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The end of mover-blocker? Bennett seems to be moving Virginia away from base offense

tony bennett
Photo: UVA Athletics

I never thought I’d find myself missing the mover-blocker, but after Virginia’s last two slogs – 62 points in a win against one-win Florida State, 55 last night against JMU – well, here we are.

I don’t have data to back me up on this, but I don’t remember seeing a single mover-blocker set in either game.

The actions that I’m seeing used frequently of late are two-fold: the most frequently used has the bigs positioned lane-width extended out to the three-point line, giving whoever is the point guard the option of using one or the other for a rub allowing them to attack the paint or to initiate a pick-and-roll, depending on how the defense reacts.

In these actions, a shooter is positioned on the three-point line in the corner ready to take a kick-out pass for a jumper or a dribble-drive.

The other action that is used a little less frequently has a guard and then another big setting a screen to free up either Jayden Gardner or Ben Vander Plas in the deep post.

Once the ball is fed into the post, then, the shooters set up on the three-point arc in case the defensive response is to try to double, leaving somebody open for a three.

That one got used quite a few times in the second half last night, actually.

Earlier in the season, we saw these used along with mover-blocker – basically, the bigs setting screens, either high, near the elbow, low, near the baseline, or mix and match, high on one side, low on the other – which gave the offense some different looks.

The offense’s effectiveness in the new actions in wins over Baylor, Illinois and Michigan seems to have gotten the coaching staff to move more in that direction.

The thing being, it seems to require a healthy Reece Beekman at the point for it to work at peak efficiency, and Beekman, who injured an ankle in the second half of the win at Michigan, hasn’t been healthy the past couple of times out.

He was obviously gimpy in the win over FSU last weekend, then added a strained hamstring four minutes into last night’s win over JMU.

With Beekman at much less than 100 percent on Saturday against FSU, you saw him, at times, hoisting jumpers out of context late in the shot clock when you’d normally see him attack, because he couldn’t, and the result was him going 1-of-7 from the floor, 0-of-3 from three, and Virginia needed a big game from Kihei Clark (18 points) to escape a team that has been getting beat by everybody.

On Tuesday against JMU, Clark got a brief minute and four seconds on the bench, and was so obviously exhausted from having to do everything (18 points, seven assists) in Beekman’s absence that the 80-plus percent career foul shooter missed five free throw attempts in the row in the second half.

The data from the past two games tell us that the Virginia offense, which had been averaging 1.164 points per possession through its first six games, which ranked fourth in the country before last weekend, has averaged an anemic 0.928 PPP.

I want to attribute this to Beekman either not being healthy when he’s on the floor or him just not being on the floor, period.

Tony Bennett said a couple of things to that effect after last night’s game.

“When you have guys that can touch the paint, it sucks people in, and you can get some rhythm shots,” Bennett said, going then to an observation that “shooting can kind of come and go. You work to get quality looks, but you can’t always count on it,” Bennett said.

“I think the shooting thing, Reece helps with that, but sometimes it’s just the physicality of the game, and how, you know, are there a lot of rhythm contests or open shots, and there weren’t quite as many in this game,” he said last night.

Basically what he’s saying there: we really missed not having Reece.

Jayden Gardner, who had 14 points in last night’s win, noted postgame that teams have started reacting to Virginia’s new sets by switching on all screens, as is the standard in the NBA, and that it’s hard to get a good handle on how to react to that in practice because Virginia’s rotation guys don’t play defense that way.

“You try to simulate it in practice, but it’s different in the game, you can’t sometimes simulate the switching and how they do it,” Gardner said. “So, it’s just us getting used to that playing that style of basketball, because when we’re going to against each other, we’re not going against switching, but you know, the scout team tries to prepare us the best the best they can, but you know, we’re just gonna get adjusted to teams switching one to four, one to five.”

JMU coach Mark Byington brought up something else that I observed on press row during the game, or at least I’m reading what he said to relate to what I brought up to the colleagues within my earshot.

One thing about the Bennett approach with his Pack Line defense coupled with the mover-blocker was that teams would wear themselves out just trying to get a good look on the offensive end for 60 possessions, and then back on the defensive end, it would get worse having to chase guys running through screens for 60 possessions.

The effect came to be known as the Cavalanche – hat tip to Anthony Gill – the run in the final 10 minutes that you’d see often because teams not used to playing as hard on both ends would simply run out of gas.

Now, to Byington, from last night’s postgame: “It’s hard, because you’ve gotta guard deep into the possession,” he said, talking more about the team he expected to see than the one he saw last night.

Then came the recognition that, yep, it’s a different UVA team.

“They’re a different team this year on offense,” said Byington; literally, these were the next words out of his mouth. “We watched film on them, and you know, we, for the first time, have got to worry about transition defense with Virginia, because those guards get out. And it was unfortunate that that Reece got hurt, because I think he’s been playing great. But with them, you kind of gotta guard now, in the first five seconds, but then those last five seconds. They’re so good at the end of the shot clock. And you know, they don’t panic, and they get a shot they want, and they’ve got floor balance, so you’re not getting them back on defense aid. It’s a difficult challenge.”

The part about floor balance hasn’t changed, but the part about Virginia working teams with the ball for 30 seconds isn’t what it was, with most of the actions involving two shooters camped out in the corners, waiting for a kick-out, or picks aimed at freeing up a post entry pass, with three shooters camped out on the three-point, waiting for kick-outs.

At the very least, even with a healthy Beekman leading the fourth most efficient offense in the country, there’s going to be an effect on both ends from not running at least some mover-blocker to get the defense chasing everybody around.

I’m screaming at the clouds, I know.

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Chris Graham

In addition to being the editor of Augusta Free Press, I've written seven books, including Poverty of Imagination and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, both published in 2019, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For my commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to my YouTube page, youtube.com/chrisgrahamAFP. Want to reach me? Try [email protected].