Virginia’s evolving roster-building strategy may have created another ACC contender

Virginia men’s basketball has, for the moment anyway, settled down. One of the nation’s most reliable programs went through a brief period of turbulence last offseason, when a typically transfer-averse outfit — one with a long track record of convincing future stars to be patient, and even to redshirt — was hit by several sudden transfers as well as a somewhat sudden NBA Draft decision, and found itself in need of its own new faces. It was not a position Tony Bennett, whose entire head coaching career is based on long-term development relationships with system-oriented players, would have necessarily enjoyed.

The 2022-23 Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball roster has been constructed in a much more classical style. It features a number of significant returners from last season’s team, veterans with thousands of college minutes under their belts, alongside a crop of promising freshmen — the No. 12 class in the country, per 247Sports — that Bennett and his staff will seek to integrate gradually into the larger group. The Cavaliers lost just two scholarship players to the transfer portal (fringe reserves Carson McCorkle and Igor Milicic, to Wofford and Charlotte, respectively) and added just one player via transfer (former Ohio forward Ben Vander Plas). Veterans and true frosh: It is all very pre-immediate eligibility, a team-building idea harkening to a not-so-long-ago age, a time when you didn’t have to stress about your promising, frustrated underclassmen up and leaving on an April whim.

There is no going back to that world, even for Virginia, and there is an understanding that long-term roster plans of the kind Bennett mastered in the modern era don’t last nearly as long as they once did. “(The strategy) just changes year to year, based on what happens,” associate head coach Jason Williford said. “Our goal, we hope, is to grow and be veteran like we are this year, kind of doing it the way we’ve done it. You buy into the program, you know there’s going to be competition, but then a year when a lot of guys leave, it’ll be the young guys’ turn. That’s our hope. It doesn’t always go that way.” If Virginia has to go into the portal again next year, it will. But for now, anyway, this combination of players feels like a strong cultural fit.

The question is: Can it compete at the top of the ACC? Last year’s Virginia — featuring many of these same guys in key roles — finished 21-14, 72nd in’s adjusted efficiency rankings and outside the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. (The Cavaliers would have gone in 2020.) After years of consistently dominant defense, and then a very modern outside-in offensive evolution in 2020-21, Virginia was decidedly mid on both ends of the floor in 2021-22: eighth in ACC competition in points per possession and ninth in points per trip allowed.

The hope is that internal improvement, increased cohesion and an infusion of top-100 freshmen talent will get Virginia out of its one-year NIT purgatory and back to where the program feels it belongs — alongside, if not altogether ahead of, Duke and North Carolina in the ACC’s top tier. Here’s a look at each scholarship player on the roster the Cavaliers hope will take them there, with the latest summer evaluations from Williford.

Reece Beekman, junior, guard

If that is going to happen, and particularly if the existing Cavaliers are going to make a leap — if the returning players on this team are going to be responsible for serious improvement regardless of what they get from the newcomers — then, simply put, Reece Beekman will have to fully become a star.

The good news is he has the facilities for it. He was almost already there. At 6-foot-3 with go-go gadget arms, Beekman impressed Virginia’s coaches immediately when he arrived in the pandemic summer of 2020, when he became an immediate starter and never looked back. Defensively, he is a disruptive terror and more or less always has been. He creates steals and blocks shots at a high rate, and he is almost impossible to screen to an offensive team’s advantage. Last season, he made a marked improvement on the offensive end, taking vastly more shots from both 2 and 3 and delivering higher percentages (from 45.2 percent to 48.7 from 2, and 24.3 percent to 33.8 percent from 3). Beekman’s ball-handling and distributing, including his 30.3 percent assist rate, was fantastic, much more a true point guard with size than the “this kid is talented but hasn’t harnessed it yet” stuff he was doing as a freshman.

And yet there is room for more. If Beekman, already a great defender, slasher, passer and finisher around the rim, can become a genuine threat from the perimeter, he has a chance to be one of the very best all-around players in the ACC. If he can replicate and expand on what he is already doing, if he can maintain his defensive level but add in much higher offensive usage — he accounted for just 16.8 percent of Virginia’s offensive possessions last season — he will immediately elevate Virginia’s ceiling in the process.

