“Never Too High, Never Too Low” — I apologize for how much you’re going to hear that from me over the course of Wake Forest’s season, but I truly believe that it is the perfect way to rationalize and understand a team like the Deacs that is probably going to be on bubble watch for some time.
One can’t get too high off the nine-game winning streak, nor sink too low following a troubling, but not disastrous loss at Florida State. Simply put, there’s always another big game coming in the ACC. It’s an opportunity for Wake Forest to get this promising season right back on track.
Teams: Wake Forest (11-4, 3-1 ACC), Virginia (11-4, 2-2 ACC)
Date: Saturday Jan. 13
Location: LJVM Coliseum; Winston-Salem, NC
Broadcast: ESPN2; Kevin Brown and Debbie Antonelli
Two seasons ago, a win in Charlottesville against Virginia was the beginning of a huge run for Wake Forest. The victory began a four-game win streak that saw the Deacs rise from No. 57 in KenPom to 34. It was also a sign of just how far Wake Forest had come during Steve Forbes’ short tenure in Winston-Salem.
Last season, a matchup with the Cavaliers had the opposite effect. After clawing within one midway through the second half, Wake Forest couldn’t finish the job, and the defeat was the opener of a four-game losing streak that significantly impacted the hopes of a NCAA Tournament bid.
Virginia trails Wake Forest’s No. 43 KenPom rating at No. 60, though the teams are separated by just two spots in NET (WF 53, UVA 55). Most notably, Virginia is the slowest team in all of college basketball, per KenPom, to go along with an offensive efficiency ranked 125th. The Cavaliers are one of the better defensive squads in the nation, though, coming in at No. 24.
On defense, UVA boasts the 11th-best opponent effective FG% at 44.8, the No. 6 block rate with 16% and the No. 10 steal percentage at 13.8.
Offensively, the Hoos are a pretty solid three-point shooting team, but sit around average from inside the arc. The free-throw percentage, 65.1, is one of the worst in the country.
One final, but interesting, note: UVA’s “two foul participation” rate is 8%, well into the 300s in the nation and 14% below NCAA average. If/when a player picks up multiple fouls in the first half, they sit.
Best Win: 59-47 victory over Texas A&M (Nov. 29, Home)
Troubling Loss: 76-54 defeat to Notre Dame (Dec. 30, Away)
Virginia runs a roughly nine-deep lineup, but a decent amount of the minutes are going to the starters — 32.5% come from the bench, just about average in the NCAA this season. There is certainly some experience in the form of Reece Beekman and transfer forward Jake Groves, but otherwise this team is pretty young. Virginia’s three other impact guards are all sophomores, and up-and-coming forward Blake Buchanan is a freshman.
G Reece Beekman
Beekman has seemingly been around college basketball forever; this is his fourth season as an impact player for the Cavaliers, averaging a career-high 12.9 points per game in 30 minutes. He’s a solid shooter at 48.1%, and boasts 90 assists, the third-best rate in the nation. But, Beekman’s biggest threat may still be on defense. The senior is gritty and causes discomfort for the opponent left and right. His 33 steals lead the team by a wide margin, and he’s also posted an impressive 10 blocks for his 6’3” frame.
You can see how his play on both ends is key in the video below:
Reece Beekman, the No. 1 ranked player coming out of Louisiana in 2020, with the old fashioned 3-point play for Virginia— 247Sports (@247Sports) March 16, 2023
The Cavaliers are in control early vs. Furman pic.twitter.com/1iDy3mpXsW
G Isaac McKneely
McKneely is a three-point killer, plain and simple. He leads the Cavaliers in both three-point attempts and makes, registering a 48.6% hit rate, good for 23rd in the NCAA. In Virginia’s first ACC game this season, the sophomore blitzed Syracuse with eight threes en route to a 22-point effort. Then he did the same thing three nights later against NC Central. In both of the Hoos’ most recent conference contests, McKneely went 4-7 from deep.
Isaac McKneely hitting one from the logo, via Reece Beekman: McKneely movement shooting off the catch has been excellent (79 eFG% on catch-and-shoot FGA)— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) December 5, 2023
McKneely: 10-17 3PA from 25+ feet, per CBB Analytics
McKneely with 27 FGM this season, 12 assisted by Beekman pic.twitter.com/WUeLu4mrGx
G Andrew Rhode
Rhode, a sophomore that transferred to Charlottesville after a year at St. Thomas (Minn), has started all 15 games for the Cavaliers. In 29 minutes per contest, he’s proven to not be a prolific shooter, averaging 33% from the field and under six points. He is a good rebounder and the team’s second-best in assists.
One interesting note: in his limited time at the free-throw line, Rhode has really struggled, going 3-10.
G Ryan Dunn
Though 6’8”, Dunn is listed by UVA as a guard. With 26 minutes per game, Dunn leads the team in FG% at 53.6, with almost all coming from two-point range. The guard has posted 97 rebounds, a team high, as well as a staggering 31 blocks. His 29 steals only trail Beekman.
F Jake Groves
The 6’9” grad from Oklahoma has played in every game this season for UVA, but started 10. Like McKneely, Groves can hit threes, converting on 40% of his 42 attempts. Though seemingly not Virginia’s biggest threat in other facets, he does provide a solid 20 minutes per appearance.
