Following a dominant blowout win against Loyola MD to open up the season the Gators will have a much bigger challenge on their hands Friday when they take on the Virginia Cavaliers.
This game will take place in Charlotte, North Carolina as part of the Hall Of Fame series, and will give the Gators a chance at a quality win on their resume early in the season.
Tony Bennett is at the helm for Virginia once again, entering his 15th season as head coach of the Cavaliers. Given how much turnover there is with high-major coaches it is no easy task to be at the same program for a decade and a half, but a consistent winning product has made the fit work rather nicely. The Cavaliers won the National Championship in 2019, but have not advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament since. They have made the dance twice, both times as a #4 seed and both times getting upset in the opening round. Only two NCAA Tournament games in four seasons following a National Championship isn’t exactly what the program or the fanbase expected, and they’d love to get back to elite status this season.
Entering the season Virginia was picked to finish fourth in the ACC, with a single voter selecting them to finish first.
Virginia opened the season with an 80-50 win over Tarleton State where they played the exact type of basketball you have come to expect from the Cavaliers under Coach Bennett. They controlled the glass, controlled the tempo, and suffocated Tarleton State with their patented pack line defense.
Guard Reece Beekman led the Cavaliers in scoring with 16 points while adding 7 assists with, impressively, 0 turnovers. This came as no surprise as Beekman was expected to be the team’s leader this season as a senior who has started in 88 of his 93 games over the last three seasons and change at Virginia. Beekman is a savvy, veteran point guard who might not bring a lot of individual scoring punch but outside of that brings just about everything you want from a ball handler. He’s got good size for the position at 6’3”, 195 pounds, he plays with physicality, he knows the offense inside and out, and he never makes risky plays. Florida’s game plan will likely involve trying to get Virginia out of their actions and force Beekman to score one on one, something he’d rather not do.
A player expected to take a big leap for Virginia this season is sophomore Isaac McNeely. McNeely was a quality sixth man for the Cavaliers last year bringing scoring punch and some much-needed shooting and this year he’ll be asked to do just that but with a lot more volume. The early returns are that he’s up to the challenge as he had 15 points against Tarleton State going 4-8 for deep. Last season McNeely shot 39% from the three-point line and is thought to be Virginia’s best shooter so the Gators will have to be aware of where he is on the court at all times.
In previous seasons the Cavaliers have sported some big, rangy athletes at the center position but this year it looks a little bit different. Virginia is a lot smaller, and started 6’9”, 215 pound Jacob Groves in night one of the season. Florida fans might remember Groves from last season when he played for Oklahoma who the Gators saw in non-conference play, though he wasn’t a major factor. Groves doesn’t bring the typical physicality and size Virginia has had from their centers but he brings ball handling and shooting on the offensive end which could make the Cavaliers’ offense look a lot more dynamic. Blake Buchanan will bring some size off the bench at 6’11” and 225 pounds, but he is a freshman who hasn’t yet played on a big stage against a power conference opponent. Florida should have the size and length advantage in the post and they should try to take advantage of it.
The biggest storyline in this game will be who can dictate tempo. Florida wants to play extremely fast, and has always been the case with Tony Bennett–Virginia wants to play extremely slow. When two teams that want to play completely different styles face off against each other it is often the team that dictates tempo that has an advantage so this will be something to watch for. Florida’s half court offense was decent but not overwhelming against Loyola MD but their transition offense was lethal–and Virginia will certainly know this and will try to slow things down to the methodical pace they are more comfortable with.
Micah Handlogten and Alex Condon both knocked down a pair of three-pointers on opening night and Florida could be looking for those players once again against Virginia’s hard hedging pick and roll defense. This defense is designed to slow down guards, sacrificing a bit of coverage on the screen setters in order to do so. Virginia will likely try to keep Riley Kugel and Walter Clayton from getting downhill with hard hedges and if so, the pop could be there for whoever wants to launch from deep.
Florida will once again be without Zyon Pullin who will be serving the second game of his three-game suspension from the NCAA. His playmaking and height for the point guard position would have been a key in this game and Florida will hope the loss isn’t felt too badly.
Florida and Virginia will tip off in Charlotte on Friday, November 10th at 7 PM ET. It will be televised on ACC Network–so make sure to figure out your viewing strategy well before tip time.