Finishing what we started before we start something new…

So way back in April, 6 months ago, I did two articles in what was intended to be a three-article series looking back at the 2021-22 basketball season. I got through the first two of those before life got in the way and I wasn’t able to get to writing here on Hoos Place for the summer. Part of it was other commitments, work and family and such. Part of it was burnout. But as the weather starts to cool, my excitement for UVA basketball is too much, and I can’t help but find myself right back here, wanting to dive back into Tony Bennett’s newest roster, research every one of the other 14 ACC programs, and look ahead to another exciting year at JPJ.

But before I can do that, I need to finish what I started in April. So if you want to take a few minutes and catch up on my off-season train of thought, here’s where I left off six months ago:

Part 1: Appreciating an NIT Finish Was “only” making the NIT a bit of a letdown after 8 straight NCAAT (counting 2020) seasons? Sure. But there was a lot to love about that season too. And besides, having the occasional setback year happens to the likes of Duke, UNC, and Kentucky once a decade as well. So we talk about why it really wasn’t so bad after all, and resolve to be appreciative of what was in many respects still a pretty good, fun season.

Part 2: What Went Wrong? – With that appreciation for an NIT season aside, understanding that continued growth requires continual introspection and constructive self-criticism (emphasis on the “constructive,” please!), we deep dived four key factors that held the team back last season from reaching the Big Dance: (1) 3-point shooting, (2) roster turnover, (3) recruiting misses, and (4) focus.

Great, so now that we’re caught up, while this article and series is titled “A Season In Review,” we’ve kind of already picked apart last season as much as we needed to, and this third part was always aimed at taking those conclusions and using them to frame discussions about the future, both immediate and long term.

Had I written this article in April, shortly after the first two installments, the focus would’ve included offseason recruiting strategies (both transfer and high school), as well as retention questions (outbound transfers, bonus year decisions) to address some of these concerns. Obviously, the offseason has already come and gone. We saw a pair of transfers out from the end of the bench (sophomore guard Carson McCorkle to Wofford and freshman forward Igor Milicic to Charlotte), two super-senior decisions (Kihei Clark and Jayden Gardner), an inbound super-senior transfer (forward Ben Vander Plas), and a four-man freshman recruiting class arrive.

So instead, we’ll look at how we stand on the open questions addressed in Part 2 from two perspectives: (a) this coming season and (b) long term.

Question 1 – Will the shooting improve?

Spoiled by 40%-ish 3-point shooters over the last decade like Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, Trey Murphy, and Sam Hauser, last season was a major letdown. We shot only 32.3% collectively on 3’s, the second worst mark of a team in Bennett’s career (including at WSU), and no single player exceeded even a 35% individual 3P% threshold on the year, a pretty low bar to clear, I think.

This year, I’m going to temper my expectations and root merely for a modest improvement to respectability. We don’t have any real stretch options at the 5-spot; Papi sure as hell isn’t taking any jumpers and while Kadin did work on a few pick-and-pop 3’s during the Italy trip, I doubt we see it really factor into this year’s offense, maybe next year. Jayden Gardner similarly likely won’t become a stretch 4 over one offseason after only making three 3’s all last year. And Kihei and Reece, each expected to log extensive minutes at the guard spots, are career 34.8% and 30.4% 3-point shooters, respectively, and there comes a point where you just accept neither are going to be a London Perrantes kind of PGs.

But there are a couple of reasons I think we’ll see some improvement. First is that Armaan Franklin, reportedly hampered by a foot injury last year, could look a lot more like what we saw at Indiana in the 2020-21 season, where he was a 42.4% 3-point shooter on steady volume. Ben Vander Plas takes over Kody Stattmann’s spot in a fairly 1-for-1 kind of way and should be a much better option from deep. Yes BVP shot only 33.5% from deep last year, but 36% the year prior on lower, more selective volume, so I’m hopeful UVA’s offense lets him take fewer but better looks in our offense, turning him into a more dangerous stretch forward option. And of course, if we can get our young guards into more key game minutes, the shooting from the likes of Murray, McKneely, Dunn, and Traudt should all be better than we saw last year. Of course, how much those youngsters can get on the floor when starting positions are occupied by incumbents remains to be seen.

