The 2018 basketball recruiting cycle is nearing its close and the Virginia Cavaliers basketball program will soon welcome three new freshmen to Grounds. For the second straight year, however, Tony Bennett’s haul isn’t particularly well-regarded in the recruiting rankings. Neither Kody Stattmann nor Kihei Clark, from Australia and California, respectively, are ranked inside the top-300 on the 247 composite rankings. Argentinian big man Francisco Caffaro checks in at 173rd.
The situation is a far cry from 2016, when Bennett brought in one of the highest-regarded classes in in school history. Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Jay Huff and Deandre Hunter were all considered top-100 prospects. Mamadi Diakite, meanwhile, was in the top-100 before reclassifying to 2015.
It’s important to take recruiting rankings with a grain of salt. Hunter is a great example. As Wahoo recruiting guru “Hooz Got Next” tweeted, there’s a big discrepancy between how recruiting services saw Hunter as a college prospect and how NBA draft prognosticators see him now.
Reminder. None of the major media rankings had Hunter top 50 in HS. One even left him out of their top 100. https://t.co/zvj1BcgAgu— Hooz Got Next (@HoozGotNext) May 11, 2018
Still, recruiting rankings aren’t dreamt up out of thin air. And if fans were excited when Virginia landed the seventh-ranked class nationally in 2016, they’re allowed to question why the Hoos are bringing in the 65th-ranked class this fall.
Virginia is unlikely to be a major player in the “one-and-done” market (or the analogous market once “one-and-done” goes away) anytime soon. Bennett’s focus on defense and Virginia’s deliberate pace on offense, while embraced by most Cavalier fans, remain a bit anachronistic in today’s game. And UVA’s program pillars of servanthood, humility, and thankfulness aren’t likely going to appeal to players who only plan to stay for one season.
But if Virginia was able to land top-100 recruits like KT Harrell, Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, and Mike Tobey without having recent success to “sell,” it’s reasonable that Bennett and staff should be able to land the same caliber player given the program’s current state. So what gives?
The short answers are that the 2017 class set up to be a smaller class and that Virginia missed on a number of its top targets in 2018. Marco Anthony committed in July of 2016 and looked body-wise like an heir apparent to Brogdon. Francesco Badocchi, who committed late in the cycle, was considered a luxury by that point. Anyone worried about Virginia’s light 2017 class was told to “wait for 2018,” where UVA was well positioned with a number of different prospects.
It’s hard to say exactly where Virginia’s 2018 class went south. Bennett struggled to land a point guard and appeared to put all his eggs in the Jahvon Quinerly basket. Quinerly committed to Arizona before eventually switching to hometown Villanova. Though he was not named in any of the documents relating to the FBI’s investigation into Arizona’s recruiting, his family had did hire a lawyer as a result.
Virginia missed out on a number of other highly-regarded point guard recruits while waiting on Quinerly. Most notably, the Hoos lost out on Jaelin Llewellyn from nearby Lynchburg, who signed with Princeton. Bennett snatched a quick commitment from Clark, who was relatively unknown to Virginia fans at the time.
Virginia also wasn’t able to land any of its prime big man targets in 2018. Bennett struck out on Jalen Smith from Baltimore, David McCormack from Norfolk, and J’Raan Brooks from Seattle. Caffaro quickly committed after taking a visit in May.
This isn’t to say that Virginia’s 2017 and 2018 classes will turn out to be duds, but they’ll certainly be interesting test cases of Bennett’s skill as a talent evaluator. There’s minimal film available on Caffaro, Stattmann and Badocchi, and they all appear to be long-term projects. Clark’s game is reminiscent to Chris Lykes of Miami, but his slight stature will certainly raise a few eyebrows. Anthony showed some nice flashes last year, but it’s unclear if he’ll be ready for a significant jump in minutes.
After two questionable cycles, UVA’s recruiting appears to have found its footing recently. The Cavaliers landed huge commitments from Washington, DC guard Casey Morsell and Alabama transfer Braxton Key. They’ll suit up in 2019 and should serve as major rotation pieces going forward. Early reports for the 2020 class have the Wahoos once again well-positioned for multiple highly-rated prospects.
But for the upcoming season Virginia’s roster has more question marks than sure things. Bennett knows what he can get from Jerome, Guy, Hunter, Salt, and Diakite. That group of five will be as solid and talented as any in the country. Hunter himself might be good enough to take Virginia to the promised land of a Final Four.
The Cavalier fanbase should be forgiven, however, if it starts holding its breath every time Bennett goes to the bench. Huff could develop into the unicorn he looks like on YouTube. Anthony and Clark could surprise in the backcourt. Badocchi or Caffaro could emerge as a fourth big man. But it’s just as possible that none of those guys will be ready for the roles they need to play to provide quality depth. It’s anyone’s guess how it will turn out.
Since coming to Virginia, Bennett has taken well-regarded talent and used it to beat extremely well-regarded talent. We know he can take a bunch of top-100 and top-200 players and beat the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world. But can he do it with players that are further under the radar? The answer to that question will have a major impact on UVA hoops once Hunter, Guy, and Jerome move on. And if the answer is yes, Bennett might deserve a statue on The Lawn.