After a stellar Sweet Sixteen run, Tony Bennett hoped to capitalize on his success on the recruiting trail. He failed. After missing out on a number of highly-regarded recruits, he settled for a Marquette decommit and a Tennessee transfer.
Tony Bennett recognized the challenge he had with his roster; with such a large class of rising third-years, he had little playing time to offer. But he will need to replace five significant contributors (Nolte, Tobey, Anderson, Brogdon, and Gill) in the same year. That year is the 2016 recruiting class.
To prepare for that 2016 recruiting season, Bennett set about remaking his roster. Teven Jones, a fan favorite, transferred out, reducing the numbers in his super class by one.
Then Bennett added two late additions to his incoming first-year class. Joining legacy B.J. Stith, little-known Kiwi Jack Salt, and intriguing late bloomer Isaiah Wilkins, is Marial Shayok. Shayok committed to Marquette and then backed out after their coach abandoned Marquette for the manure-scented air of Blacksburg. Like Justin Anderson, Bennett stayed engaged and managed to close the deal the second time around. Unlike Justin Anderson, Shayok is a three-star recruit who needs some development before he can contribute.
Finally, Bennett closed out the class by adding transfer Darius Thompson, a point guard formerly at Tennessee who will sit out a year and join the 2014 class from an eligibility standpoint. That helped smooth out the bubble in the recruiting pipeline a little bit, and while Thompson appears to be an upgrade over Jones, he isn’t a game-changing upgrade. After swinging and missing on several highly-regarded recruits, Bennett was forced to settle for Thompson.
Why "settle"? Bennett was a bridesmaid in the competition for some serious talent, but was unable to close. Thompson certainly wasn’t Bennett’s first, second, or third choice. Darius Thompson is a tall, pass-first guard and, as a coach’s son, will likely fit in well at Virginia. But his playing time should be practically non-existent barring injury to Perrantes. Thompson just isn’t the kind of talent to challenge Perrantes for the job. But "settling" for Thompson meant the end to the 2014 recruiting season; Bennett is out of scholarships and can now shift his focus to later years.
That focus is needed. All of Bennett’s recruits in the last two classes have been three-star or below. He hasn’t landed a single four-star or above. When four-stars Tobey, Anderson, Nolte, and Brogdon depart, they’ll have no hotly-pursued talent to replace them. That’s not to say the not to say the younger players are bad; they’re just the best Bennett could draw given the limited minutes available and Virginia’s weak pedigree, Sweet Sixteen notwithstanding.
B.J. Stith headlines the 2014 class because his father, Bryant Stith, is U.Va.’s all-time points leader. It bears saying, however, that B.J. is not his father. B.J. has a smooth mid-range jump shot, and while he’s a solid all-around player, he’s not yet terribly assertive. His father’s record is safe.
Marial Shayok is a high-energy 6’7" (probably closer to 6’5") combo forward who could develop into a pesky wing defender.
Isaiah Wilkins is a hard-working 6’8" small forward who, with a couple years of training, could follow the Akil Mitchell path.
6'10" Jack Salt is a diamond in the rough. Or maybe just a lump of coal. He’s a big guy who, against the level of competition you’ll find at your local gym, looks like he knows the rules of basketball. Lock him in the gym (and weight room) for a couple years and see what you get.
None of these four can be expected to play more than garbage-time minutes next year; it would make good sense for one or two of them to redshirt.
Of course, Bennett can’t compete with Duke and UNC (and now Louisville and Syracuse) by beating them in head-to-head recruiting matchups and playing his first years against their freshmen. The combination of his patient offense, stifling defense, and the use of experienced, older players is his recipe for beating teams that rely on super-talented but inexperienced one-and-dones.
But Virginia’s Sweet Sixteen success this year required two breakout fourth years and a host of four-star third years. Can the next wave of players replicate their success? It seems dubious. Maybe Bennett’s eye for talent is better than anyone else and these three star recruits are underrated. Or maybe Bennett and crew can do a better job developing these players than their talent-ceiling would suggest is possible. Or – and this is the scary part -- Virginia’s basketball team is going to come crashing back to Earth. How likely is it that Bennett can field three classes composed entirely of three star recruits and beat the five star recruits that are lining up to play at Virginia’s ACC competition?
It’s not impossible. But it does mean Bennett needs to hit a recruiting home run in 2016. If Bennett is craftily building a roster that he will hone into contributors by their third and fourth years, he’s set up very well to plug in some top talent in 2016. Forget the 2015 class – he’s only got one scholarship to offer when Darion Atkins departs, pending the inevitable attrition -- and the talent pool on the East Coast isn’t that great in 2015.
