ACC Preview #4 - Virginia

SYRACUSE, NY - JANUARY 30: Syracuse Orange Guard Judah Mintz (3) dribbles the ball against Virginia Cavaliers Guard Reece Beekman (2) during the first half of the College Basketball game between the Virginia Cavaliers and the Syracuse Orange on January 30, 2023, at the JMA Wireless Dome, in Syracuse, NY.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Here’s a provocative question: is the Tony Bennett era over at Virginia?

Quick answer: no, not really. More thoughtful answer: no, but it may never be the same again.

The face of the college game has changed in many ways. Commercial pressures, NIL and what we might call the liberal transfer rule have made building a team more of a spontaneous scramble than a calculated, long term play. And a calculated, long term approach is what Bennett prefers and is very good at. But a couple of years ago, we pointed out that Mike Brey’s player development model, which is similar to Bennett’s, was in big trouble because he no longer had the young players who were going to be patient, invest in the system and develop over time.

Bennett has had similar issues.

Last year saw Jayden Gardner, Kihei Clark, Armaan Franklin, Ben Vander Plas, Kadin Shedrick, Francisco Caffaro and Isaac Traudt leave.

The first four ran out of eligibility and/or graduated while the last three transferred. And of the first four, only Clark was a freshman at Virginia. The others were all transfers.

Bennett did a solid job with Gardner, Franklin and Vander Plas, but with less lead time than he would have probably liked. One of the reasons why he likes to work players in slowly is because his system is subtle and it takes some time to grasp it all.

Whether it’s the radical changes sweeping the game or something else, Bennett’s record has fallen off lately.

Since Virginia’s brilliant championship run in 2018-19 - has anyone’s, from start to finish ever been better? - Bennett has finished 23-7, 18-7, 21-14 and 25-8 and has not won a single NCAA tournament game.

As always, we say you have to give everyone a pass on the Covid season so factor that in. However, since Virginia’s championship, Bennett’s record is 87-36. Toss out the Covid season and it’s 69-29. That’s still pretty good - Boston College would love to see that - but it’s not the Virginia we saw before Covid, either.

Part of that has to be that Bennett’s model of patient development has been disrupted. He only had a couple of seasons with Gardner and Franklin and just one with Vander Plas. Those were transfers he brought in to fill holes and they all had their moments. but look at Shedrick, who should have been stepping into a much more prominent role this season. Instead, he’s at Texas. Caffaro was less important but he’s a big, strong presence and he’s now playing for Santa Clara. That’s several years of development down the drain for Bennett. Caffaro was never going to be great, but a decent backup center? Why not?

Well not anymore.

But the real hit here is Traudt.

A promising 6-10, 225 lb. forward, Traudt redshirted last year and could have developed into a solid and possibly exceptional player for Bennett (Duke pursued him too, if you remember, at least briefly).

Instead, he’s heading back to Nebraska and will play for Creighton. He listed homesickness as his reason, but no matter what led him to leave, it comes back to the same problem: Virginia’s model of patient development is not working as well as it once did and probably can’t be fixed.

So: can Bennett adapt?

The table is set, so let’s have some drinks and appetizers first.

Clark’s career ended on an epic blunder: for whatever reason, Clark, who had always been wicked smart at Virginia, made a really stupid, panicked play that ended both his career and Virginia’s NCAA hopes. With less than 10 seconds to play, Clark was trapped near Furman’s basket and chunked up a pass to, well, no one. Furman picked it off and hit a three to wrap up the upset. Shedrick left the court with his hands on his head, in complete shock (his UVA career was over too, though that wasn’t clear at the time).

This was the guy who made the brilliant pass as a freshman to let UVA slip out of Purdue’s grasp in the tournament. Just a pity really for a player that Bennett rightly called a real winner when he first saw him in high school.

Franklin, who transferred in from Indiana, is also gone. He was a good but not great player for Virginia, but he helped.

Gardner, who came over from ECU, became a solid if undersized post presence. He’ll be missed. So will Vander Plas, who broke his hand in the post-season which probably doomed Virginia’s chances. He was playing well and, at times, brilliantly.

Not so for Shedrick.

He was in the doghouse for UVA and only turned it around late - and then left, like Robby Benson in the 1977 movie One-On-One, although presumably he didn’t tell Bennett to shove it with a red hot poker, a la Henry Steele.

Caffarro is replaceable and we won’t know what Traudt might have done. If he has a brilliant career at Creighton, then UVA fans can do the whole what-if thing.

Bennett gets Reese Beekman, Taine Murray, Isaac McKneely, Ryan Dunn and Leon Bond back and at least three of those guys are a big deal.

Those three would be Beekman, Dunn and McKneely.

Beekman is a terrific guard, especially on defense. And you may remember he gutted Duke in Cameron on a last-second three in 2022. He’s already a stud on defense and his offense has steadily improved. He could have left for the league after last season but opted to return, which was huge for the ‘Hoos.

Dunn is a very athletic forward and his development has reminded some people of former Cavalier De’Andre Hunter, now an excellent NBA player with the Atlanta Hawks. Bennett’s slow style can mask athleticism, but make no mistake: Like Beekman, Dunn is highly athletic.

McKneely? Not as much, but he’s a deadly shooter. He hit nearly 40 percent on threes as a freshman. He’s limited in some ways, but he really is a great shooter. It only took one season for him to establish himself as a major offensive presence for Virginia.

