Five things to watch for in Virginia’s game at Wake Forest

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Five things to watch for when Virginia takes on Wake Forest in an important ACC battle on Saturday (See related “Wahoo Preview” elsewhere on this site for a complete breakdown of the game):

#1) The Demon Deacons are for real, in a four-way tie with Virginia, Miami and Pitt for second place in the ACC (6-2), one game behind Clemson. Wake is tough at home, riding a 15-game winning streak at Joel Coliseum, where the Deacs are 28-2 since the start of the 2021-22 season.

The Deacs are giving up only 0.97 points per possession at home, even though they aren’t the strongest defensive team of the squads tied for second. Wake beat No. 19 Clemson at Joel in its last outing, giving the Tigers their first ACC loss, although Clemson was missing two of the guards that helped the Tigers beat the Deacs by 20 in December.

#2) UVA, known for being one of the nation’s best defenses on an annual basis, will have to buckle down against the Deacs, the highest-scoring team in the ACC at 79.5 points per game and one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting teams (No. 30 in 3-point accuracy, 37 percent). In fact, Wake scored 87 points against league-leading Clemson in spite of making only 9 of 26 (34.6) of its shots from the 3-point line and missing 11 free throws.

Watch out for Deac guard Tyree Appleby, who transferred from Florida, and scored 24 points and had 7 assists in the win over the Tigers. Also forward Andrew Carr had a double-double (18 & 11) on a 7 of 12 shooting performance in derailing Clemson.

#3) Will Tony Bennett continue to go with his small lineup of four guards and either Ben Vander Plas or Jayden Gardner at the 5 spot? Bennett went with small ball in the second half against Carolina, did the same at Florida State and again against Virginia Tech this past Wednesday night, and have gone unbeaten with that strategy.

Wake isn’t a big team, somewhat small on the perimeter, although it does boast 7-foot Matthew Marsh, who has started the past nine games, but has averaged only 14 minutes per outing over the past three contests. If Marsh starts again, will Bennett answer with his own 7-footer in Kadin Shedrick, who playing time has been greatly diminished over the past two-and-a-half games (some of that was matchups, some of it foul trouble and lack of production by Shedrick), or will he go small and try to force Wake coach Steve Forbes to do likewise?

The Deacs are No. 139 nationally in defensive efficiency, not particularly strong in the post where opponents are making better than 52 percent of their attempts. UVA, which scored 1.28 points per possession against a stronger Virginia Tech defense earlier in the week, scored 36 points in the paint against the Hokies.

#4) Watch out for the Wahoo Triangle. Even since Virginia went to the smaller lineup, Bennett has thrown opponents a new — well, not really new because he’s used it at times in past seasons, but new to this team — wrinkle: a triangle, featuring Armaan Franklin, Ben Vander Plas and Jayden Gardner (although they can throw other guys into those spots). In the last five halves of basketball, Franklin and BVP have combined to make 12 of 16 field goals (75 percent) and 43.8 percent of their attempts from Bonusphere (7 of 16).

“I think [the triangle] feeds into their strengths and fits them well,” Bennett said. “We have some other bases, but it’s good because it gives you a variety of looks.

“I think it has freed up Armaan a little bit … he’s been more aggressive, and Ben’s got a good feel and he’s handy in it because of his passing, and now he’s stretched out a little bit with the 3-ball.”

#5) The Poca Dot is on Fire! Freshman Isaac McKneely, who came to Charlottesville from Poca, W.Va., where his team was the “Dots,” is just getting warmed up. Billed as a deadly 3-point shooter, McKneely is getting more comfortable in Virginia’s offense, especially from beyond the arc.

Over his last six games, McKneely has made 14 of his last 25 shots from Bonusphere. That’s 56 percent. That’s not a typo.

Here’s the breakdown: vs. Virginia Tech 1-2; FSU 1-2; UNC 3-4; Syracuse 4-7; Pitt 2-5; Georgia Tech 3-5.