different. Maybe she is looking for fun and to meet people and will say yes just to see what you are like. Or maybe she will say no, but with pleasure that you did ask her and with kindness. Sure, she also might laugh at you and ridicule you and tell all her friends how pathetic you are, but that's not the most probable outcome and without risking that outcome, you have no chance of the positive ones and are condemned to the long slow death of your own eventual self-ridicule.

Take the ball at the shotblocker and put it up strong and maybe he doesn't block it. Maybe you power the ball into the hoop. Very likely he gets called for a foul - which can result in him being intimidated by the whistle against challenging future shots. And, yes, maybe he DOES block your shot, but even that can have a positive outcome. The offensive team actually recovers like 60% of blocked shots and often scores right away because the defense is distorted. The shotblocker is now out of position for the new situation. If he does block it to a teammate, the worst that happens is a transition opportunity for his team. So what? Get back and play transition defense. That transition opportunity off a blocked shot is not likely to put your team at as much of a disadvantage as one from you throwing a weak, ill-advised pass.

That was why I felt the Kadin Shedrick missed dunk was such an important play for Virginia. Sure, he missed the dunk, but he fucking went for it. He challenged the defense, went right at them and attacked the rim. It felt like the whole team snapped out of it at that moment and started to play normal Virginia offense. Shedrick attacking that rim over a defender was something I loved seeing. If Virginia is going to have any chance of getting beyond the Sweet Sixteen (barring Alabama suffering a ridiculously unlikely upset), the Hoos are going to need that attitude out of Kadin - and everyone else.

A Little Short

Facing Duke brought to the forefront what has been my biggest misgiving about Virginia's strong reliance on Kihei Clark and Jayden Gardner: size. There are going to be opponents who will be able to take advantage of the lack of height of both players. It is a limitation they can not overcome and in certain matchups, it will be fatal. Duke presented such a matchup, and had either player been two inches taller, the outcome might have been different.

With Kihei, we saw the height mismatch on both ends of the floor. When he went into the paint, in most forays he simply could not get the elevation to make plays over Duke's interior defense, especially the way they played him. They were well aware of how good he is dishing to teammates, lobbing to Shedrick, etc., and they played those lanes, forcing him to finish, knowing that Lively and Filipowski could recover to the shot. They were just too big and long.

When Duke had the ball, Jeremy Roach killed us by driving Kihei and using his size advantage to get good shots in the lane (more on this later). Roach's ability to use his size against Kihei was particularly devastating when Virginia had cut the deficit to 7 and forced Duke to call time out at just under four minutes. First a Roach jumper over Kihei in the lane after driving right - something Jay Bilas had already pointed out more than once - put the lead back to nine, then after McKneely hit a three that made it six and would have cut it to 4 without the Roach jumper, Roach negated the McKneely shot by getting to the backboard and hitting the layup through Kihei's game attempt to stop him. The free throw made it a nine-point game again with 2:38 on the clock. Instead of putting real game pressure on Duke, the Hoos were left chasing.

Gardner held his own well on defense against Duke's bigger players, but it was visible that their length bothered his shot. Jayden was just 3-8 inside the arc, barely missing on several of his patented mid-range jumpers. He was forced to shoot a little faster, use a little more arc, fall away a little more, and it had an effect. Nothing he could do about it (except maybe fake the jumper and go toward the rim). Duke was just long and active and Jayden is a 6-6 power forward without turbojets in his legs.

Proper game planning around this limitation will be crucial to Virginia's chances of going deep in the tournament. Likely second weekend opponents Alabama and Arizona are also big and talented. Unless other teams take care of them for us, those disadvantages are going to have to be overcome - if they can. We might see what we saw in the middle of the season: less Gardner.

Speaking of Game Plans

After the game, some inchoate criticism of the game plan was heard. What I saw of the game plan was consistent with what I expected offensively. I thought throwing a heavy dose of Sides at them was a good idea, since we had not played it in the first match and there was not much film out on this year's team. Their ability to really prepare for it might be compromised. They defended it very well, as it turned out, clearly Scheyer drew on past seasons' experience and their defensive game plan was to force us to curl into their bigs. Tony ended up going back to the inside motion offense for much of the game. We mixed it up and some success came in both offenses.