“He’s got a chance to make a huge jump,” Williford said. “He’s really, really good. He’s worked on his jumper. He knows that he’s got to take and make jumpers consistently. He’s been in the gym working his butt off there. He’s got a chance to be special, and if he takes a jump, I think this team will follow.”

Kihei Clark, grad senior, guard

Yes, Kihei Clark is back. The lone remaining piece from Virginia’s 2018-19 national title team should retain a place of particular place of honor among Virginia fans, but anyone who has ever written or read anything about Clark on the internet knows that is not always exactly the case. Frankly put, some UVa fans were ready to move on from Clark at the end of last season, and that is putting it politely. Some, upon hearing his decision to return for a fifth year, would have groaned.

Just a reminder, folks: Virginia’s staff loves the player. Always has, always will. They are perfectly aware of how Clark is discussed externally. That they do not love.

“Kihei, at times, has caught a lot of flack,” Williford said. “I’m not sure it’s always been warranted. He’s been a warrior for us. … I heard from coaches in the league, as soon as they found out he was back, like, ‘Please get rid of him.’ He’s hugely respected throughout the league. And I know fans are going to be fans, but I see a lot of stuff. We need to ease up on some of it. We need him.”

At this stage, whether that will happen is probably outside anyone on the team’s control, Clark included. As a fifth-year senior, expecting some major breakout, some numbers that look different from what he has produced for his entire 128-game UVa career, seems farfetched. Clark is an undersized defensive pest who brings real fight, decent perimeter shooting, and leadership in close games, even if his physical limitations and turnover proclivities hold him back on the offensive end. If he cuts down the turnovers and gets a few more open shots — if he can be more of a compliment to Beekman rather than the other way around — he can be a useful piece again.

Virginia knows what to expect from Jayden Gardner offensively. Can he improve on defense? (Brad Penner / USA Today)

Jayden Gardner, grad senior, forward

Speaking of players who are what they are, and for whom that is not intended as an insult: Jayden Gardner is going to get you post buckets. That much you can count on.

He was a big scoring success for Virginia last season; his arrival from East Carolina, where he was individually productive but never played on a good team, went about as smoothly as anyone might have hoped. Turns out, Gardner’s old-school, back-to-the-basket post game works just as well against ACC competition, and his smooth shooting in the midrange was a happy aesthetic addition, too. (Long live the slightly undersized big guy with midrange touch. We’ll miss you, E.J. Liddell.)

What Gardner did not have when he arrived was a foundational understanding of pack-line defense, or really any individual defending at the standard UVa typically requires, but the value of his scoring was such that last year’s Cavaliers had to keep him on the floor anyway. The hope is that tradeoff might not be so glaring this season. “He’s always going to play hard and score the ball, but the big thing I’ve noticed between when we stopped last year and this summer to now is his defensive improvement,” Williford said. “He’s able to slide on the perimeter and move a little better, his feet have gotten quicker, and he has a better understanding of the pack. That’s been a pleasant surprise.” You can envision Gardner’s body type working in Virginia’s defensive scheme, and he definitely improved as the season went along, but first-year Bennett pack-line acclimation is a rare thing.

Armaan Franklin, senior, guard

What happened to Armaan Franklin? The fit when he committed from Indiana was perfect. Having played under Archie Miller for two years, Franklin was familiar with the rigors of pack-line defense (even if Miller’s Indiana teams never approached the uncut, pure Virginia concentration). Meanwhile, coming into a team that had just lost of ton of perimeter shooting, Franklin was coming off a season of 42.4 percent 3-point field goal accuracy.

And then Franklin just … couldn’t make anything. Like, ever. What started as an early cold spell Franklin would surely bounce out of any day now metastasized into a season-long disaster, one open look after the other bricking badly, immediately followed by a close-up camera angle of Franklin glaring off into the middle distance. He attempted 179 3s and made 53. He went 29-of-101 in ACC play. A not-insignificant number of those attempts were clean, quality, open. It was baffling. Even as this disaster unfolded, the Cavaliers didn’t magically sprout new perimeter shooting options, and so only Gardner accounted for a higher percentage of UVa’s field goal attempts, but Franklin just never get it going, the misses compounding exponentially in his mind.

