Ahead of the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team’s season opener against North Carolina Central, we’re continuing to plug out preseason content on the ‘Hoos and what will be the defining elements of this 2022-2023 campaign. Today, we’re addressing the three biggest question marks for Tony Bennett’s team this season.
Can Virginia win its early marquee matchups?
There’s a lot of optimism swirling around Charlottesville about this iteration of the Cavaliers. We’ll get an idea of how reasonable that optimism is very early on in the season, as the ‘Hoos are guaranteed three games against ranked opponents in the month of November:
#5 Baylor on November 18: After dominating the Roman Legends Classic in Newark last fall, the ‘Hoos will head to the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas this season for a pair of marquee matchups. The first comes against Scott Drew’s Baylor squad, arguably the most successful team in college basketball over the past two seasons.
The Bears blew out a juggernaut Gonzaga squad en route to a 2021 national title, and earned a 1-seed in 2022 before being upset by the eventual national championship game losers, North Carolina. They’ll probably be without defensive savant Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, but that won’t make Baylor an easy out. They return stars Adam Flagler and Flo Thamba, get LJ Cryer back from a season-ending foot injury, and bring in transfers Jalen Bridges and Caleb Lohner. Oh, and they also add five-star recruit Keyonte George, a lethal three-level scoring threat who was named preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year and will hear his name called in the NBA Draft next summer.
#8 UCLA or #23 Illinois on November 20: In their second matchup of the tournament, Virginia will face the winner of UCLA vs. Illinois if they beat Baylor, or the loser of UCLA vs. Illinois if they fall to the Bears. Neither team is as formidable as Baylor, but both would be tremendous tests for the ‘Hoos.
UCLA’s star is still Jaime Jaquez, one of the best scorers in college basketball when healthy. He struggled with ankle injuries for most of last season, which really sapped his knockdown shooting ability — his three-point percentage plummeted from 39.4% to 27.6%. However, Jaquez underwent ankle surgery in the offseason and will probably be back to his old form from 2021, when the Bruins made the Final Four. UCLA also returns Tyger Campbell — Campbell and Kihei Clark could recreate the Spiderman pointing meme — and bring in impact freshmen Amari Bailey and Adem Bona.
Illinois will be going through a bit of an identity crisis early this year as they learn to live without Kofi Cockburn anchoring the paint, making them the weakest of Virginia’s potential opponents in Vegas. However, this is still going to be a really good basketball team. They added Matthew Mayer from Baylor and Terrence Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech, two of the top transfers in the country. Illinois also brings in intriguing freshman Skyy Clark, a five-star recruit set to play an immediate role as the team’s starting point guard.
#22 Michigan in Ann Arbor on November 29: In what might be one of the last iterations of the ACC/Big Ten challenge, Virginia will travel to face a Michigan team fresh off a Sweet Sixteen berth. The Wolverines will miss De’Vante Jones, Moussa Diabate, and Caleb Houstan and, much like Illinois, have a bit of an identity crisis to work through.
However, adding Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn will make working through that crisis a lot easier. The Wolverines also return Hunter Dickinson, their offensive engine from a season ago. That duo might be one of the deadliest pick-and-roll combinations in the country, and will be a great test for Virginia’s ball-screen coverages. Virginia fans should also keep their eyes peeled for familiar face Joey Baker, who’s reprising his role as “bench shooter for public university with blue in their color scheme” on this season of college basketball.
Once the ‘Hoos make it through that November murderers row, they’ll kick off ACC play against a talented Florida State squad, although that game will be made easier by the (frankly ridiculous) suspension of freshman Baba Miller for sixteen games to start the year. After a chance to avenge their upset loss to JMU last year, the ‘Hoos face...
#3 Houston in Charlottesville on December 17: The second half of a home-and-home that started with a 74-54 blowout loss at Houston last year, this final test of the non-conference slate will pit the ‘Hoos against what might be the best team in the country.
Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars overwhelmed opponents last year with one of the nation’s top defenses en route to the Elite Eight, and they add one of the best guards in college basketball Marcus Sasser after an injury ended his 2022 campaign midway through the year (Sasser poured in 19 points in Houston’s drubbing of Virginia last fall).
Splitting these four marquee games 2-2 would be a positive sign for Virginia. Anything better would probably vault the Cavaliers into the conversation as a top 10 team in the country. 1-3 would be unfortunate but still reasonable given expectations; 0-4 might warrant some tough questions about the ability of this Virginia team headed into conference play.
