Virginia's frontcourt underwent a complete overhaul in the offseason. Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas ran out of eligibility. Kadin Shedrick transferred to Texas with bad feelings, and super-recruit Isaac Traudt transferred home to Creighton due to "homesickness" without ever entering a game for Virginia. The only frontcourt player to return from last season was Ryan Dunn.
Tony Bennett did not sit home and say, "woe is me." He went out and rebuilt the frontcourt around Dunn - whose return gave him an NBA prospect to build around. First came top-100 recruit Blake Buchanan, a mobile 6-11 center who plays with ferocity on both ends of the court. Then Bennett added one of the top transfer posts in America, Jordan Minor, a 6-8, 240-pound grad transfer. Minor was Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the Northeast Conference, and should step into Gardner's minutes. Another high-quality transfer, 6-9 grad student Jake Groves from Oklahoma, will also step into the rotation. The last addition, 6-10 freshman center Anthony Robinson, will probably redshirt and not join the rotation. Unlike Traudt, Robinson is a 3* recruit who recognizes that a redshirt will benefit his long-term development.
It's not a frontcourt that is going to strike terror in the hearts of ACC opponents, but it does have the potential to help Virginia win a lot of games. This evaluation is based on some assessments, one of which you might remember from Issue 1:
Minor picks up the basics of the Packline relatively quickly.
Minor's offense translates to the ACC.
Dunn is ready to live up to the hype his spectacular freshman flashes generated.
The group can collectively defend and rebound well enough to let the backcourt win games.
Size will be a concern for the Hoos in the frontcourt, as the two players taller than 6-10 are the least likely to be significant contributors - the two true freshmen. Big men in general have the toughest time transitioning from high school to college, and that challenge is even steeper at Virginia where the Packline demands a lot and takes time to learn. True freshman bigs are just unlikely to make an impact at Virginia.
That leaves Virginia with three players likely to absorb the lion's share of minutes in the two post roles: the 6-8 Minor, 6-8 Dunn and 6-9 Groves. Minor has a strong base and Dunn brings great length and mobility, but Groves doesn't bring any notable physical advantages. Making matters worse, first year transfer bigs are nearly as disadvantaged as freshmen in mastering their defensive responsibilities. Even the best, smartest transfer defender can be expected to make myriad mistakes big and small when thrust into action.
Thus, the lack of experience in the system might be an even bigger challenge than the lack of size.
Finally, Virginia's frontcourt roster has minimal proven ACC-level offensive production. Dunn averaged 2.6 ppg in the ACC, Minor played in one of the smallest conferences in Division I, and Groves averaged 6.8 ppg in the Big 12 as a complementary player. Minor won't be scoring outside of the lane, Groves likely won't score much in the lane, and Dunn did most of his damage last year as a garbage man.
Can Virginia get enough offense, enough defense, and enough rebounding out of its frontcourt to win?
Minor was the focus of his team's offense, much as Gardner had been the workhorse at East Carolina before coming to Virginia. Don't look for Minor to have the same success bringing that production to the ACC. Gardner did his work in Conference USA against bigger players; Minor was always the biggest player on the floor in his conference. Gardner had a good mid-range jumper that Minor lacks.
While Minor won't be setting up in the low post for 14 points per game, he will be able to get buckets out of Virginia's offense in a variety of ways. He's good at catching the ball on the move and finishing after setting a screen, he can attack post defenders with moves off the dribble, and he can get offensive rebounds. As a pick-and-roll partner with Reece Beekman, or rolling to the hoop off a pindown in Sides, Minor should be able to get open lanes to the basket as defenses concentrate on Virginia's perimeter threats. When the Hoos spread the floor, Minor will have opportunities to work one-on-one in space.
Groves is your classic stretch-4. His predominant role in Oklahoma's offense was a floor spreader from the corner. He played much the same role for Oklahoma that Vander Plas did in Virginia's offense, but shot the ball much better. While BVP's 30% 3FG shooting was a drag on the Virginia attack, Groves drained 38% of his threes. Whether he is camping in the corner on a 5-out or 3-man inside motion set or popping to the arc off pindowns in Sides or a continuity ball screen set, Groves can make teams pay for losing track of him.