But it is in 2016. If Bennett were to land Thon Maker and Tyus Battle, two otherworldly five star recruits in 2016, and plug them into a roster of players well-trained in the Bennett system, buckle your seat belts. It's ridiculous to assert that one-and-dones can't fit into Tony's system and contribute right away. Perrantes did. You just need experienced playeras around them. And those two – and similar recruits – won’t be intimidated by the logjam of players ahead of them. There are simply no players in the classes ahead of them that could reasonably expect to compete with them for playing time.
But without them – or similar top talent – it’s just unrealistic to expect Bennett’s troops to overcome their talent deficiencies.
So Bennett closed out his 2014 class with a whimper, and with only one scholarship available, not much help is coming in 2015. So all eyes turn to 2016. In 2016, the Virginia roster looks like this:
Stith, Wilkins, Shayok, Salt, Hall (RS), Thompson (RS)
That roster isn’t as limited as it may appear at first blush; it should be an experienced, tall, guard-heavy roster. With several years in the Bennett system, they should be masters of the pack line. It’s also possible that one or two of the incoming recruits may redshirt, pushing them back a year from an eligibility standpoint.
But what that roster lacks is a game-changing offensive player. Someone who can take over a game when needed. Luckily, that’s what the 2016 recruiting class has to offer.
As a side note, it is interesting that, either by preference or circumstances, Tony Bennett recruits huge six-man classes and lets basketball Darwinism reduce their numbers over time. He did it with Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell (remember the ‘Six Shooters’?) and he did it with Nolte, Tobey, Anderson, Brogdon, and Gill (although it took medical redshirts, transfers, and decommits to get there). He’s done it again with the 2014 class, and it seems likely he’ll do it with the 2016 class.
Notable recruiting targets for the 2016 class with whom Virginia is reportedly involved:
***** Thon Maker, PF
To win superman Thon Maker, Tony Bennett will have to do what he hasn’t pulled off yet: beat the big dogs in a head-to-head recruiting battle for a marquee recruit. While Maker has visited Virginia numerous times and is reportedly serious in his consideration of the Hoos, the recruiting of this otherworldly player hasn’t really begun.
He’s a one-and-done (unless the rules change) who will be wooed by Kentucky and Duke and UNC and Kansas (and their boosters and shoe companies). While there’s enough here to keep hope alive, this is not the kind of recruit Bennett has proven he can land. But he would change the direction of the Virginia program overnight. Surrounding Maker with upperclassmen like Perrantes and Stith would make a team expected to compete for the national championship.
**** Braxton Blackwell, F:
Blackwell is a 6’8" wing forward out of Memphis who models his game on Kevin Durant. He’s Ralph Sampson’s nephew (whether that helps or hurts Virginia remains to be seen). He started receiving SEC offers before his freshman year; Tennessee will fight to keep him in-state.
*** Amarveer Singh, F:
Singh is a novelty: an Indian baller. He’s a 6’7" wing out of New Jersey with a high-major skill set; he’s a strong shooter with range but can also finish in a number of ways.
***** Tyus Battle, G: Top Ten nationally, this 6’5" shooting guard out of New Jersey has offers from everybody.
**** Curtis ‘Cujo’ Jones, G: 6’2" Virginia-based combo guard who likes Virginia but is reportedly a Maryland lean.
*** De’monte Buckingham, G: 6’3" Henrico combo guard is strong and athletic and can drive.
** Ty Graves, PG: Smallish 5’10" 155 pound super-athletic shooter who lists Virginia as his favorite. Underrated because of his size, he’s got great vision.
All of these guys are Virginia-type players, meaning they’re apparently high character guys with decent academic records to go with their spectacular on-court highlights.
Best case scenario: With six scholarships to offer, Virginia gets an early commitment from Thon Maker. That triggers dominoes falling; superstars Tyus Battle and Braxton Blackwell sign on as well, giving Virginia the #1 recruiting class in the country. From there, Tony Bennett can pick any other players he wants to round out his roster. The likelihood of this happening is somewhere between winning the Powerball lottery and a Duke player getting a technical for a flop.
Worst case scenario: With so many holes to fill, Bennett holds out to the bitter end in the pitched recruiting battles for the superstars, but, like this year, lands none of them. While he waits, even the mid-tier recruits sign elsewhere. Bennett signs some transfers and some raw unknown international recruits and hopes for the best.
Likely scenario: While Bennett hasn’t done it in a while, he has landed top recruits like Tobey, Brogdon, Nolte, and Anderson. And he hasn’t done recently because he didn’t have playing time to offer. Now he does. And he can pitch a program in ascendance in the ACC while Duke, UNC, and Syracuse all have coaches who need walkers and diapers. And while the competition is focused on 2015, Tony and staff have already moved on to 2016. You read it here first: 2016 is the year Tony Bennett lands the Big Fish.