The native of Poca, West Virginia, population 875, played in high school for the Poca Dots, believe it or not. Lots of high schools have odd or even questionable nicknames. The late Dave Golden, who played for Duke in the 1960’s, played for Pekin High School in Pekin, Illinois. You can read the history of that nickname/mascot here.

As for Bond, one of three Wisconsin natives on the roster, he redshirted last season. The 6-5 wing is somewhat of an unknown quality, but he’s a bit of a Bennett throwback in that he’s willing to be patient - at least so far.

Bennett brings in four transfers: Dante Harris, who left Georgetown after the first semester, Jordan Minor, who played for Merrimack, Andrew Rohde, from St. Thomas and Jacob Groves out of Oklahoma.

Harris played for Patrick Ewing at Georgetown and the losing alone would be enough to make anyone want to leave and it’s not like Ewing took him to the Gold Club to unwind: his freshman year, the once-mighty Hoyas were 6-25; last year, when he left, Georgetown was 5-8, finishing 7-15.

In other words, Georgetown finished 11-33 during Harris’s time there. He didn't shoot well, but what Hoya did? If the overall offense sucks - and Georgetown’s really did - there will be no balance to free up good shots. You get what you pay for, basically.

But he is apparently a good defender, and Bennett prizes that. If he can run the team, the job is probably his. Plus he got a mini-version of Bennett’s sit-and-wait approach since he had to skip the spring semester as a mid-season transfer.

Minor played for Merrimack: where the heck is Merrimack? Are they D-1?

Merrimack, located in Andover Mass., was D-II but is transitioning to D-I.

At 6-8 and 240, Minor is not a major offensive threat, but he is likely to be rough and tough inside and is said to be a competent defender and, again, that will endear him to his new coach.

Some people have advocated for the soccer system of relegation when it comes to conference realignment, but we say: why bother? The players are doing it on their own. Take 6-6 Thomas Rohde.

You might think: could a Tommie do well in the ACC? Well, he just might: he was the Summit League Freshman Of The Year, putting up 17.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg and 3.6 apg. He hit for 15 vs. Creighton, 10 against K-State and 23 in the Summit Conference finals against Oral Roberts. He shoots well but the thing with Rohde is this: he’s a brilliant passer. People are going to get excited and compare him to Larry Bird, but that’s not it. Think Manu Ginobli. He’s not on that level, but his skill set seems similar.

Can he do it at the ACC level? If he can, look out. The guy has a really good eye and a great passer can transform a team.

Finally, Groves, a 6-9 and 215 lb. former Sooner, brings solid skills and experience to Charlottesville. He’s a grad student transfer and he’ll help, certainly on offense. He’s another good shooter and with range. He’s a reasonable facsimile of what Traudt could have been.

On to the Diaper Dandies. Dick Vitale can’t say that right now since he’s being treated for vocal cord cancer, so we thought we’d get that in for him. Get better soon, Dick!

Elijah Gertrude is a four-star recruit and, based on his interviews, a smart and amenable kid who should fit Bennett’s system well and hopefully not bail early. He may redshirt this season as the 6-4 guard is coming off of an ACL injury. It would make sense if he did. Assuming he stays, expect him to start contributing at some point, depending on the speed of his recovery.

The 6-11 Buchanan comes from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. If you’re curious, Coeur d’Alene means Heart of an Awl, which basically means hard-ass. It’s a beautiful town set on a lake and looks like an amazing place to grow up.

It’s also in the orbit of Spokane, which means that Gonzaga would typically get first pick of any promising local players.

He’s said to have excellent footwork and to be a shotblocker too.

He’s grown two inches since high school and starts college at 215. If he gets up to 230-240, he’s going to be a pain in the ass. Right now, you can probably still push him around but that won’t last much longer. He’s got real potential. Might even be a hard-ass.

Robinson is a 6-10/238 lb. kid out of Plumlee Prep, aka Asheville’s Christ School that sent all three Plumlees to Duke.

He’s got work to do but could become a reasonable presence for Virginia. If you are meant to be a career backup, which could be the case, nothing wrong with that. Help your team!

He originally committed to South Florida but changed his mind.

Finally, there is Christian Bliss, a serious candidate for the all-time all-name team. If he ever hits a miraculous game winner, be ready for the ridiculous headlines.

A point guard, he’ll likely back up Harris as a freshman. He’s not the only one in his family with a great name - his mother’s is Vanessa Colon-Bliss. She should copyright that before Miralax gets any ideas.

Based on what they have back, what they bring in, and Bennett’s considerable acumen, we think that Virginia will be quite solid again and should be, at a minimum, a Top Four team in the ACC. Post play could be an issue, at least on offense. UVA has no major options close to the basket.

Much like Brey’s Notre Dame though, UVA has a fundamental problem. Bennett will still get players who fit his system, but he won’t have them for as long. It’s possible that he can learn to teach BennettBall more quickly, and we’re not saying that it’s so difficult that it takes years to master the basics. However, if you watch the Cavs, you’ll notice that quite often the games are within 5-7 points quite late and Virginia tends to win a ton of those. That’s partly because they execute brilliantly in winning time, and that’s because the system is polished and precise.

We don’t enjoy it, but late in games, Virginia is like a reticulate python: it just squeezes the life out of you.

You can be very good, but you can’t have the precision and trust that the best Virginia teams have had without years of experience and you can’t replicate that with freshmen and transfers.

That said, Virginia will still keep games close and will still win their share of those. They may not be at the tippy top anymore, but they’re not going away either.

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