People have made unfortunate De'Andre Hunter comparisons for Dunn. The size, the length, the defensive virtuosity and the occasional roofraiser are there, but Hunter was a far more complete offensive player coming into college than Dunn, and from the moment he stepped into the Virginia lineup you could see the ability to be a primary threat. He could create his own opportunities. Dunn has demonstrated none of that, and what can be reasonably expected from him on offense is an open question. Ryan is likely to get his points in a combination of Groves' and Minor's roles. If he develops the ability to attack defenders from the triple-threat position, those Hunter comparisons won't be so daunting and Virginia becomes more dangerous.
Virginia doesn't need Minor, Groves and Dunn to be Anthony Gill, Sam Hauser and Hunter. What the Hoos do need from those three is efficient use of their opportunities. With the ball in Beekman's or Andrew Rohde's hands, or with Isaac McKneely flying off screens, defenses are going to give Virginia's bigs openings.
Virginia defense has not been the same since Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key graduated in 2020. After being top ten in Kenpom defensive efficiency for seven consecutive seasons (2014-2020), the Hoos have finished no higher than #25 in the last three seasons. Major factors in that defensive decline were a loss of continuity in personnel, especially in the frontcourt; lack of experience in the system and reliance on more new players than normal; and absence of the "plus defenders" who had occupied post positions from Akil Mitchell through Darion Atkins and Isaiah Wilkins to Diakite and Key.
If you've retained what you read above, you're probably saying to yourself that "loss of continuity in personnel ... lack of experience in the system and reliance on more new players than normal" sounds exactly like this year's team, and you are absolutely right. We will not see the defense return to its former lofty heights of efficiency. We can, however, see it improve and get to where it will get the stops when needed.
Remember, Bennett's best teams were not his best defensive teams; they were his best offensive teams. The defense needs to be better, and it will be better if Bennett coaxes "yes" answers to these questions out of his players:
Can Dunn give 30 minutes per game at the production level he gave at 12.9mpg as a freshman? On a per-minute basis, Dunn was clearly Virginia's best frontcourt defender since Diakite. He showed every sign of being a"Dual-Axis Disruptor" (See Link) a la Diakite or Wilkins, able to both cover ground like a defensive midfielder and challenge shots. He also showed the ability to lock down opposing scorers at all positions, although Virginia's defense arguably needs his disruption ability more than his man D.
As a freshman, Dunn tallied an outstanding 10.5% block rate and a very strong 2.1% steal rate in addition to the factors discussed above. He is highly unlikely to block 10.5% of shots for 30 minutes per game, but if he keeps that rate in the 7-8% range, that will have a big impact on Virginia's defense. Dunn has the kind of defensive ability that a good defense can be built around.
Can Minor master the Packline in time to show why he was the Northeast Conference's Defensive Player of the Year? Minor had an 8.4% block rate at Merrimack, but that was out of a zone defense against smaller players. He will not match that block rate in the Packline against the ACC, but Minor did show enough ability to move his feet, set his base, and use his hands that he can be a good defender in the Packline if he is able to pick up its intricacies. He will require double-team help against some ACC bigs, which will truly stress the Packline, but he figures to be an upgrade over Jayden Gardner on defense.
Can Jake Groves be Evan Nolte? Nothing in Groves's bio screams "Disruptor," and it is too much to hope that he will come in and be a defensive force, but if he can be competent, Virginia can still have a plus defense with him on the floor. Like Evan Nolte. When Justin Anderson went down with injury in 2014-15, Nolte won most of his minutes largely because he was always in the right place defensively and rarely made mistakes. He understood his responsibilities and he upheld them consistently. That allowed others to make plays. If Groves can do the same, then he can pair with Dunn or Minor to be an effective defense and allow Tony to leverage his three-point shooting. Given his lack of experience in the Packline, that Nolte level of consistent competence seems like too much to expect. Look for Groves to be much better in February than November - which would be perfect timing.
A lot rests on Dunn. Pretty daunting to be asked to be a combination of De'Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite on defense, but that's what Virginia needs, and I am strangely confident that he will pull it off.