“A lot of it was mental,” Williford said. “It just got in his head — a snowball effect.”

There are some promising signs here. First: Franklin didn’t become a strictly bad shooter from everywhere on the floor. He shot 49 percent from 2. More than a third of all of his field goals came in the midrange, which he converted at 45.2 percent clip. Plenty of those were 15-to-17 footers, contested pull-ups with pure form. His big problem was 3-point shooting, which again points to a mental issue rather than a physical or technical one.

Most promising was how Franklin played in the NIT. He made a couple of 3s in the first round against Mississippi State and then put up back-to-back 17-point performances against North Texas and St. Bonaventure, including 10-of-18 shooting from 3. Virginia’s coaches are hoping that minor little correction was a sign that Franklin had put The Bad Time behind him, and seen a glimpse of what he could be like when he isn’t worrying as much about whether the next shot will go in. He spent the summer working out with John Lucas and former Cavalier Justin Anderson in Miami, primarily focused on making as many shots as humanly possible, slowing but surely rebuilding his confidence. “Miss? Go to the next one,” Williford said. “It’s a hard thing.”

Kadin Shedrick, redshirt junior, forward

One of the things Virginia’s coaches are most excited about with this group, and with the veterans in particular, was how the spring and summer have gone. The breaks the players are normally allowed to take were eschewed; the returning guys, smarting from a season below UVa’s recent standards, all elected to stay on campus and put extra work in, especially with renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis.

Kadin Shedrick could wind up being the chief beneficiary of that extra time in the gym. Shedrick had a really nice redshirt sophomore season; he was an efficient finisher, one of the top rebounders in the ACC on both ends of the floor, and blocked 11.2 percent of opponents’ shots, the 18th-highest block rate in the men’s game. In ACC play, he shot 58-of-86, mostly on dunks and lobs around the rim. If the Cavaliers ran good stuff and got him the ball in a good spot, he finished it expeditiously.

But even as he racked up the minutes and blocks, the Shedrick that showed up to Charlottesville a couple years ago — a springy but undeniably wiry kid without much core strength — was still evident in spots. “There were times when he was just trying to tread water last year,” Williford said. Shedrick’s lack of gravitational center could see him pushed off spots in the low block, death for a defensive system that relies on keeping the ball out of the middle of the floor. When he was rotating and helping and using his length to block shots, Shedrick looked amazing. His length and leap compensates for a lot. But in more subtle moments, when he was chest to chest with a stronger offensive player, he could get buried and moved out of position.

“He understood he needed to hit the weight room now,” Williford said. “He got knocked around a little bit. He’s gotten stronger, and he’s gotten bigger. His thing was just to decide whether he was going to dedicate to it, to really commit to getting better. And he did. Those guys didn’t go home. They had the option to go home. They stayed.” The result could be a more connected group of returning players; it could also mean a more robust Kadin Shedrick.

Ben Vander Plas scored 17 points in a first-round NCAA Tournament upset of Virginia in 2021. Now he has joined the Cavaliers. (Adam Cairns / IndyStar via USA Today)

Ben Vander Plas, grad senior, forward

If it can sometimes feel like every Wisconsin-born basketball player has some tangential connection to the Bennett family — everything from “my dad went to Dick Bennett’s basketball camp” to “my dad played for Dick Bennett.” Ben Vander Plas’s connection is even tighter than most. His father, Dean, was Tony Bennett’s college teammate at Green Bay. This fact gained widespread acclaim ahead of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, in the lead up to Virginia’s first-round matchup with No. 13-seed Ohio, featuring, yes, one Ben Vander Plas of Ripon, Wis. The two families spent a lot of time talking about how highly they thought of each other. It was very sweet.

Naturally, Vander Plas then gave the Cavaliers 17 points, five rebounds and four assists in an epic first-round Bobcats upset. (Ohio guard Jason Preston had 11, 13 and eight; Sam Hauser, fellow Wisconsin native and former Vander Plas grassroots teammate, was 1-of-8 from 3.) This was less sweet.

