On Wednesday afternoon the Virginia basketball program announced that rising senior Marial Shayok and rising Jarred Reuter would be transferring out of the program to finish their college careers elsewhere. While neither Shayok nor Reuter were starters for the Cavaliers this season, both were key parts of the Virginia rotation. Shayok was often the first backcourt player off the bench, and his career performance against UNC-Wilmington last Thursday helped UVa stave off elimination in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. While Reuter played more sparingly, he still averaged double-digit minutes per game and led the team in field goal percentage. Virginia fans should thank Shayok and Reuter for their hard work and contributions of the past few seasons, and wish them success as they move on to other programs. Their departure, however, also leaves behind holes that need to be addressed, both in terms of the makeup of next year’s team as well as the scholarship situation for the Hoos in the years to come.
Immediate Impact in 2017-18 Season
With Shayok and Reuter gone, the roster of scholarship players for UVa next season is as follows:
Seniors: Devon Hall, Darius Thompson, Isaiah Wilkins
Juniors: Jack Salt
Sophomores: Mamadi Diakite, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome
Freshmen: Marco Anthony, Jay Huff, De’Andre Hunter
Even with three seniors that’s an incredibly young compilation of talent. As it currently stands Virginia would have only ten scholarship players, three of whom are freshmen who have never played a single minute and one, Anthony, who isn’t even on grounds yet. While reports from last summer’s Eurotrip and throughout the season have lauded the commitment and and ability of Huff and Hunter (you can watch a great VirginiaSportsTV segment on their redshirt year here), it’s impossible to accurately project how impactful they’ll be in their first season of playing time. Mamadi Diakite’s performance this past season is a great example on how a redshirt year can serve to refine a player’s skillset, but does not mean that player will be a polished, finished product as soon as they hit the court.
Nevertheless it appears inevitable that Huff and Hunter will be asked to contribute more than expected next season. A likely rotation could include a starting five of Ty Jerome, Devon Hall and Kyle Guy in the backcourt coupled with Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt in the frontcourt. Given that most teams use at least a nine man rotation at points in the season to keep players fresh, Virginia used 10 scholarship players this past year, that would leave Darius Thompson and Hunter as the first wing players off the bench with Mamadi Diakite and Huff providing support at the post positions. With incoming freshman Marco Anthony an unknown commodity, that leaves the Cavalier rotation dangerously thin and susceptible to injury. Thankfully UVa’s roster isn’t set in stone yet, which brings us to our next topic: what impact does Shayok and Reuter transferring have on Virginia’s scholarship situation moving forward?
Scholarship and Roster Construction Impact
The departure of Shayok and Reuter, coupled with this week’s confirmation that Austin Nichols will not be rejoining the team, leaves Virginia with three open scholarships for the coming season. While it’s not uncommon for teams to leave a scholarship vacant for a season to pursue early entries in the transfer market or help space out the distribution between graduating classes, keeping three scholarships in reserve is lunacy. Not only would it leave the team short-handed in the coming season, it would mean that UVa would have six open scholarships for the 2018 class, which is an unsustainable roster turnover rate. To help counteract this issue, Virginia has three options:
1) Pursue a Graduate Transfer
Under NCAA rules once an athlete has completed their undergraduate degree they can transfer to another institution, without having to sit out a season, to pursue a graduate degree offered by that school. While this practice has been fairly common in college basketball and the ACC, Syracuse picked up an impact player in graduate transfer Andrew White III this season and Louisville did the same with Damion Lee last season, UVa under Tony Bennett has never brought in a graduate transfer. The common thought behind this has been that Bennett’s packline defense takes at least one year to really learn and embrace and a graduate transfer, most of whom only have one year of eligibility remaining after completing their undergraduate studies, would be leaving right as they begin to the master the system. Whether this is true or whether UVa has just not been successful in these pursuits in past seasons, the Hoos should wade into the grad transfer market this year. Even if learning the Virginia style of play does take time, a graduate transfer who would already competed for multiple years against Division I competition would likely be able to pick up the system’s intricacies faster than an incoming freshman. The assimilation may not be perfect, but a grad transfer could still provide meaningful depth and rotation minutes for a team with a young, unproven roster and provide UVa coaches with the flexibility to redshirt Marco Anthony if they deem he needs extra seasoning.
2) Pursue a Non-Graduate Transfer
Unlike graduate transfers, non-graduate transfers have been somewhat common at Virginia under Bennett. Although Nichols is the most recent example, and his failings had nothing to do with basketball, Virginia has found lineup mainstays Darius Thompson and Anthony Gill in the past through this channel. A non-graduate transfer would come in with Division I experience while still having the opportunity to spend a season learning Bennett’s system before being asked to contribute. Perhaps most importantly, these transfers would help space out Virginia’s scholarship allocation in the years to come. While a graduate transfer solves the immediate problem of rotation depth, their departure at the end of next season would still leave the Hoos with six open scholarships to fill in the 2018 recruiting class, or through further transfers the following year. Six scholarships is simply an unreasonable number to expect to fill in a single class. The one time Virginia did so in Bennett’s inaugural famed “Six Shooters” class, only two players finished their careers in Charlottesville. A non-graduate transfer would address the scholarship distribution between classes while also providing an experienced on-court option for the 2018-19 season.
3) Pursue High School Recruits
The final option is the most conventional one: UVa could use these newfound scholarships to pursue more high school players who would arrive in Charlottesville with their full eligibility intact. For Virginia the ideal time to use one of these scholarships would be in the incoming 2017 class, which consists only of Marco Anthony. Using a scholarship on a 2017 recruit would solve both issues by providing a warm body who can play next season and spreading scholarships by adding an additional player(s) to a one person recruiting class. The downside with this approach is that the overwhelming majority of incoming freshmen have already committed to a program. Virginia would either have to scour uncommitted prospects in search of hidden gems, which while providing relief in the short term likely isn’t the best use of a scholarship over four years, or hope that touted prospects back off their commitments as college basketball’s annual coaching carousel unfurls. Since the end of the regular season power conference jobs have opened up at California, Illinois, Indiana, LSU, Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Washington. Even though some of these positions have already been filled, recruits who committed to a certain coach may find themselves re-evaluating their options and, in at least one high profile case so far, asking for their release to talk to other schools.
Overall it’s hard to tell exactly how Virginia will address this sudden abundance of scholarships. If I had to make a prediction I would bet that the coaching staff hits the transfer market hard and the Hoos come away with their first grad transfer of the Bennett era. It wouldn’t be surprising even to see UVa add two transfers this offseason, one graduate and one non-graduate, depending on the caliber of players available on the market. As for recruiting if an elite-caliber recruit wants to head to Charlottesville you’d have to imagine the staff would welcome them with open arms, but I’d be surprised to see a scholarship used simply for the sake of using it and expanding the 2017 class. If no top-level talent decides to join the Hoos I’d expect the coaches to pocket the scholarship and use it on a future transfer or to more vigorously pursue 2018 options.