Virginia basketball has its least star-studded roster in years, but it also has Tony Bennett.
Riley’s Ranking: 34th
Over the last decade, the Virginia basketball faithful has gotten used to dominance. Rival fans may crack jokes about the pace of play. Casual viewers may mock the low scores. But after winning (at least a share of) five of the last eight ACC titles, while averaging just 3.5 conference losses per year during that stretch, those digs amount to empty critiques. Even the UMBC loss that stained like a scarlet letter morphed into a badge of honor the next postseason.
So surely, another run-of-the-mill season must be in store. Pencil the Hoos in for 30-ish wins and a top-2 finish in the ACC. Let’s just open up the Virginia basketball website and look at the men’s basketball rost— AHHHHHH MY EYESSSSS. MY EYESSSSS, THEY BURNNNNN.
Yes, this roster will make you want to avert your eyes like you’re Sandra Bullock in Bird Box. On paper, this is Tony Bennett’s least talented squad since 2012. And yet, Bennett has the coaching chops to keep Virginia basketball nationally relevant. Need I show you his KenPom page?
Though I am lower on Virginia than my Heat Check CBB cohorts, I understand the inherent trust Bennett has garnered. He’s a wizard at making adjustments and his defensive scheme succeeds every single year. However, this season, potholes litter Virginia’s road to glory.
On the perimeter
At the top of the list of concerns reads ‘perimeter scoring’ circled with a thick red Sharpie. Trey Murphy’s departure for the NBA would’ve been enough to cool expectations for Virginia’s offense. But the next men up — sophomore Jabri Abdur-Rahim and junior Justin McKoy — also ditched Charlottesville by way of transfer. That leaves an enormous minutes void on the wing.
In response, Bennett brought in Indiana import Armaan Franklin. Zach Carey of Streaking the Lawn gave a thorough scouting report of the 6-4 guard in this YouTube video. The highlights: Franklin is a low-risk transfer who’s a prolific shooter off the catch, a solid playmaker out of PnR, and a rugged perimeter defender.
I’ll add this: at Indiana, Archie Miller ran the offense through All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis. Thus, Franklin never served as anything more than a tertiary piece. However, under Bennett’s tutelage, he could develop into an Aldi-brand version of Malcolm Brogdon or Justin Anderson. After all, this time last year, Murphy appeared on zero NBA draft boards upon transferring in from Rice.
In addition to Franklin, Virginia also welcomes in two foreign freshmen to provide a perimeter punch. New Zealand’s Taine Murray and Croatia’s Igor Miličić (a Sam Hauser-type big but gets included here due to his perimeter-oriented game) can both earn significant playing time. Miličić comes with a reputation as a big-time shooter, but his rebounding and motor also stand out as notable attributes.
Though the 6-9 forward must refine his handle, he still should supply vital scoring off the pine in year one.
In the backcourt
Conversely, Murray shines as a dynamic ballhandler. The 6-4 combo guard maintains perfect balance as he knifes into the lane. From there, he excels at either driving to the hoop or finding the open man. Freshmen have notoriously found it tough to earn major minutes at Virginia. But Murray’s offensive potency — and his gorgeous trey ball — may force Bennett’s hand.
Without many proven options on the perimeter, the head coach may call on senior Kihei Clark for more offense. From his sophomore to junior season, Clark vastly improved in two key areas. First, he increased his field-goal percentage at the rim from 42.3% to 53.1%, per Hoop-Math. Second, he cut back on turnovers, lowering his 26.1% turnover rate to 19.1%. However, at just 5-9 and 160 pounds, his game has inherent limitations. The floor general doesn’t draw many fouls and only looks comfortable driving left. Even on those dribble drives, defenders frequently succeed at walling him off. In these scenarios, Clark often displays fantastic vision finding the open man…
…But without Murphy, Hauser, and Jay Huff bailing him out, his play may taper off.
Thus, Clark (and Virginia basketball as a whole) would greatly benefit from a Reece Beekman breakout. The 6-3 guard entered last season with some dark horse one-and-done buzz but never found his rhythm on offense. He still possesses plenty of tools — good length, strong around the basket, exceptional passing — but developing his 3-pointer remains of utmost importance. Last season, Beekman made just 9 of his 37 attempts from distance.
In the frontcourt
On the frontline, Virginia faces more uncertainty. For years, the Hoos have suffocated foes on defense by taking away shots at the rim. A steady stream of interior enforcers has enabled them to execute this strategy. For example, look at Huff last season. His on-off numbers underline his impact as a paint protector.
Well, Huff and his phenomenal facial hair have moved on to the professional ranks. And Bennett may have to go center-by-committee to replace him.
Jayden Gardner, a highly-touted transfer from East Carolina, likely gets the first crack at a feature role. The 6-7 senior has a thick build but boasts a handle that belies his size. He can grab-and-go in transition and uses his quickness to attack off of two to three dribbles in the halfcourt. It’s tough to project his transition from the AAC to the ACC, but his demolition of Houston bodes well.
Junior Francisco Caffaro and sophomore Kadin Shedrick will round out the committee. Both have the size to offer shot-blocking upside, but both have done almost nothing in their college careers thus far. However, this could be the year for Shedrick, a near 7-footer with elegant footwork. The former top-70 recruit has been marinating for a few years now, like a juicy flank steak. And now, it’s time for fajitas. Virginia can’t afford quiet seasons from both of them.
With question marks up and down the roster, the Hoos have a surprisingly low floor for their standards. However, with one of the best coaches in the biz, I would be zero percent shocked if they won the ACC yet again. Such is the Virginia basketball machine.
Projected starters: G – Kihei Clark (Sr.); G – Reece Beekman (So.); G/F – Armaan Franklin (Jr.); F – Jayden Gardner (Sr.); F – Kadin Shedrick (R-So.)
Weaknesses: Perimeter scoring; guard play; lack of a proven interior defender
Best player: Gardner
Breakout player: Beekman