Papi rides to Virginia’s rescue against Hokies, hints future growth in his game

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Al McGuire, the colorful coach and TV commentator, used to call ‘em “aircraft carriers,” the 7-footers that graced basketball courts from sea to shining sea. He would name his “All-Airport Team,” meaning players that looked good walking through airports, judging not by talent but more by height.

Virginia broke out its aircraft carrier on Wednesday night and nobody saw it coming. Even visiting Virginia Tech coach Mike Young admitted in his postgame media chat when he said, “I didn’t see Caffaro …,” but interrupted himself and never finished his sentence.

No worries. Who would have predicted or even wildly guessed that 7-foot-1, 245-pound Francisco Caffaro would have a career night in every statistical category? Better known to teammates and the Virginia fan base as simply, “Papi,” a nickname he picked up while playing prep school basketball in Australia, Caffaro posted these highs against the Hokies in a 54-52 win: Points (16), rebounds (9), free throws (6), free-throw attempts (10) and minutes (30:31).

Caffaro, who made 5 of 7 field-goal attempts, also had five of UVA’s nine offensive rebounds (a huge statistic in such a rock fight), and no turnovers.

Many Virginia fans, including many detractors, had maligned Caffaro in the past as a plodding guy who couldn’t score. Even the most vocal of the haters confessed after the win over the Hokies that they had judged Papi too harshly, and that he more than earned his keep in a huge homecourt win over the rivals.

Simply, Caffaro saved the Cavaliers’ bacon.

Only Tech’s Keve Aluma, a surefire pro prospect, scored more than Caffaro, and Caffaro didn’t give Aluma a pass on offense. In fact, on Tech’s last three attempts to win the game prior to the last-seconds missed 3-pointers, clearly Young’s plan was to put the ball in Aluma’s hands and let him attack the basket, hoping to drive past Caffaro or draw a foul.

On those three attacks, Aluma turned the ball over, missed a shot, and slipped and fell on an iso drive against Caffaro.

“[Aluma] is a crafty player,” said the Hulk-ish Caffaro. “He’s talented and uses his footwork pretty well, and his fake. So, I just worked to stay down. I tried to slide with him every time I could and just didn’t get lifted. He’s a little shorter, so I knew I could just stay down and put my hands up.”

Caffaro gained more playing time when Kadin Shedrick drew two early fouls and finished the game with only 17 minutes of playing time. While he was on the floor, Caffaro made it count, and the couple times he came out for a breather, he was hailed for his efforts from an appreciative JPJ Arena crowd.

“Caffaro is a good player,” said VT’s Young. “He’s a big, physical young man and he played a really good ball game.”

Young said that both Caffaro and Shedrick did a good job against Aluma, but that the game was “a little more physical than we’re accustomed to … let’s put it that way.” For the record, the Hokies were awarded only three free throws in the game, compared to 16 by Virginia.

“That’s just how I play,” Caffaro said of his physical style. “That’s normal. That’s what I’m used to.”

Teammate Armaan Franklin could have warned the Hokies ahead of time.

“Papi is very physical,” the Indiana transfer said after the game. “Me and him go at it a lot sometimes, or we used to, because he is very physical and I didn’t like it.”

Some thought Caffaro was a lower-sodium Jack Salt (thanks Mike Ashley), but Papi showed he’s the real thing against Tech.

Tony Bennett fell in love with Caffaro a long time ago. Not only does he love how hard the Argentinian works, but what a fun-loving guy he is on and off the court. Bennett’s affection will grow stronger if Caffaro continues to develop and contribute.

The same people that didn’t appreciate Salt, probably won’t appreciate Caffaro the way Bennett does, but basketball is a team sport that needs role players to play specific roles. That’s what Papi does.

“He’s physical,” Bennett said. “He’s coming and getting extra time and he’s purposeful. [Basketball] is new to him. He has not played a lot, so now he’s getting to play more.”

The Virginia coach pointed out that his bigs — Caffaro, Shedrick and Jayden Gardner — need to be more physical, and never fails to mention that his team is better, much better, when it displays a ruggedness.

That’s exactly the style of play that fired the win over the Hokies and Clemson. It was exactly what was missing at Carolina.

“I know it’s not sexy or appealing, but you’ve got to be as good of a screener, as good a rebounder, as good of a defender, and then play off of opportunities for scoring,” Bennett said. “As your game improves, then there’ll be some opportunities for scoring. I challenge them to serve the team in that role — and there’s nothing wrong with that. I coached Aron Baynes at Washington State and last I checked, he was pretty special and has some NBA Finals rings and some pretty fat contracts.”

Bennett wants his bigs to embrace those roles and continue to improve.

That’s what Caffaro is doing.

“I’ve seen him understanding more,” Bennett closed. “He moves a little better than you think. He’s a little unorthodox perhaps, but he can move and he is strong.”

The good thing about Papi, a redshirt junior, is that the best is yet to come.