The Depth Pieces
F Blake Buchanan
When Groves hasn’t started, it’s been Buchanan, the freshman. Playing 15 minutes per game, the Idaho native is not one for shooting the ball often, averaging just three attempts per contest. Notably, nearly half of Buchanan’s rebounds have occurred on the offensive end.
G/F Leon Bond III
Bond also averages 15 minutes per game coming off the bench, giving Virginia 6.3 points. He’s a strong shooter, hitting his field goals at a 53.4% clip. Additionally, despite being 6’5”, he has the Cavaliers’ second-most rebounds and offensive boards.
G Taine Murray
Murray, who hails from New Zealand, doesn’t shoot the ball often. And, when he does, it’s usually from three-point range. 17 of the junior’s 27 shots come from behind the arc, and he currently makes them 41.2% of the time.
G Elijah Gertrude
The freshman has played 7 minutes in both of Virginia’s past two contests, but hasn’t made a field goal since the Hoos’ game against Notre Dame in late December.
F Jordan Minor
If you recall, Minor, a grad transfer from Merrimack, was a player the Deacs were reportedly interested in this summer. Instead, he chose Virginia, where he currently averages seven minutes per game. Minor is an impressive rebounder on the offensive end, registering more there than on defense in his limiting playing time thus far.
Essex’s Take, Keys to the Game
The end of Wake Forest’s winning streak was eventually going to come. Did I think it would happen at Florida State, no, but road wins are always hard to come by, just look at the NCAA scoreboard the past few days.
As I stated in “My Take” on Wednesday, Wake Forest’s season has already been a whirlwind and, for what it’s worth, I think the Deacs are in a pretty good place right now. But, the season is truly just beginning. 80% of the team’s ACC games are yet to be played. Additionally, a combined 12 Quad 1 and 2 opportunities remain. The opportunity for Wake Forest to play its way into the field, or leave itself disappointed on Selection Sunday, is right there on the table.
I think this team is really good when it plays at its best. Heck, I think Wake Forest can be one of the best teams in the ACC by the time this season is over. This is where things start to get real. This stretch coming up is where the Deacs can prove themselves, and that all starts with Virginia on Saturday.
If Wake Forest comes away from the Joel with a win, this is how I envision them doing it.
Protect the ball
Easier said than done, yes, but 20 turnovers in Wake Forest’s loss to Florida State Tuesday is almost never going to cut it in a game. And, it’s not like these were forced errors every time. There were dribbles off shoes, passes to a courtside chair and consistent struggles with offensive inbounds.
That can’t happen again Saturday. Virginia is one of the top 25 teams in the country at forcing turnovers, and the Cavs are even better at avoiding them. That likely means fewer extra possessions for the Deacs, so giving them away consistently would not bode well. Add in the NCAA’s slowest pace on offense, and it becomes clear that every touch of the ball is going to matter a bit extra for Wake Forest.
Take advantage of the size difference
Virginia’s tallest starter is 6’9”; its tallest consistent player is 6’11”. That’s freshman Blake Buchanan, who I believe could be an addition to the starting lineup Saturday to matchup with Efton Reid.
Regardless, there is going to be a large disparity in height on the both ends of the court for Wake Forest. Big-man DJ Burns proved it at times in NC State’s win over the Cavaliers — Virginia can struggle down low against tall, imposing players.
It feels like we say this before every game, but the performance of Reid is going to probably matter a great deal. Not only could it be a way for Wake Forest to score against a really good defense, but also an opportunity to steal possessions on the offensive boards.
Plus, Andrew Carr hasn’t had his best stuff in awhile. It’s time to get him going again.
Watch McKneely, but close in on the paint
On offense, Virginia consistently pushes the ball inside when the defense is off balance. I saw it several times in the film against NC State. As referenced above, Wake Forest has the size to impose its will in the paint on defense, but that means not allowing ball movement to get them out of position, and also emphasizes the need to crash/help when needed.
But, with all this in mind, know that Isaac McKneely is lurking at the three-point line. He’s a threat when Virginia can kick it.
Patience, don’t settle
Virginia takes its time on offense…like really takes its time. Possessions are incredibly valuable against the Cavaliers. So, I’m not saying Wake Forest should completely abandon its M.O. of pushing the ball often on offense, but it might be worth considering how important each shot will be. Taking that extra time to settle and find the “best” shot — the high-percentage attempts — could be the difference.
I see this as a big “get right” opportunity for Wake Forest. This is not your normal Virginia team. The Cavaliers are young, and are coming off two recent double-digit ACC losses, one of them against Notre Dame.
The Hoos’ game is very unique, and I don’t know how much that will hurt the Deacs. But, if the offense can find its rhythm and take good shots, as well as avoid another 20-turnover fiasco, I like where things stand. The Wake Forest defense matches up well, as long as the Deacs don’t get lost in the movement.
The crowd might also hurt a young Virginia team, while lifting a Wake Forest team that almost never loses at the Joel. Both teams need this win. It’ll come down to who craves it more. With Steve Forbes running the show, I like the Deacs there.
Wake Forest wins 72-67