Ahead of the start of the Virginia Cavaliers 2022-2023 season, Tony Bennett, Kihei Clark, and Jayden Gardner flew down to Charlotte for the ACC Media Tipoff and addressed the media. As such, we’ve got some takeaways from their answers:
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of this UVA team os its experience and age, in particular. With four fifth year guys, two fourth years, and a third year, there are plenty of upperclassmen on this roster. For Bennett and his players, that matters.
“We always talk about retention and having experienced players,” said Bennett. “The fact that both Jayden and Kihei have a lot of great college basketball experience under their belt is significant, and then to bring our team back. Last year was a year of maybe not to what our standards usually have been, but we played a lot of big-time games, won some great games, got some postseason experience, so that was good. It was Jayden’s first year, so now he’s in his second year with us, and obviously Kihei and I have been together forever, right? [laughs] Which is a good thing, a great thing.”
He proceeded to add that “experience is golden, I think, in college basketball, and we have that. Actually walking around, there’s a lot of teams with a lot of experience in the ACC, which will make, I think, for a tremendous ACC league. It feels like that.”
Jayden Gardner echoed those sentiments and especially noted how having one year of playing in the UVA system in the books has made preparation for this coming season far easier “I think this year, the defense just [has been] slowing down for me and [I’ve] just getting accustomed to it and knowing where to be, and also encouraging the young guys as they go through their first year because I just went through it, and I think that’s been a big step for my development on the defensive end, being ahead of the game, ahead of the curve, so I’m just excited for this team. I’m excited for my growth on the other end of the court.”
Meaningful depth has arrived
One thing that plagued the ‘Hoos last season was. alack of playable depth as the team’s rotation only ever hit seven guys. For Bennett, the addition of Ben Vander Plas in the transfer portal and the four freshman joining the team “makes us have quality depth,” as opposed to last year when “our depth wasn’t great and we probably didn’t shoot the ball at the level we needed to, so we tried to improve in those areas.”
As we hit on in our piece detailing what these five newcomers will bring to the table for UVA this season, Vander Plas should immediately help in both of those areas while freshmen Isaac Traudt and Isaac McKneely absolutely have the potential to as well. Don’t forget sophomore Taine Murray either as the Kiwi has a similar opportunity to push his way into the rotational depth as a shooter who can provide physicality on defense.
From breakout interviews, Mike Barber from the Richmond Times Dispatch tweeted this quote from Bennett as the head Wahoo added that “we have 12 guys who can all play. Everyone can play. 12 guys aren’t going to play each game. Now, what that looks like, we’ll see. That will be a balancing act.”
The Italy trip will give this team a head start
Adding to the benefit of experience, the trip to Italy this August is another boost for this team as the Wahoos essentially got an additional three weeks together this spring with 10 practices leading into the trip as well.
Gardner noted how fun the experience was, saying that “the experience was good, and we’re walking around a lot of places, seeing the vast history of their land, and then in the afternoon we’re playing basketball. It was just quite the experience. I remember one day we climbed like 1,000 flights of stairs and then we had a basketball game. It’s just great. We’re eating gelato every night. It was just a kid’s fantasy, man. I’m very thankful for that trip.”
Clark added on, emphasizing the long term value the team will get out of their experiences this summer as he mentioned how “I think as a team, just to be able to have those 10 days before the trip, official practice, get to go two hours full board is really important, just to be ahead of a lot of teams who don’t get to practice like that ahead. While we were there, it was a great bonding experience for me and my teammates. I think we grew closer for sure. I think it was a time for Ben and the new guys to just gel with the team who the guys are who are returning, but I had an awesome time. It was a great trip.”
A tough non-conference schedule is exactly what this team wants
As the ‘Hoos draw closer to the start of the season, the challenging slate the team has for its non-conference schedule is notable. Games against teams including Baylor, Houston, Michigan, UCLA or Illinois, and even James Madison will prpvide a good test for this group that has big aspirations come February and March.
Bennett hit on this, pointing to how “this is an experienced team, and there’s a chance to really have a chance to go get some big wins, which is important.”
He did say that the non-con schedule often determining how a team and/or conference is viewed for the remainder is a bit flawed. But, “fair or unfair, unfortunately that is kind of how it is, and I don’t think that’s always right, but there are some opportunities for us. Look, even if those don’t go the way you want, you really can grow and learn from those games and prepare yourself going forward. But some of those are return games. Obviously the ACC-Big Ten is a good one, but exciting for these guys, and it’ll test us.”
Jayden Gardner supplemented Bennett’s answer and spoke on his excitement for these big-time games, saying that “it’s going to be very exciting to go against that type of competition and talent, playing in Vegas, playing in Michigan, those are like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for us, and it just helps us get ahead of the curve before we get into ACC play, because we’re going to be battle tested very early. So I think it’s going to be great for our development as we go throughout the season.”
Freshmen still coming along
Of course, despite the experience returning, the talk of the town for this UVA squad is surrounding Bennett’s 2022 recruiting class which has arrived on grounds with plenty of expectations and loads to prove. But, for UVA’s head coach, it always comes down to establishing consistency.
“I think with his first year class you see flashes of like, wow, what they can become, and it’s just about becoming consistent. But no, they all show great flashes, and as they continue to learn and get consistent, they’re going to have really good careers. Some it might happen sooner than others, and then the question will always be, will you be willing to work through it, be patient and go. But I like them, all of them, different times, wow.”
As is expected when adapting to the Virginia system “then you see those first-year struggles. You see the look. It’s real for all players at any college they go to. But again, they represent the right stuff, different strengths. Again, some guys do different things, so they complement each other well. We’ve got to keep adding the class. These guys [Clark and Gardner] are leading them in the right way, and you just keep building. It’s good.”