It was impressive, though, and pretty indicative of the player Vander Plas had become in his time in Athens. It wasn’t a huge surprise to see Bennett take an interest in Vander Plas this spring, when the 6-foot-8 forward made himself available in the portal. The fit makes sense, too. Having lost Hauser, Trey Murphy and Jay Huff the previous offseason, Virginia went from a roster with almost too many perimeter shooting bigs (with whom Bennett often utilized a cutting-edge five-out offensive concept) to a team with bigs that needed to be around the rim. Vander Plas offers both. He is a career 58.7 percent shooter from inside the arc, and an 85th-percentile post-up finisher, per Synergy. He has also made 201 career 3s, with respectable mid-30s percentages (36 percent and 33.5 percent) on high volume in his last two seasons. He isn’t Hauser or Huff, but you have to guard him. He has very good passing feel for his size. He rebounds like a big on the defensive end, and at least rates out as a passable defender. He’s not quick, but he is strong.

One big benefit of his arrival, Williford said, is that he gives Virginia the option to play smaller lineups. Virginia shouldn’t have to sacrifice its true big interior size, but can also get some more perimeter production and spacing from a player who can bang the block but is more than comfortable facing up from distance. It’s a small wonder he didn’t play for Virginia already.

Isaac Traudt, freshman, forward

Speaking of guys with big size and perimeter shooting, say hello to freshman forward Isaac Traudt. Those smaller lineups Williford is talking about may well feature Virginia’s four-star incoming freshman forward, a 6-foot-9 Nebraska native whose chief specialty might be his ability to stretch the floor. (Having seen this player in person once, at an Under Armour event outside Atlanta last season, we can confirm he looks first and foremost like a quality face-up shooter.)

Virginia’s staff hasn’t seen anything since Traudt arrived on campus in Charlottesville a month ago that would dissuade him from this initial evaluation of the player. “He is who we kind of thought he was, which is a stretch big that can really shoot the 3,” Williford said. “I do think he’ll surprise people with his athleticism and pop off the floor and his finishing around the rim.” Traudt might want to put a bit more heft on his frame, but he isn’t overly skinny, and he moves well, can attack closeouts with the dribble, and gets good elevation on his midrange jumper. He isn’t just a shooter — but having a 6-foot-9 perimeter shooter in the mix is pretty great in and of itself. Vander Plas and Traudt should at least make that a more viable part of UVa’s offensive output yet again.

Like almost every freshman at Virginia, the big question for Traudt is whether he can stay on the floor defensively, if he can really internalize the defensive scheme and maintain the level for 30 seconds every possession — if he can stay “continuous,” as Bennett likes to put it. That all remains to be seen.

Ryan Dunn, freshman, wing

Traudt is the highest-ranked recruit in this incoming class, but only by one spot, per 247 Sports; Traudt is 57th, guard Isaac McKneely is 58th, and wing Leon Bond is 61st, a tight band of four-star players right in Virginia’s recruiting wheelhouse. Interestingly enough, though, when discussing the newcoming players, Williford jumps from Traudt to Dunn, also a four-star recruit but the only prospect in the class ranked outside the top 100. If it sounds like we’re reading too much into a casual conversational transition then read what Williford actually said about Dunn when he made it:

“He reminds me – and I don’t want to put this type of pressure on him – but he reminds me of a young De’Andre Hunter,” Williford said.

Oh, word?

“If he can fill out and get that frame to where Dre was, I think he’s got that type of versatility for us offensively and defensively – probably not the same post-up one-on-one game as De’Andre, but with the defensive versatility, once he can sit down in a stance and figures out what we’re doing, he’s going to be pretty good as well.”

Obviously, that’s a very lofty comparison! De’Andre Hunter was really freaking good! But it is worth remembering that Hunter was also a fringe top-100 player when he arrived in Charlottesville, upon which he decided to redshirt for a season and work on his body. As a redshirt frosh, Hunter was an intriguing athlete, a promising defender and rim finisher. By his third year on campus he was an all-conquering, national title-winning force. It might take Dunn a few years to approach that sort of trajectory, and maybe he never will. But it is interesting that Virginia’s staff already sees some of the same raw materials there.

