The Virginia Cavaliers put together the best weekend any team in college basketball has played this season, knocking off two elite opponents in convincing fashion at the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas.
Well, this one isn’t hard to figure out. Virginia defeated #5 Baylor by seven points and #19 Illinois by nine. They leapt eleven spots in the AP Poll, the week’s biggest riser, coming in at #5. Their resume is arguably more impressive than any team in college basketball right now, with a 2-0 record against current top 20 teams. The Cavaliers went on a 32-5 run against Baylor and a 13-0 run down the stretch against Illinois. It’s hard to envision a better start to the season for the ‘Hoos.
One big reason for Virginia’s success in the early going, even with a team constructed so similarly to last year’s squad? They’re taking more of the best types of shots: three-pointers and free throws. The ‘Hoos are scoring 35.8 percent of their points from three and 28.3 percent from the free-throw line, per KenPom; last season, those numbers were a paltry 24.2% and 17.1%. They also have the highest free-throw rate in the NCAA — a statistic inflated by some late-game fouling, but impressive nonetheless.
No player better encapsulates this team’s improvement from last year so far than Armaan Franklin. Mercurial offensively in 2021-22, Armaan’s started the 2022-23 campaign on absolute fire from beyond the arc, knocking down 45.5% of his 5.5 three-point attempts per game. He averaged 17.5 points per game in Vegas, including a monstrous 26 points against Baylor in a career-best performance. If he keeps up this level of confidence, Virginia’s offense can sustain its dominance.
How about Reece?! He was the best player on the floor in Las Vegas. Taking star players like Terrence Shannon Jr. out of games is something we’ve seen from Beekman in the past, but taking command down the stretch and scoring back-to-back buckets in a tight game is new — and it’s exactly the development this team needs. He’s also 6-of-12 from three, which is just the cherry on top. He’s 0-9 on midrange jump shots so far; if Reece can get going from there, he’ll look even better on the offensive end.
It’s been a really nice start to Kihei Clark’s final season in a Virginia jersey. He’s still playing more minutes than anyone on the team, but it’s clear that Clark is deferring to his teammates more comfortably. Some of that might be due to Kihei having better players around him, but I think it also has something to do with his growth as a point guard. The only nit to pick is his 40% field goal percentage at the rim.
Ben Vander Plas
The Ohio transfer’s versatility is so, so valuable to this iteration of Virginia. It’s been hard for Tony Bennett to take him off the floor in big moments, because BVP does so many good things. He entered Charlottesville billed as a three-point shooter, but what really shone in Vegas was his passing and rebounding abilities. Vander Plas isn’t afraid to play physical basketball, and despite Fran Fraschilla’s insistence he got the better of Illinois big man Dain Dainja down the stretch and was instrumental to Virginia’s late run.
KenPom’s preseason projections had the ‘Hoos as the fifth-best team in the NCAA, a significant step above every other ranking system — human or computer — in the preseason. Virginia is now ranked fifth in the AP Poll. Congratulations, math.
What a great bit of exposure they got from hosting the best early-season (or, as ESPN wants you to call it, “Feast Week”) tournament in NCAA basketball. Even the two non-Virginia games, Baylor-UCLA and UCLA-Illinois, were really entertaining watches.
The Cavaliers have recorded an assist on 72.9% of their made shots, second in the nation behind only Tennessee. That number matches the eye test, too. This offense should be the envy of middle school basketball coaches everywhere.
Tony Bennett is insistent on a particular way that the Virginia basketball program should be run, in terms of both on-court style and off-court management. In a college basketball landscape that sometimes makes it easy to feel cynical about team-building strategy, watching Bennett’s insistence on roster continuity and internal development from last year’s pay off has been extraordinarily satisfying. Any ranking of the top coaches in college basketball that doesn’t have Bennett in its highest tier is incorrect.
The Bears will beat 90 percent of college basketball teams simply by virtue of having LJ Cryer, Adam Flagler, and Keyonte George on the court at the same time. However, even though those guys can all hit tough shots, Baylor really needs to find a way to get some more easy looks (or at least tighten up on defense) when the tough ones aren’t falling. They’re an elite team, but their inability to get to the basket reliably might be their downfall come tournament time.
The Fighting Illini looked very solid as a team against Virginia for approximately 35 minutes, before totally unraveling in the clutch. When things tightened up, they didn’t have anywhere to go besides a Terrence Shannon iso or a Dain Dainja post-up; it was like their beautiful ball-movement offense that had kept them hanging around all game disappeared. Growing pains are understandable for a team that lost four major contributors, but they’ll need to figure it out before the Big Ten meat grinder begins.
It really is a shame that this team’s success seems to be coming at the expense of Jayden Gardner. I don’t know what’s more surprising: that Gardner is sixth on the team in minutes per game, or that he’s sixth in points per game. Getting to the line has prevented Gardner’s poor start from turning nightmarish — he’s 17-25 from the line while shooting just 35% from the field — but it’s not hard to envision more games like the contest with Baylor, where Gardner played just 17 minutes as lineups with BVP at the four clearly gave the ‘Hoos a leg up. His saving grace may be the success of small-ball lineups where he’s paired with Vander Plas, like the one that closed against Illinois. Gardner is too talented to keep off the floor, but he needs to contribute more while he’s on it.
It unfortunately seems like the second-year New Zealander has been relegated to the deep bench and won’t be a major contributor to this roster. He didn’t play a single minute in Las Vegas. There’s still potential there, but with so many deserving players ahead of him in the rotation Taine has an uphill battle to get on the floor.
I don’t know
At times in Vegas, McKneely seemed just a bit too hesitant to let it fly from three. He attempted just four total shots in 26 minutes, after taking 12 shots in 51 minutes in the first two games of the season. While he didn’t have a great tournament (just one made shot), he’s still going to be a great player and one of the best jump-shooting threats in the Tony Bennett era. I’m glad the staff seems happy to continue giving McKneely minutes — it’s clear they see the same potential everyone else does.
Dunn goes down here for a similar reason to McKneely. After shining against weaker competition, Dunn had to take a bit of a step back against two elite foes. He played just 10 minutes total in the tournament. The four-point play opportunity he earned against Baylor was a definite highlight, but otherwise Dunn didn’t contribute much. The fact that he’s on the floor at all, though, is a positive going forward.
Is Virginia the best team in the ACC right now? It feels silly to say when your conference has the AP #1 overall team, but I think they are. North Carolina is formidable, but they’ve coasted off reputation a bit in the early going of 2022-23. Duke is going to have the same problems Duke has every year: some talented freshmen struggling to play as a team early in the season and figuring it out to some extent by the NCAA tournament. Virginia’s resume in 2022-23 is much stronger than both of their main opponents at the top of the league. And so far, no other serious contenders have emerged. I don’t know because it’s so early in the season, but right now the ‘Hoos look like a solid bet to reclaim their ACC throne.