Home Five Observations: Virginia, stuck in the 40s, again, in season-ending NCAA Tournament loss

Five Observations: Virginia, stuck in the 40s, again, in season-ending NCAA Tournament loss

Chris Graham
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Virginia, it’s hard to remember this, but it happened, scored 80 points in a win at Florida State on Feb. 10, shooting 50 percent from the field and 10-of-18 from three.

That same group struggled to get past 40 in its dispiriting 67-42 loss to Colorado State in its First Four NCAA Tournament game on Tuesday in Dayton.

What happened, you ask?

I’m going to blame Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes.

“I think teams started really zoning off, gapping up on some guys and just making it so hard for Reece (Beekman) and Isaac (McKneely). They kind of face-guarded, zoned off. And I want to say they got a little bit of a blueprint on how to bother us,” UVA coach Tony Bennett told reporters after the most recent one-and-done NCAA Tournament appearance.

Virginia actually beat Wake in the blueprint game in question, defeating the Deacs, 49-47, on Feb. 17, so, a week after the explosion at FSU.

UVA shot 40.7 percent, was just 4-of-13 from three, and largely couldn’t get out of its own way, a pattern that would start to play out from that game going forward.

The ‘Hoos scored 41 in a loss at Virginia Tech two days later, shooting 32.7 percent and going just 2-of-12 from three, then had 44 in a loss to UNC, shooting 27.6 percent and connecting on 2-of-14 from long-range.

Duke also manhandled Virginia in a 75-48 beatdown in Durham, in which the Cavaliers shot 30.9 percent and were 5-of-17 from three.

“We tried to come up with some different things, and I thought we played good ball against NC State and even BC and Georgia Tech at the end,” said Bennett, noting that “a lot of it was predicated, we needed to make some shots, and the free throws, but we had to hit some shots just to give us a chance.”

“But it was hard because of how it was jammed in the lane, zoned off of guys and really face-guarding or making it difficult on the others. And I think that kind of started happening as people saw, well, here’s a way to maybe make it real challenging on us,” Bennett said.

Memo to Coach Bennett: it’s the offensive approach, having everything run off screens, which can work when you have shooters, and bigs who can score off pocket passes when defenders zone off to chase the shooters.

But when you’re playing 2-on-5, as Bennett often had his team doing, with lineups that would have Beekman and McKneely paired with Andrew Rohde, a shooting guard shooting the ball at a 29.6 percent clip, the one-dimensional Ryan Dunn and whoever he had in at center between Jordan Minor and Blake Buchanan, you’re making it easy on the other guys by clogging everything up in the middle of the floor.

Another one-and-done NCAA Tournament exit: A pattern?

Bennett was pressed on this issue in his postgame presser. UVA has not won an NCAA Tournament game since winning the national title in 2019, which is five years ago now.

The reporter asked if the trend of early exits has become systemic, which got Bennett to ask what was meant by systemic.

“It’s frustrating because before that we’ve been to a couple of Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight and a national championship, but there have been some hard losses in the first round. That’s frustrating,” Bennett said.

The Sweet 16s, the Elite Eight, the national title run, that was all between 2014 and 2019.

It’s starting to feel, yeah, like the magic has run out.

That’s what was meant by systemic.

“I think, absolutely, I always have to examine our ability to advance,” Bennett said. “We’ve raised the bar really high here. We’ve qualified for this tournament, which is not an easy thing. We’ve done well.

“But it’s stung to get to this point and not advance. So, of course, we’ve got to keep adding quality players. We’ve got to look at things, certainly, from a system standpoint, absolutely,” Bennett said.

“I wish we could have played better and played quality because we were so excited to get this chance, because this team maxed out for the most part in the regular season at times, and this happened.

“But you know, it’s something that I’ll always look in the mirror after every year and say, OK, what adjustments, we gotta get the right pieces in place. So, I think it’s probably both, to be honest,” Bennett said.

Let us now praise Reece Beekman

If you just look at Reece Beekman’s counting numbers – 15 points, sure, but he was just 4-of-16 shooting – you wouldn’t get the whole story.

On a night in which his team was dominated for the last 30 minutes, Beekman held his opposite number, Colorado State point guard Isaiah Stevens, largely in check – Stevens had a quiet five points and four assists in 36 minutes.

“I look at the job Reece did on their excellent point guard, Isaiah Stevens. He did the job there,” Bennett said of his point guard, whose four-year career at UVA has come to a close.

We can put the stamp on it, in case you were wondering. Yes, Beekman has a fifth year of eligibility with the COVID redshirt, but he didn’t sound in the postgame like he’s remotely thinking of using it.

“That was a tough way to go out. Didn’t imagine it to go that way at all,” Beekman told reporters after the game. “But I’m just blessed to have a career here of four years. I’ve been able to play since almost basically Day 1. I know that’s not usual. So, I’m just looking back at it, happy about the experience, happy being back here doing my last year of college. It was just a blessing.

“I don’t want this game to define my whole season or my whole career. Yes, it’s tough, but I’m glad to be in this position,” Beekman said.

Two guys who merited barely a word in the postgame

Bennett mentioned Isaac McKneely only in passing. McKneely had six points, a pair of threes in a minute-and-a-half span of the first half of the first half, before missing his last eight shots, to finish 2-of-13 from the floor.

Then, Ryan Dunn. Dunn had Virginia’s first four points, and then finished with five points, and five rebounds, in 26 minutes.

First-round draft pick this summer, huh.

Quick hits

  • Andrew Rohde put up another goose egg in 15 minutes off the bench. It was his ninth of the season in 33 games. Those nine are triple the number of double-digit games he had this season (3).
  • The up-and-down season of grad transfer Jake Groves ended on a down note. Groves had three points on 1-of-8 shooting, and he missed all four of his free-throw attempts. It was his second straight game with three points. After the scintillating four-game stretch in which he averaged 14.3 points per game and was 13-of-18 from three, Groves averaged 5.7 points per game over his last 10 games, and was 12-of-33 from three in that stretch.
  • Happy sails to grad transfer Jordan Minor, whose insertion into the starting lineup in January is the one thing most responsible for the turnaround that landed UVA in the NCAA Tournament. Minor had seven points in 20 minutes in his final college game. After working his way into the starting lineup, Minor averaged 6.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, with four double-digit scoring games in that 18-game stretch. Not bad for a guy who was only getting garbage-time minutes into mid-January.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].