Virginia Basketball: Back to the Wilderness?

Virginia sit alone atop the ACC and control their own fate. Projected to finish 4th in the ACC, the Hoos were expected to be good. But not this good.

And that success is built to last. While they lose talented and much-loved fourth-years Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell after this season, they have a six-man class of second-years in Brogdon (12.0 ppg), Anderson (9.5 ppg), Gill (7.6 ppg), Tobey (7.3 ppg), Nolte (3.0 ppg), and Jones (0.7 ppg). In 2014/15 and 2015/16, those six players will form the nucleus of a team set to challenge for dominance in the ACC. None are obvious candidates for transfer or early departure to the NBA. This season has been fun and the next two years of Virginia basketball look promising, too.

Of course, it’s important to note that the six-man class didn’t start out that way. Gill transferred in, Barnette transferred out, Brogdon lost a year with a foot injury, and Jones redshirted. What started as a four-man class lost a player and added three. Transfers and injuries can reshape a roster pretty quickly. Tony Bennett didn’t intend to create a six-man super class, but he’s got one.

But all that talent in one class has a downside. It’s tough to recruit when you can’t offer playing time. We’re already seeing the impact: while that six-man class included four 4-star players, since then Tony Bennett hasn’t been able to attract a single player rated that highly.

In the 2013 recruiting class, Perrantes was an overlooked 3-star (although his play is certainly proving the analysts wrong). In the 2014 recruiting class, Hall (redshirt), Stith, and Wilkins are all consensus 3-stars and Salt is basically unrated because he’s an unknown commodity to most analysts. None of them was particularly highly-regarded (even the pedigreed Stith) and Tony Bennett missed on a number of very highly-rated recruits who ended up elsewhere. Analysts rankings and star-ratings don’t mean everything, it is clear that the talent level in the Virginia pipeline dropped after the 2012 class was signed.

Will that change in the 2015 class that Bennett is recruiting now? Very unlikely. Bennett needs to convince talented high school juniors to join an up-and-coming program – but one where they’ll likely sit on the bench for two years. Couple that with only two scholarships available and that class looks pretty tough.

That means that the 2016 recruiting class is a huge challenge. Bennett will need to replace six talented fourth-years. He’ll need talent and numbers, and he’ll need it all in one class. Will lightning strike twice? Even if it does, it perpetuates the problem by creating another large-class bubble that will need a couple years to mature but discourages kids in the classes behind them from joining.

How big a problem is that? For the 2016/17 season, Virginia has no 4- or 5-star players in the committed pipeline. But our competition does. Duke has four 5-stars and three 4-stars. UNC has two 5-stars and three 4-stars. Syracuse has one 5-star and three 4-stars. Obviously, some of those players will have moved on to the NBA by then, but history tells us they’ll be replaced with more 4- and 5-star talent.

2016/17 Roster

Fourth Year


Third Year

Hall, Salt, Stith, Wilkins

Second Year

2 scholarships

First Year

6 scholarships

While Bennett has already proven that he can develop players in his system and beat teams full of 4- and 5-star talent, you can bet he’d rather do it with some 4- and 5-star talent of his own. In 2016/17, Bennett will have to take a young squad comprised entirely of 3-star or worse players against some very talented teams. And that likely means Virginia takes a step back for a couple years until that 2016 class matures – and that’s if they’re a blockbuster class on par with our current six-man super-class of second-years.

But can’t Bennett’s success continue forever? Isn’t the Packline designed for less talented players to stifle more athletic offenses? With his system and culture, can’t he continue to lead mature 3- and 4-star players against younger 4- and 5-star players at teams like Syracuse, Duke, and UNC? In a word, no. Those teams will not remain static – they will develop strategies and recruit players to nullify Bennett’s Packline. At some point, Bennett is going to need to compete at a higher level in recruiting if he wants to remain in the ACC’s top tier for the long term.

So what should Bennett do? Transfers are an option: if a couple players in that six-man class transfer out, Bennett could replace them with two talented players who, after sitting out a year, would join the Perrantes one-man class. They’d spend their year learning the pack line like Gill did. But who would leave? The only obvious candidates with limited minutes today are Jones and Nolte, but both of them are valuable role players who seem to be happy.

An alternative without losing any players to transfer is for Bennett to use the two available 2015 scholarships on transfers instead of high-school recruits. Given the likelihood that those 2015 recruits will be (at best) 3-star players, he might be able to attract a higher level of talent and flatten the bubble in the pipeline. This would also give Bennett the luxury of redshirting Wilkins and Salt who likely won’t see many minutes next year with Atkins, Gill, Nolte, Anderson, and Tobey in front of them.

And that would allow Bennett to focus his attention on the critically important 2016 recruiting class one year ahead of schedule. It’s impossible to overstate how important that 2016 class is to Virginia basketball – with the way the pipeline looks now, either that class is a blockbuster or Virginia drops out of the ACC’s top tier and goes back to fighting it out with bottom-feeders like Virginia Tech.

While I’d certainly agree that having too much experienced talent in one class is a nice problem to have, it is a problem – at least when it comes to recruiting.

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