But long term, those young players should take on a bigger role and give us more of the kind of shooting lineup we’re used to seeing. Traudt will give us the stretch-big option we’ve been lacking for a season or two now, and the guards have good shooting pedigrees. That will need to continue to be reinforced through further recruiting, to include the transfer portal, of course. The Hoos are still in the market for Reece’s heir at the point and getting a shooter at the 1 will be a game changer offensively. It will need to continue to be a focus for wing recruiting as well, and a major bonus for big men (while ’23 recruit Blake Buchanan isn’t expected to be a shooter, I expect us to take another transfer big next offseason as well). As such, jury’s somewhat out on what shooting will look like 2+ seasons out but have to hope Bennett will get us there.

Question 2 – Will the year-to-year roster churn stabilize?

In our Part 2 review of the defense’s atypical shortcomings last year (our worst Defensive Efficiency per KenPom since the 2010-11 season), I blamed it primarily on inexperience of our players in the system. Of the Top 7 players on last year’s team, only two (Kihei and Reece) had been main rotation players the year prior, 2020-21. That meant that Armaan, Jayden, Kadin, Papi, Kody, and other youngsters deep on the bench were collectively learning the Pack Line on the fly.

Our analysis identified a desired threshold of around 70% of the previous season’s minutes returning to this season’s rotation, maybe four or five experienced players returning, for the Pack Line to have enough experience that (a) it’s reacting without thinking, and (b) it can afford to absorb a few faces or two without critical repeated breakdowns. Last year the roster returned only two players (three if you generously want to count Kody’s experience from his sophomore year), too few for the Pack Line to be effective.

This year we return essentially our top six players, an unprecedented level of year-over-year stability, 89.4% of our minutes from last year come back. Suffice it to say, that’s more than enough to support a return to form for the defense. There’s ample room to carve out minutes for new/young players off the bench without expecting too much drop-off in the defense. Not much to discuss here.

But looking long term, you see some concerns, at least as far as next season is concerned.

This Year’s Roster

Next Year’s Roster

I want to preface what I’m about to say with a giant caveat that this isn’t about the players individually, only about their impacts on the overall roster construction and class balance. Kay? Kay.

Kihei’s decision to play his 5th year and Tony’s decision to recruit Ben Vander Plas knowing Jayden Gardner was returning for his COVID year makes for potentially messy situation this time next year. Maybe this year’s team wins enough that it’s all worth it. But the way the roster’s built, we have six players all projecting in our main rotation who are in their 4th or 5th seasons in college basketball. Three of them are definitively out of eligibility next season (Kihei, BVP, and Gardner). Three more may face tough decisions about moving on to their post-collegiate careers, whether professional basketball or otherwise (Franklin, Shedrick, and Papi). And that’s before even considering the possibility that the high-upside juniors Reece and Kadin play their way into NBA discussions.

Ultimately, we won’t know until April or May what the stay/go decisions for this year’s players are. But it is setting up for a potentially high turnover situation, especially if multiple youngsters don’t break into main rotation this year to at least provide some cushion of experience going into next year. We could be in a position to replace three or four starters yet again, and it means we could be in line for another defensive drop-off similar to last year’s. Again, not to litigate what value Kihei and BVP bring value to this year’s team, but there’s a strong argument to be made that taking a younger transfer, maybe one with 2 or 3 years of eligibility remaining, would’ve provided better long-term class spacing for a smoother transition next offseason.

After that, though, things should settle down assuming (and it’s a big assumption) most of the current underclassmen stay and develop in a way we used to see more routinely under Bennett, especially if the coach can continue to round out the ’23 class and then the ’24 class appropriately, peppering in one transfer a year which is probably the magic number for a system program like ours. But that leads us into…

Question #3 – Will our recruiting “hit rate” bounce back?

As we discussed in our last article, UVA’s success from 2012-2020 was largely built on the backs of homegrown players. These guys, recruited as high schoolers, turned into all-ACC quality players during their time at UVA at a nearly 60% clip between the 2011 and 2016 recruiting classes, with many more proving effective role players. Really, only a small percentage turned into “busts,” guys who left without ever making a major mark on the program in at least one season. But between the 2017-2021 classes, the “bust” rate skyrocketed, even factoring in that the jury might still be out on a couple of the youngest guys.