Isaac McKneely, freshman, guard

How good of a shooter is Isaac McKneely? It is always difficult to tell with incoming prospects. The belief is that McKneely is a very good shooter. If true, if McKneely is a plus shooter at the high-major level — if he really is a shooting-guard level shooter for Virginia — then he is going to be a huge addition early on.

As you might recall, Virginia struggled to shoot the ball last season from pretty much every position. Beekman is a combo guard with incredible length and the ability to cover tons of ground, as well as strong playmaking skills. If he can add more relaible perimeter shooting and more attacking size at 6-foot-4, McKneely could theoretically pair well with Beekman in the backcourt, or even in smaller lineups as a three.

Virginia’s initial evaluation was that he was a scoring guard who could shoot off the dribble or in catch situations. Since he arrived, though, the staff has been impressed with his ball-handling — he might not be Chris Paul, but he brings the ball up “while being heated up full-court” by Beekman, which is a lot easier said than done. Having more ball-handling never hurts, and it could make McNeely much more than a “stand over in the corner and shoot when you’re open” type of guy early in his career.

Leon Bond, freshman, wing

Bond, right now, sounds like the exact type of player the United States of America produces at an inextinguishable rate: rangy, athletic wings. Go to any recruiting event and see for yourself; our national stockpile is limitless. Technical skills are what differentiate those players, and while Bond is skilled, particularly around the rim, his big area of emphasis (not unlike Dunn) is his jumper. At the moment, he relies on his athleticism, which fortunately for him is considerable.

He is also indicative of a trend Virginia’s coaches have very much liked seeing on the floor this summer: length. “We’ve got some wingspans now,” Williford said. This was not the case a year ago, when the Cavaliers had pretty clearly delineated guards and forwards, with Beekman maybe the one guy with a potential NBA future. “All of a sudden, we just looked different,” Williford said. “I just said to Tony the other day, those first years out on the floor, between Traudt and Bond and Dunn, the floor looks different for us now.”

Francisco Caffaro, senior, forward

Caffaro is Caffaro, which is to say he’s a big, hulking, slightly awkward guy who plays extremely hard and extremely physically, sometimes to the point that you worry he’s going to accidentally hurt someone. He is a bench big that gives Virginia useful minutes, particularly as a rebounder. Will he suddenly develop a sky hook? Probably not. But he fills a clear role, and does so pretty well.

Taine Murray, sophomore, wing

With all of this young talent arriving, it will be very interested to see how Taine Murray’s sophomore season progresses. Murray, lest we forget, was a four-star recruit in his own right, albeit one hailing from New Zealand and with a bit less exposure than your average top-100 player.

He played sporadic minutes as a freshman, and occasionally looked like a piece Bennett could use more regularly — he had 14 points in 21 minutes and shot 4-of-6 from 3 against Iowa Nov. 29. Unfortunately, that shooting night accounted for half of all his made 3s all year. Flashes were few and far between from there.

Like the rest of the returners, Murray stayed behind to work out this spring, and coaches were particularly impressed with his offseason work before he left to play for the New Zealand national team setup this summer. There is the hope that some of last season’s momentary bits and pieces are replicable, particularly given how well Murray has reportedly shot the ball in practice in the offseason.

“He’s a tough kid, a competitive kid,” Williford said. “And he wants to play. I think he’s going to find some time to carve out for himself, and so Tony’s got his hands full figuring out who’s going to play and who’s going to be on the bench. I’ll leave that up to him. That’s why they pay him the big bucks.”

It is the kind of competition for spots Virginia would have loved to have a season ago. At the absolute bare minimum, this more classic “veterans-plus-talented-frosh” combination is also just a more talented roster than it was a year ago, possibly by a lot. And if the freshmen are ready to contribute right away — or a sneaky-interesting player like Murray can emerge from that new internal competition — the Cavaliers should at least take a major step back toward the level the program expects to maintain each and every season.

(Top photo of Reece Beekman: Rob Kinnan / USA Today)