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Is Virginia starting to get things moving in the right direction?

kihei clark clemson
Kihei Clark drives the lane in UVA’s 85-50 win at Clemson. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

It took a while – longer, certainly, than Tony Bennett might have expected – for Virginia to figure itself out.

And it’s just one game, and, yes, Clemson was ranked 12th at the time, but the Tigers had also been projected 10th in the 15-team ACC a couple of months back.

You want to say, don’t get too excited – and then you factor in, the Cavaliers don’t get the mid-week opportunity to build on the 85-50 win in Littlejohn, because their game with N.C. State scheduled for tonight is off because State is on a COVID-19 pause.

OK, caveats out of the way.

That was an important win for Virginia – the kind that can reset a team’s expectations.

“Clemson, we know how good they were defensively. And granted, they were coming off of a pause, so they were, you know, not … it was a perfect storm in a way,” Bennett said Monday in his weekly Zoom with reporters.

Yes, still writing about the Monday Zoom.

Trying to make it stretch out because of the weird week.

The team’s identity has been a work in progress from the outset. Bennett is going with three guys in their first year in the system in the starting lineup – transfers Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy III, and freshman point guard Reece Beekman.

A normal walk-up to a season would have had a summer of individual and group drills, a few weeks of intense practice, a couple of closed-door exhibitions against the likes of a Villanova, then a few tuneups sprinkled in with the scheduled games against Michigan State, ‘Nova, ahead of the start of the ACC season.

Which is plenty of time for a team to grow, for new players like Hauser, Murphy, Beekman, top recruits Jabri Abdur-Rahim and Casey McCorkle, who have barely seen the floor, to get their feet under them.

Learning the Pack Line can take time – practice time, game time, getting the reps in, knowing what happens when the five hedges on a high ball screen, and the guy setting the screen rolls to the rim;  getting used to pushing ballhandlers away from the baseline and back toward the pack; scrambling to get in position for post-to-post doubles, and helping behind.

It can be just as hard to pick up the offensive sets that Bennett prefers. His mover-blocker puts fours and fives in the role of setting screens, lane and wide, high and low post, then rolling to the rim or spotting up, as the guards cut or curl around them.

The 98-75 loss to Gonzaga back on Dec. 26 exposed … a lot.

The guards weren’t getting it in terms of what they needed to do behind the bigs hedging and doubling the post, leaving the lane open for layups – and the ‘Zags exploited that, shooting 21-of-29 on shots at the rim in the win.

The motion offense found itself bogged down as UVA’s top three perimeter threats – the 6’8” Hauser (13.8 ppg, 7.5 rebs/g, 49.6% FG, 37.5% 3FG)), 6’9” Murphy (11.1 ppg, 2.8 rebs/g, 54.7% FG, 52.0% 3FG) and 7’1” Jay Huff (12.8 ppg, 5.9 rebs/g, 2.3 blocks/g, 62.2% FG) – were setting screens for less efficient guards running off those screens.

The fix there – running three-man and five-out sets with Huff stationed at the top of the key, almost as a point-center, a threat to shoot the three (he’s shooting 41.9 percent from long-range) and to find backdoor cutters (his five assists in the Clemson win were a career high) – is likely going to remain at least a key part of the rejiggered offense for the remainder of 2020-2021, basically because Huff is too effective and efficient in those sets not to have them as part of the arsenal.

The fix on defense, abandoning almost completely the Pack Line, which you saw Bennett do as a halftime adjustment in the 70-61 win over Wake Forest two weeks ago, and continue through wins at Boston College and at home over Notre Dame, has already been scrapped.

Virginia was back to its Pack Line roots in the win at Clemson, hedging Huff on high screens, doubling the post and the rest, though you have to say, the effectiveness that you saw from the D in the two-and-a-half-game stretch preceding is something Bennett can keep tucked in his bag of tricks if he needs it.

So, schematically, things seem to be getting set.

Rotation-wise, things are evolving as well, this also a function of the weird year. Casey Morsell, the centerpiece of the 2020 recruiting class, was forced out of the lineup when he got caught up in contact tracing during UVA’s most recent COVID-19 pause.

Morsell, a 6’4” guard, had been establishing himself as a key contributor, a starter, and then he was quarantined.

Stepping into his role in the starting lineup was Beekman, the 6’3” freshman, who had been in and out of the starting lineup, and since his return to the starting lineup, in Morsell’s absence, has averaged 7.3 points and 3.8 assists per game, freeing up junior Kihei Clark (10.9 ppg, 3.7 assists/g, 53.0% FG) to play more off the ball on offense (Clark is averaging 11.5 points and 4.3 assists, on 61.8 percent shooting, over the past four games).

Bennett likes what he has been seeing out of his two starting point guards.

“If you go back, I don’t think you can go wrong having two good decision makers on the floor. Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes, Ty Jerome and Kihei Clark. I just think, you know, at times, that’s good, as long as they can hold their own defensively and again, take turns handling the ball. A lot of the game goes with kind of two point guards. I think you see that more and more,” Bennett said.

Morsell, then, since his return, has averaged 10.0 points on 66.7 percent shooting, continuing his emergence (he’s averaging 6.7 points on 46.2 percent shooting from the floor, 35.0 percent from three) after a dispiriting first year in 2019-2020 (in which he averaged 4.0 points, shot 27.7 percent from the field, a ghastly 17.6 percent from three).

Tomas Woldetensae (4.8 ppg, 43.2% FG, 41.4% 3FG) had a DNP in the Notre Dame win, after getting a total of 14 minutes in the wins over Wake and BC – and then dropped 14, on 5-of-7 shooting, 4-of-6 from three, in the Clemson win.

Even little-used sophomore big man Francisco Caffaro has stepped up of late. Filling in for redshirt freshman Kadin Shedrick (3.5 ppg, 2.9 rebs/g, 52.4% FG, 9.1 minutes/g), the backup to Huff at the five, Caffaro, who had played 21 minutes total going into last week, gave Bennett 11 off the bench in the win over Notre Dame, then 13 in the win on the road at Clemson.

Sophomore forward Justin McKoy (4.2 ppg, 3.4 rebs/g, 43.2% FG) has been the odd man out of late. After getting four starts early, he’s been getting around eight minutes a game over the past month, including a DNP in the Notre Dame win, and five garbage-time minutes in the blowout at Clemson.

McKoy makes 10, though – not counting Abdur-Rahim and McCorkle, who also got some minutes in garbage time, and had been expected to be contributors going into the season.

Bennett tends to want to go with an eight-man rotation.

He’s got 12 guys working hard to get minutes.

The guys seem to know what is expected of them offensively, defensively.

Time to build on that Clemson win.

Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press