This is a tough one to discuss right now. The recruiting rankings of the 2022 class and the already-committed ’23s is admittedly impressive, six straight four-stars. But guys like Casey Morsell, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, and Carson McCorkle all had similar recruiting profiles and couldn’t cut it at UVA, so rankings alone won’t tell the story. At a bare minimum, the early reports from summer and fall practices on the four-man 2022 class are encouraging, all being listed as guys who “can play”, even if existing depth means some have to wait another year before getting a shot at extended minutes.

Encouraging is that it’s six straight domestic recruits with high-level AAU travel ball experience. It’s not that there isn’t a place on the roster for international players, but history says those recruitments have (a) a lot more uncertainty and (b) require longer developmental timelines to get those guys up to the speed of this level of basketball. Hopefully Taine works out, I’m still optimistic he will, though again he may still be a year away from turning the corner (Year 3 usually being the magic number for international players). All six currently-committed guys in the ’22 and ’23 classes came up through high profile domestic organizations, so the level of competition concerns should be less.

One thing that I do expect to change is that UVA plays more of a numbers game with its classes, taking more players on average each year than we’ve seen in the past. The transfer portal makes it easier to lose guys who may be frustrated with slower development or lack of early playing time, and maybe it’s ambitious to expect the ridiculous hit-rate on 3- and 4-stars we saw a decade ago to continue at quite that same level. To counter that, Tony can’t take anymore 1- or 2-man flyer classes like we saw in 2015 (Jarred Reuter [counting Mamadi as a ’16]) or 2017 (Marco Anthony, Francesco Baddochi), expecting big classes in other years to have enough guys pan out to cover it all. Bennett needs to look at taking 3 or 4 quality players in each class going forward so that we can expect no worse than a couple to work out long term and keep a steady pipeline available.

Part of this discussion, though, isn’t just about getting enough guys of sufficient talent to play competitively at an ACC level. Part of it is getting guys bought into the UVA way. But that ties into our fourth topic.

Question #4 – Does the culture get locked back in?

I want to make it clear, the culture at UVA basketball over the last season or so hasn’t been “bad.” Lots of programs have toxic locker rooms. Even more programs have merely mediocre cultures. UVA’s hasn’t dipped worse than “okay” or “fine” by any larger standards. There aren’t off the court problems. Guys are going to class and staying eligible. Staying out of the news for negative behavior. Generally getting along with each other and the staff. Staying on the good side of the NCAA. All that.

What’s been lacking the last couple seasons is that X-Factor that defined the best of the best Bennett teams. The dog mentality, the toughness and focus and underdog mindset. We had it when we went into Cameron in February to knock off Duke, but the Hoos need to be able to re-channel that killer instinct in games where either (a) the Hoos are the favorite or (b) it’s the kind of lower-profile contest that’s easy to overlook due to historical successes. Even against UNC, I fear, the consistent successes of the last few years took some onus off the focus. “Ah, hey, our system matches up well with theirs, we’ll be fine.”

Here’s hoping this summer’s offseason following a dispiriting NIT finish spurs a similar renewed sense of hunger that we saw first in 2013 following another tough NIT season (lots of parallels between that season and this past one), or even more recently the fire that was collectively lit after the UMBC loss. AKA, there’s nothing like a revenge tour. And to be clear, in recent years we’ve seen fellow heavyweights like Duke and UNC have off years, and their HOF coaches at the time motivating a bounce-back year.

Long term, I think a lot of that has to do with recruiting players who are highly self-motivated and have natural underdog, competitive spirits. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome had those attitudes, enough so that it could motivate and fire up more even keeled personalities like Mamadi Diakite or De’Andre Hunter. Guys who play with a chip on their shoulder for 40 minutes a game, 30 games a season, no matter whether we’re up 20 or down 20, aren’t common, but it’s what this program is built on. It’ll need to be a key in player evaluation going forward, that mindset maybe being even more important than athleticism or shooting.

