The State of the UVA Men's Basketball Program (2024)

Change is literally baked into the DNA of collegiate athletics. Every year, favored players depart having expended their eligibility, and each year fresh faces arrive looking to fill the shoes of the dearly departed. In this, the last year of the COVID bonus and the third year of the out-in-the-open NIL regime, change has become churn. More players are hitting the transfer portal and the G League finally has the legs to draw away high-end talent.

Every team is in greater flux than in past years, and the Virginia Cavaliers under coach Tony Bennett are no exception. I’m looking at this roster and the immortal words of Bob Dylan cascade around me:

And you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

Bennett is certainly swimming. But whether he’s just treading water is going to be the biggest storyline of the upcoming season.

The Departed

The departures from this team are staggering, and to be frank, they were disillusioning for much of Cavalier Nation, as in one week, prized redshirt freshman Isaac Traudt, perpetually on-the-cusp Kadin Shedrick, and the useful Francisco Caffaro all announced they were transferring away. That was a lot of depth, and a lot of frontcourt size departing Charlottesville. Coupled with these losses were the expected departures of Kihei Clark, Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas, who’d played out the string of their collegiate careers, and Armaan Franklin, who declared for the NBA draft and announced he would not be returning.

All told, the Hoos lost seven players (eight if you count walk-on Chase Coleman) who combined for over 70% of the team’s points and 65% of the minutes. We all know that Bennett wins best with experienced, cohesive teams, and well, there’s only five returning ball players on this year’s team.

The Backcourt

So, let’s start with Reece Beekman, a fourth-year senior who did test his draft eligibility but returned to Grounds for his fourth year. Way-too-early mock drafts for 2024 have Beekman showing up at the end of the first round and Bennett famously called him “special” when he was recruiting Beekman.

Beekman, as a true point guard, has shared the court with the ball-dominant Clark for his first three years, but this year, the keys to the Virginia bus will be firmly in his hands. He is an elite defender (last year’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year), possesses NBA vision, and has a sparkling 4.6-1.4 assist to turnover ratio. He is a reliable free throw shooter, he rarely fouls, and as anyone who watched Virginia’s ACC first round match three years ago versus Syracuse can attest, he can make the big shot. But overall, Beekman is not an offensive juggernaut. He scored a modest 9.5 points per game last year, and to be frank, I do not see that number increasing this year. Beekman has struggled to finish at the rim, and while he’s gotten better from beyond the arc, I rarely consider it to be a “good take” when he’s shooting from deep.

I loved Kihei Clark as much as anyone, but I am very excited to see how good Beekman can be when he gets to be “the man.”

The second starter in the backcourt will be Isaac McKneely, who we hope is following the Kyle Guy pathway to stardom. Last year McKneely was the first guard-off-the-bench for Bennett and he responded by playing 21+ minutes a game and connecting on 39% of his threes. For comparison, Guy played 18 minutes a game but hit on an ungodly 49% of his threes. McKneely clearly has Bennett’s trust though, as he took 30% more threes than did Guy. I would expect McKneely to take as many shots this year as Armaan Franklin did last year and end up the team’s leading scorer.

Beekman and McKneely are the easy picks to slot into the opening lineup, where it gets interesting is seeing who Bennett will pick as his third guard. Georgetown’s Dante Harris transferred to UVA for the spring semester and is eligible. Harris made his name by being named Big East Player of the Tournament as a freshman. He’s small, quick and a good defender. Word out of training camp this summer is that he is very quick. He’s a poor three-point shooter – he was a volume scorer for the Hoyas – but he might be a very good free throw shooter. He made almost 90% as a freshman before settling for a more mundane 75% as a sophom*ore. Since the arrival of Kihei Clark, Bennett has been very comfortable playing two point guards at the same time and I would expect Harris to get time alongside Beekman and not just as his sub. It will no doubt be a plus that Harris got to spend the bulk of last season learning the system.

