The move to a smaller rotation has helped to fuel a five-game winning streak, the last three coming with Vander Plas starting and freshmen guards Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn receiving extended minutes as top reserves.
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Seventh-ranked Virginia (15-3, 7-2 ACC), following an open week, seeks an eighth victory in nine games to remain in the thick of the hunt for the ACC regular season title when it faces Boston College (10-11, 4-6) Saturday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I think it’s all of us just kind of getting used to it,” Bennett said. “That’s four games now where we’ve played pretty good. Again it’s just can you get rebounds and stop people, and then maybe there’s a little more ball security with it, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have to play bigger at times.”
Bennett initially dabbled with the smaller lineup in the second half of a victory over visiting North Carolina, 65-58, Jan. 10, in part because the Tar Heels were without all-ACC big man Armando Bacot, who left the game early in the first half after landing hard and hurting his right leg.
The lineup modification has been in place in each subsequent game, with Vander Plas among the centerpieces in the upswing. The graduate transfer scored in double figures in three straight, his longest such stretch this season, before finishing with eight points in the Cavaliers’ most recent game, a 76-67 win against Wake Forest last Saturday on the road.
The former standout at Ohio whose father was college teammates with Bennett at Green Bay has shot 12 for 30 on three-pointers during the winning streak after going 5 of 26 in the previous six games. Vander Plas’s accuracy from behind the arc also has created additional spacing for teammates.
“His sureness in catching and his decision-making with his passing and threatening from three, it just pulls some people out so there might be some more driving opportunities,” Bennett said. “That’s important to have, everyone stay ready and have different looks and find our chemistry.”
Guard Armaan Franklin has scored at least 20 points in two of the last three games while occasionally playing the four based on matchups. The 6-4 senior, a transfer from Indiana, leads the Cavaliers in scoring (12.8 points per game) and has reached double figures in eight consecutive games.
Most recently Franklin had 25 points against the Demon Deacons, one short of matching his career high, and 10 rebounds for the first double-double in his career.
He also has emerged as a dependable on-ball defender and is second in rebounding (4.6) behind Jayden Gardner (4.7), a fifth-year forward who has started all 53 games since transferring to Virginia from East Carolina.
Gardner had his most efficient shooting performance of the season two games ago in a 78-68 win against visiting Virginia Tech, going 5 of 6 for 12 points with more room to operate as opponents adjust to guarding all five spots away from the basket.
Listed at 6-6 and 233 pounds, Gardner has thrived throughout his career as a smaller forward playing at times with his back to the basket. He averaged 8.7 rebounds in three seasons with the Pirates and last season led the Cavaliers in scoring (15.3) and rebounding (6.4).
“The game brings different situations, and that’s why practice is valuable,” Bennett said. “And again guys getting used to it, but Ben and Jayden, because they’re sturdy I think it helps, sometimes, where they’re not getting moved, whether it’s rebounding position and stuff like that.”
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The smaller lineup also has yielded single-digit turnovers in each of the last four games, including a season-low five against the Hokies. Virginia is averaging 7.2 turnovers during its winning streak.
McKneely has been especially dependable with regard to ball security, committing zero turnovers in four consecutive games and one over his last six. Junior starting guard Reece Beekman, meantime, has just five turnovers in the past six games.
Guard Kihei Clark, a fifth-year starter with the most wins in program history, is averaging a hair above two turnovers per game but leads the Cavaliers in minutes (33.1) and handles the ball more than anyone else as Bennett’s most trusted player.
Beekman and Clark are first and second, respectively, in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“We know we’re not going to be the tallest people out there,” Franklin said. “Just have to be real gritty in there and box out.”