Speaking of recruiting players with the right mindsets, the other focus in roster building needs to keep in mind things like NIL and transfers like never before. Now, neither of these concerns are totally new. The transfer portal has been around for years, and it’s not as if bag-dropping wasn’t happening before. But it’s more extreme now, in the sense that the elimination of the transfer redshirt year means it’s super easy for a disgruntled reserve player to bolt at the promise of immediate playing time elsewhere, whereas before they had to weigh a sit-out season against that. And NIL being above board means many top recruits and transfers are emboldened in seeking paydays as part of their commitments.

Now, I’m not here to whine about either. On many levels, I’m actually a fan of both in principle. I’m a players’ advocate, they’re the ones sweating, bleeding, suffering injuries, putting in absurd hours to balance sports and academics. Freedom for individuals to find their best fits is a good thing; if I want to leave my crappy job for a better opportunity in the real world, I’m allowed to. And I’m a fairly staunch capitalist (within reason, in a law-abiding, anti-oligarch, and don’t destroy the environment in the process sort of way), so all things being equal, I’ve got zero concerns about Brennan Armstrong making some side hustle cash promoting the Charlottesville-area McDonalds franchises.

With that said, of course, some guardrails need to be in place for both to (a) help offset extreme impacts to competitive balance and (b) protect young players from predatory coaches/agents/boosters who are out to profit short term over what may be a bad long-term decision for the players themselves.

But that’s a giant problem that I’m not in this space to litigate right now. What we’re here to ask is how does Tony Bennett build his roster to survive first and excel second in this environment?

And this comes back to really focusing on character in the recruit. Now, I’m not saying we vilify anyone willing to take an NIL endorsement; obviously guys on our roster already do. But you make a note when it’s one of the first questions a player, or their families, ask.

The same goes for really scrutinizing how the player and their family or advisors would feel should their development go slower than hoped for. Are they going to go running for the promise of more PT at a rival? Check this interview with Notre Dame head coach where he talks about evaluating a player’s parents to make sure everyone will keep the long term in mind and be patient with the development process:

It’s not as if Tony wasn’t evaluating the X-Factors of a recruit before. This is just to reinforce that it’s even more critical a factor than ever. With the banner hanging in the rafters and a slew of alums in the pros, making us a (nominally, anyways) more sexy destination for guys seeking the NBA I think, there’s the risk of recruits thinking of UVA as more of a finishing school, a sure thing destination, rather than somewhere that requires patience in the grind. Again, these are all talking points that we know Tony beats routinely both with recruits, his current players, and the fans and media. Just bears repeating for this discussion.

Summary

I’m optimistic last season truly was just an aberration. Since the post-title exodus in the spring of 2019, the Hoos have been in an unfortunate feedback loop of scrambling to grab transfers and new freshmen late in the cycle to backfill unexpected losses to the NBA or outbound transfers. For this season, at least, UVA had a relatively stable offseason, brought in fresh young talent to provide depth behind a starting lineup full of system veterans, and seem to have had a positive, constructive offseason in the locker room.

An NIT season was the kind of reality-check this program needed after the national title to remember that the success is not a given one year just because the team has been good in previous years. I don’t doubt that Tony issued a tough (albeit fair!) challenge to his locker room last spring about what was required commitment wise from his players; that most key players decided they wanted to take on that challenge is reassuring. The couple that left, well, wheat from the chaff.

We’ll get into the nitty gritty about the upcoming season in subsequent articles more specifically geared towards previewing the 2022-23 season. But overall, hopefully this has been a good opportunity to take stock of what caused the program to backslide from national champion to NIT participant in 3 years, and to consider what we’ll see as the program turns around.

Long story short, I’m bullish (to a point) on this upcoming season, I think we should be back to being a top-tier ACC team if not necessarily a Top 10 team, though next season (2023-24) I do have concerns with the high number of graduations we could see impacting continuity. But going out to the 2024-25 season, pending a couple more roster moves, Tony looks to be setting this roster up well for another long run of success in the ACC.

The climate of college basketball continues to change, whether that’s for better or for worse I’ll leave up to you. But rest assured, if there’s one man we wanted to have navigating these choppy seas, especially while staying true to UVA values, we’ve got the right staff in place.