For me, the most intriguing newcomer is St Thomas transfer Andrew Rohde. He’s a big (6’6”) wing who was one of the best freshmen in the country last year who averaged 17 points and 3.5 assists per game. He was the de facto point guard for his team, so he’s got to have a respectable handle. From the highlights, Rohde has Ty Jerome range and a simple motion, which on the face of it is exciting. Except that he only connected on 32% of his treys. There’s also the issue of the competition that he faced. St Thomas finished fourth in the Summit Conference, which to be frank, I’d never heard of before, and for good reason. KenPom has it in the bottom third of Division I conferences. The Tommies, as they are called, finished 4th, but none of the games, wins or losses, were particularly close. Of the 35 games they played, only three were decided by five points or less. In other words, Rohde’s first year was not a crucible and I would expect the learning curve to be steep in year one at Virginia. Word out of camp is that he has been very aggressive, so maybe he sees an opening.

A back-of-the-roster option is third year Taine Murray whose career progression has stalled. I thought he would be a reasonable third guard with the size – 6’5” – to help offset the diminutive Clark. Last season it seemed Taine logged a lot of time as a small ball 4, which meant the lineup was really, really small. Murray played in professional leagues in his native New Zealand before coming to the US and as such, he seemed like an obvious candidate to transfer out, but I think he’s now playing just so he can get a Virginia education. Fair play to Taine. I attended UVA for the same reason.

Another backcourt option will be freshman Elijah Gertrude, a four-star recruit whose strength and defensive prowess earned him rave reviews. He blew out his ACL just as his senior season in high school was starting but he’s reportedly healing well and expected to be available when fall practice starts. Gertrude will be the most physical back court player the moment he steps onto the hardwood, but an ACL tear is an ACL tear and his minutes will be carefully watched. I expect he too will have a steep learning curve this year.

The Wings

So, that’s the backcourt, and turning to wings, Virginia has two. Ryan Dunn is a second year and while he flashed lots swagger and athleticism last year, he nevertheless averaged less than 3 points and 3 boards a game. NBA draftniks are enthralled with the guy, and so much is expected of him that he’s considered a mid first-round pick. Dunn’s minutes were wildly inconsistent. He logged 27 minutes in the first game, and then in three of the next four games he played less than 15 total minutes. In one four-game swing early in the ACC slate, he averaged 22 minutes per game. The next seven games? 8 minutes a game. Dunn has been compared to De’Andre Hunter since he walked on Grounds, but I don’t see it. He does finish well around the rim, but he shot 50% from the line and 31% from the arc. If Dunn is going to be drafted in the first round, he’s going to have to put numbers up close to what Hunter did in his draft year: 15 points, 5 rebounds, 78% from the line and 44% from deep. Dunn does that, we’ll all be thrilled here at CavaliersNow and we’ll bid him bon voyage as he heads off to the NBA.

Bennett’s other option at wing is redshirt-freshman Leon Bond. Unlike Traudt, who had to have his arm twisted to redshirt last year, Bond came to Virginia knowing he would spend the year waiting in the wings. Bond is long and equally as athletic as Dunn and I’m looking forward to seeing him in action.

The Frontcourt

It’s all new. I’m predicting that Dunn is going to play more at the 4 than as a wing just because the frontcourt is so barren. It will be hard to replace Traudt, Shedrick and Papi, but the task of being the big on the court will fall to Merrimack fifth-year senior transfer Jordan Minor. Minor dominated the Northeast Conference to the tune of 17 points and 9+ rebounds a game enroute to being named the player of the year and the defensive player of the year. Given that voters prefer to spread the wealth around with awards like this, it shows how dominant Minor must have been. In addition, Merrimack did the double, winning both the regular season and the tournament. The NEC was notable for two things last year. 1. Merrimack famously got shafted on their NCAA bid because they had transitioned too recently to Division I. And 2. That the NEC was the worst conference in basketball according to KenPom.

In other words, Minor has an even bigger jump in competition coming than does Rohde. While Bennett has options besides Rohde at the 3, there are no other options at center. He’s a back-to-the-basket player and he shoots a shade below 60% from the line, so that tells me he has little range. He’ll bang down low, I’m sure, but here’s where it gets scary: at 6’8” he’s only one inch taller than Vander Plas. Who, you know, also manned the 5 last year. But here’s the thing. Other than just two games when Bennett went ultra-small, I thought we were particularly un-inspiring. I’m not looking forward to expecting an entire season of small ball.