On the defensive side, I think it would be valid to critique the backcourt matchups and in that valid critique we can draw a principle that I would put forth as the way these matchups should be set going forward (not that I think it's much different from what they have done?). We came out with Kihei guarding Roach and Reece Beekman on Tyrese Proctor. At times in the game, they swapped assignments, but Tony returned to that plan, and I think criticism of that decision is valid.

Most likely the decision was made because Proctor is 2-3 inches taller than Roach. Not unreasonable, but I think a functional approach to matchups instead of a size-based approach would make better use of the talents and better mask the liabilities of our backcourt starters. If one guard is a primary ballhandler and the other guard is going to focus more on scoring, keep Kihei on the ballhandler and Reece on the scorer. Duke has of late gone to having Proctor play the lead guard more and Roach is looking to score. Bilas talked about it during the broadcast. Kihei excels at pressure on the ball, which can be disruptive to a ballhandler, while freeing Reece up to attack passing lanes when the handler looks for help. Reece is also bigger and better at forcing scorers from their desired paths. He is also better able to challenge shots. I don't have possession charting to back it up but my memory is that Roach didn't do much when Reece was on him. Yes, Proctor can drive and shoot, too, but if they flip roles, then we have taken them out of what they intended to do and forced them to adjust. I will come back to this point when talking about our upcoming games.

The only other point I want to make about game plan is that using both Francisco Caffaro and Shedrick at the same time might have been effective for stretches when both Lively and Filipowski were on the floor. I wanted to see that a couple times during the game. We also could have utilized the post in the offense. When our offense was shite, I wanted to see us spreading the floor and dumping it into one of the bigs. I cannot remember a single time we fed either Caffaro or Shedrick in the post.

Growth Opportunity

Virginia's freshmen Ryan Dunn and Isaac McKneely played 15 and 22 minutes respectively against Duke. Dunn fouled out with 2 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal. He had a rough start but played well in the second half. He had impact on defense, moved the ball well on offense, and had the third most rebounds of all players (tied with Armaan Franklin and Duke's Mark Mitchell). He did pass up one corner three I felt he should have taken. It was more helpful minutes for a player who will have a role in the NCAAs and will probably step into a starting role next year.

McKneely gave Virginia a huge lift and some hope in the second half with 8 points and two defensive rebounds. Twice he brought the Hoos back to within 6 with a three. He also spent much of the game covering the 6-8 Mitchell and only gave up one basket by my reckoning. McKneely probably could have gotten a couple more looks if he came off the screens looking to shoot. More often than not, I saw him making his cuts like he was just a ball reversal guy, and not flying off with the hands ready to get it and put it up. That was what led me to tweet:

Isaac is a deferential young man, but the sooner he starts carrying himself on court like the big dog, making every run and catching every ball as if the very best thing that could happen would be for him to shoot it as soon as he catches it, the sooner he will start to fill his true role in this program. He is the next generation of the Joe Harris - Kyle Guy line. I'm sure that Tony Bennett would not disagree with the contention that the best shot Virginia could get on any possession would be an Isaac McKneely rhythm three. He needs to be out there thinking that every screen he sees is designed to get him open. Watching Guy, emulating the way he set up screens, the way he read the angles and adjusted his runs to force his defender into the screen, the velocity with which he came out of his cuts, the way he hit the arc already knowing he was going to shoot it before it hit his hands, will turn iMac into the most feared shooter in the league.

I plan to come back to McKneely in more depth in a future article, perhaps after the season.

Final Thoughts On the ACC Tournament

It sucks to lose to Duke and it is disappointing to get this far and not be ACC champs, but playing in the ACC title game is a hell of an accomplishment. You beat two good teams to get there. It was also great experience for the younger players, and well-deserved achievement for all of them.

Next up: Furman and the NCAA Tournament.

Seattle Hoo
March 14, 2023