In the championship game of the Continental Tire Main Event Tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers beat the Illinois Fighting Illini by a final score of 70-61. With the win, we have five takeaways.
UVA gets another marquee win
After beating #5 Baylor on Friday and putting the team’s offensive potential on full display, it would’ve been understandable for the ‘Hoos to drop this game considering how surely mentally and physically draining the last week has been for Virginia. Throw in just how good this Illinois team is, the fact that the place was packed with Illinois fans, along with the frankly weird calls from the refs and there were absolutely moments where it felt like this game was going to slip away.
But, when it mattered most, UVA went and won this game in a very difficult atmosphere against a top-15 opponent, and just two days after toppling the #5 team in the country. Specifically, the ‘Hoos went on a 13-0 run from 3:26 in the second half to 0:18 remaining to clinch the victory. That’s really impressive.
Few if any (particularly among Virginia fans) would’ve predicted a tournament win for Bennett and company considering just how stacked the competition was. Yet, now that the Cavaliers have two marquee wins to their name in just a three day span, it’s time to readjust our expectations. In my five takeaways from the Baylor win, I said this team was good enough to win the National Championship. We just got additional confirmation of that dea as the Wahoos displayed an ability to beat two really good teams in a neutral setting in one weekend.
That’s exactly what it takes to make a run in the NCAA Tournament and, just four games into the 2022-2023 season, the Wahoo faithful should be extremely confident that this team has the capacity to do just that.
Reece Beekman has arrived
All offseason the discussion surrounding UVA’s potential was based on whether or not Reece Beekman would make the jump as a player and become the guy that his potential has always suggested he could. Following this afternoon’s showing, I’m ready to say that he’s developed into just the type of guard that the Wahoos need.
Against Baylor, Beekman was ever the distributor as he notched his first career double double with assists as he tallied 10 points and 10 helpers. His pair of threes and 4-4 shooting from the line displayed how he can be a complementary scorer while primarily looking to produce looks for his shooters on the outside.
But, when shots weren’t falling against Illinois, the junior took the game into his own hands and boy oh boy was it fun to watch. The question regarding whether or not he’s made that leap has always been about whether or not he can score for himself. After his 17 point-outing versus the Fighting Illini, it’s hard not to come to a definitive answer to that question.
While his final numbers were a bit juiced by late free throws, the sequence of possessions he had late in the game where he stole the ball from Terrence Shannon Jr., finished through traffic in transition after the steal as he drew the and-one, made the free throw, and then drove to the hoop on the ensuing trip down the floor to pull Virginia from down 58-57 to up 62-58 essentially won the game for the Wahoos. If he continues to build on his last two games, we’re talking about a player who can go toe to toe with the best guards in college basketball.
Small ball can work for the ‘Hoos
The arrival and success of Ben Vander Plas so far this season has largely meant a decrease in minutes for Jayden Gardner as BVP has been really good playing in Gardner’s spot as the team’s power forward. There had been some experimentation with the two of them playing together in the first three games but, if anything, it looked like that was a pairing that would only get abused defensively while not producing sufficiently on the other end.
But, against Illinois, UVA went with (by my official count) the two of them together in the front-court for 11 minutes, with a healthy chunk of that time coming in the final stretch of the game. Especially considering how dynamic Illinois’ five-out offense is and how demanding it is for opposing bigs, the fact that that lineups with those two playing together worked today is a great sign for this team moving forward as those two are critical components of this team and only being able to substitute them for one another felt like a limitation on the overall talent of the roster.
This is a pretty balanced team
Following the first two games of the season, the depth on this roster was obvious as freshmen Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn shone and Ben Vander Plas proved that he’d be a great sixth man.
After this weekend’s wins, that depth is probably a bit less established than we might have thought as McKneely and Dunn were only occasional contributors for the ‘Hoos and Taine Murray didn’t play at all. For the first years, that’s really no big deal. They’ll get more comfortable against this sort of competition as the season progresses and will have their moments later on.
But, every single on UVA’s top-six minute getters are potential takeover players as the balance on this roster is starting to become very evident. After Armaan Franklin (26 points), Kadin Shedrick (17), and Vander Plas (14) were the three leading scorers against Baylor, Beekman (17), Kihei Clark (12), and Gardner (12) led the way against Illinois. All six of those guys can step up on the big stage at any given time and that means that UVA is quite multi-faceted and is hard to keep down for long. There are too many different guys who can make a significant difference to the point where opponents are likely to be overwhelmed.
We’ll see if this holds up throughout the entire season as certain guys could separate themselves as The Guys (looking at you, Reece). But, right now, it’s gotta be pretty darn hard to prepare to play this UVA team without even considering the difficulties of preparing to play against the Packline.
UVA is a versatile offensive team that can only get better
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of today’s victory for Virginia is the fact that there’s still a lot this group can do better. Against Illinois, the ‘Hoos shot 5-17 (29.4%) from three-point range, turned the ball over 12 times, and allowed Illinois to grab 11 offensive rebounds.
Regarding the three-point shooting regression, it’s great to see the Cavaliers struggle to make their triples and still find a way to produce 1.11 points per possession on offense. That was a question mark heading into today’s contest after the ‘Hoos absolutely scorched the nets from deep in the first three games of the season and establishing that this group can generate points in other ways is yet another sign of how good this team is and can be.
From Beekman being able to penetrate and score for himself, the bigs hounding the offensive boards, or the team’s defensive playmaking ability leading to transition buckets (Virginia scored 12 fast break points versus Illinois), there are a variety of methods for UVA to score the basketball outside of being able to turn it on from three.
As for the turnovers and the problems on the defensive glass (Baylor had 12 offensive boards on Friday), one would hope that those are issues that can be assured over time with a coaching staff that has a track record of molding error-free teams. If the Cavaliers do that, all of a sudden it starts to become difficult to game-plan a way to beat UVA beyond straight up out-shooting them.