Back to the Backcourt For a Moment
Even more than offense, defense is holistic. We did not get into the defense of the guards and wings in Issue 1 because it will be the frontcourt that has the most influence on how good Virginia's defense can be. Wings probably have it easiest in Bennett's defense. They do have off-ball responsibilities, but if the frontcourt has a Disruptor or two, that provides a lot of cover for the wings. If the wings can rotate on doubles or hedges, and mostly keep their man in front of them, they are done for the day. A great wing stopper is a nice bonus, but the D can be good without one.
Virginia's 2023-24 defense has a chance to get closer to its Peak Bennett Era Level because of the presence of 2022-23 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Reece Beekman and his backup Dante Harris at the point. Disruption at the point of attack is a great start for a defense, and Beekman/Harris will provide that at the level of Clark/Beekman - if not greater. Beekman provides that disruption with superior length to Clark, as well as a preternatural anticipation off the ball. Beekman and Dunn on the floor together for 30+ minutes promises to be a nightmare for opposing offenses and should cover a lot of ills. All Isaac McKneely and Andrew Rohde need to do is not suck, and iMac is pretty much there already.
Finishing the Possession
Virginia actually was a good rebounding team last season. They were fourth in the ACC at defensive rebounding, limiting opponents to a 24.7% offensive rebounding rate. That's better than they did in 2018-19. Manning the defensive glass at that rate or better will be crucial this year. The defense is likely to have enough struggles getting initial stops that it cannot afford to give up second chances when it DOES get a stop. Dunn's 22.6 DReb% as a freshman led the team - albeit in low minutes. Bennett's better rebounding teams always had a main player over 20%, and Dunn is the likeliest candidate for that this year.
Small, Smaller, Smallest
A discussion of the frontcourt would not be complete without addressing "smallball." Bennett has at least as far back as 2016 used a four-small lineup, with Malcolm Brogdon seeing extended time at the 4 in a few games. Devon Hall played the role more often and did very well. It is a way that Bennett will get his best players on the floor, and when you already lack size, if you can maximize a quickness and speed advantage, you can seize the initiative from your bigger opponent and make him play to your strengths. Despite popular intuition, quickness generally beats size in basketball, because like soccer it is a game of motion.
Taine Murray played a little bit of 4 late last season. If his three-point shot finally gets out of quarantine in New Zealand and joins him in Charlottesville, the 4 is a great way to get his three-point shot on the floor and turn his main liability into an advantage. What is a lack of foot speed against ACC guards can be an edge against ACC bigs. He is a pretty good driver and finisher against over-zealous closeouts, and at 6-6 with a solid frame he can hold his own in the trenches as much as any guard. Leon Bond has been mentioned as another prospect for the position, and it would be a great way to get his abilities on the floor.
A four-guard lineup with Dunn or Minor at the 5 is something we could see a lot of as Bennett attempts to counter a lack of bulk inside with pressure all over the floor.
Looking at Virginia's frontcourt this way makes one wonder if sophomore Ryan Dunn might be one of the most important players in the Peak Bennett Era. So much depends on how good he is and how many minutes he can do it for. It's a lot to expect from someone who played 12.9 minutes, scored 2.6 points and grabbed 3 rebounds in his average game. Dunn is widely seen as UVA's best NBA prospect, and while I am unable to endorse that hype, I do agree that his potential is enormous and feel good about his ability to deliver what Virginia needs from him this year. His defense and rebounding are ahead of his offense, and that is ok for UVA, because we need much less from him on offense. While he needs to improve his offense to be a true NBA prospect, he can help Virginia achieve great success as a garbage man on offense if he provides All-ACC-level Dual Axis Disruption on defense.
Is Virginia's frontcourt going to scare the ACC and win a lot of games? No. That potential went out the door with Isaac Traudt and Kadin Shedrick. But it can help Virginia's backcourt terrorize the ACC and win a lot of games. When tournament time rolls around, Virginia's guard-oriented offense and junkyard frontcourt will be just the type of team that maximizes its tournament potential. And that's why I approach this season with such delicious anticipation.
October 3, 2023