Which brings us to maybe the most important player on this roster, freshman Blake Buchanan. Buchanan is taller at 6’11” but he’s still a young kid and slender at 215 pounds. Or exactly the same weight Shedrick was when he arrived. And Kadin struggled to put on weight. Buchanan seems to be yet another late bloomer that Bennett honed in on early, and his stock has soared since he committed. He ought to play this year, but as we all know by now, Bennett feels that the learning curve of a big in the Pack Line is too steep for a first-year player. Mike Tobey was the last big that played as a freshman, and that may have been before Bennett was established in his player-development protocols. Since Tobey, Bennett has red-shirted Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, Kadin Shedrick, Francisco Caffaro, and Isaac Traudt. Virginia could have used Traudt last year, and I think that was Bennett’s biggest mistake last season. I have zero confidence that Blake will play much this year, even if he doesn’t red-shirt.

The last frontcourt player on the roster is fifth-year senior Oklahoma transfer Jacob Groves. Groves has size – 6’9” – and he played the stretch 4 role at Oklahoma. He was reasonably good beyond the arc, and maybe Bennett is hoping that he’ll strike gold with a stretch 4 from Oklahoma. Brady Manek did alright for UNC after all. The word out of training camp is that he’s hitting everything in sight. Groves is a marginal rebounder and poor shot-blocker, so UVA is not going to want to see him fill in for Minor very often. [Checks notes: Minor had a very Shedrick-like per-40 foul rate his first year at Merrimack, but he fouled less each subsequent season.] Maybe we won’t have to see too much of Groves at the 5.

Next Year's X - Factor

An intriguing addition to the roster, not for this year, but for next, is Christian Bliss, a four-star point guard from Queens, who reclassified late this summer into the 2023 class. He's young -- still 17 -- and needs to put on weight and get stronger, but he's going to spend this year learning the offense from Bennett and Beekman. Jerry Ratcliffe did a nice job detailinghow a game of ping-pong brought Bliss to Charlottesville.

Summary

So, what to make of this year? There’s a lot of chatter that Beekman-McKneely-Dunn is the new three-headed hydra on Grounds and that they should be able to replicate the feats of the Jerome-Guy-Hunter trio. I don’t see it. Not one of this current Big 3 brings the scoring that their “counterpart” did, and certainly not the 3-point shooting. You might be reading this and thinking that Bennett’s teams win on defense – the famed Pack Line and all – and don’t need scoring.

I think that would be wrong. Pack Line D will put Virginia in lots of 58 – 55 rock fights, and Bennett has certainly shown that he wins the majority of those slugfests. And he’ll walk away with the ACC regular season title as a result. But Virginia won the national championship with an offense that could touch 80 points/game. UVA didn’t do that last year. The only team in the ACC that scored less than Virginia was Louisville, which suffered through an historically awful year. This team is long, and if Bond and Gertrude get significant minutes, it may well be the most athletic team of Bennett’s tenure at UVA, and Bennett can win the ACC with that.

For Tony Bennett rules the ACC. He’s won six of the past ten regular season titles and won far more games than any other ACC program over the past 12 years. And the reason for that is that Bennett can control the pace of the game. Lots of teams come to JPJ intending to run on Virginia, and yet they never do. Bennett, with the Pack Line in full pomp, can dictate the tempo to the opponent, and I’m sure Sun Tzu has a dictum that the armies that dictate the terms of engagement to the other, wins. So it is for the regular season. Until someone shows me another team that can beat Virginia in a 20-game season, I’ll always predict that Bennett will walk away with another title.

The problem is the postseason. Virginia hasn’t won an NCAA game since winning it all in 2019. They did win a couple of NIT games and there was the COVID year which wiped out a nicely-gelling team. But the fact remains that two Bennett-led teams, with better 3-point shooting than this team may have, lost in the first round to Ohio and Furman.

There is a lot that could go right this season. Dunn could explode, Beekman could make a major leap and McKneely could replicate the best of Kyle Guy. Rohde could light it up from Ty-Land and Bennett could actually play Buchanan. With Bond and Gertrude healthy and the speedy Harris leading the second unit, the team could be a terror in transition.

There was a lot of “if” in that last paragraph. If Bennett were to make all that happen, it would be hands-down the greatest coaching year of an already fabulouscareer. But if it doesn’t, this team has first-round NCAA flameout written all over it. Again.

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