What contributions do the newcomers provide?
This Virginia team will lean heavily on its experience — they return 87.8% of their minutes from last season, including their top six rotation players. However, a major wild card for this team’s performance is the contributions they get from players who weren’t on the team last season. This season’s roster features five major additions: one transfer and four freshmen.
The player with the highest probability to make major contributions for the ‘Hoos is Ben Vander Plas, a graduate transfer from Ohio. The 6’8 power forward has a reputation as a stretch four, but is more versatile offensively than that title would suggest. At Ohio, he certainly knocked down plenty of triples, but Vander Plas also frequently operated out of the high post and grew into a solid playmaker by the end of his fourth season.
For Virginia, his reliable shooting at the four solves so many problems offensively. There’s a reason the ‘Hoos so desperately wanted Kody Stattmann to be a reliable four and a lineup mainstay; the value add of a shooting big in the blocker-mover offense is massive, especially when one of the movers is Reece Beekman, a streaky shooter at best.
I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Vander Plas given room to operate out of the high post, like he did at Ohio after the departure of Jason Preston. Virginia’s offense will already be modeled around a ball-dominant power forward in Jayden Gardner, and Vander Plas could add a different creative dynamic as a nice curveball for when the ‘Hoos stagnate. The limiting factor in Vander Plas’s role will be his defense, but I’m optimistic that the fifth-year will be savvy enough defensively that any potential negative contributions on that end will be outweighed by his scoring and playmaking impact.
After Vander Plas, the next-most likely newcomer to contribute immediately is combo guard Isaac McKneely. The two-time West Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year played in both the blocker-mover offense and the pack line defense in high school. Tony Bennett is famous for his scheme’s steep learning curve, but if anyone were to pick it up ahead of schedule, it’d be McKneely.
When on the court, McKneely’s value is primarily as a shooter. His ability to relocate and spot up may already be the best on the team. McKneely is also an incredibly confident shooter who isn’t afraid to let it fly even off the dribble, which will benefit an offense that sorely needed wheel-greasing on occasion last year.
Speaking of players who might open things up offensively, Isaac Traudt might take the cake in terms of upside on that end of the floor. The 6’10 big man has a gorgeous jumper with enthusiasm to shoot that’s reminiscent of Jay Huff. He’ll have a rough go in conference play against other bigs because of his slight frame and definitely needs to acclimate to the defense, but Traudt could also be a valuable change-of-pace player.
Leon Bond and Ryan Dunn round out the group of newcomers, a pair of athletic wings who will likely not be major contributors (I wouldn’t be surprised to see one redshirt) but offer solid upside in the future. Dunn shone in transition at the Blue-White scrimmage, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t get at least some opportunity this season given his athletic tools. Bond might be the least college-ready player out of the four freshmen at the moment, but even he showed some nice scoring and playmaking flashes in the Blue-White scrimmage. All four players could absolutely be major contributors for Virginia in the near future.
In the present, though, it’s probably just Vander Plas who will enter the season playing upwards of 20 minutes per game. McKneely is the most likely freshman to play himself into a major role at one of the guard positions, followed by Dunn on the wing. Traudt would have a good shot if not for the frontcourt logjam on this team; it’s a tough ask for a freshman to beat out two fifth-year seniors. Bond faces a similar issue, since the team seems interested in playing him at power forward, though a shift to the wing might increase his likelihood of seeing the court.
If Vander Plas lives up to expectations and two of the freshmen can carve out regular rotation roles, that’s probably all Virginia will need from the newcomers. Their talent level will result in a significant upgrade over last year’s depth.
How high is the ceiling for Virginia’s top-end talent?
The ultimate ceiling for this roster will depend on how far their best players can take them, and two players in particular have the potential to develop into elite contributors and vault this team into bona fide contention: Reece Beekman and Kadin Shedrick.
That isn’t to say that they will be the two most important players on this roster. Kihei Clark and Jayden Gardner are two incredibly solid and experienced fifth-year veterans. Gardner was the team’s leading scorer and lone All-ACC member last year, and no Virginia fan should need a recap of Clark’s impact on the program. Armaan Franklin also has room to grow as a wing scorer, and his development could be crucial to improving the team’s offensive fluidity; when Armaan was confident in his shot last season, everything seemed to open up on that end of the court.
That being said, the two players with the highest ceilings on the roster right now (I’m excluding freshmen until we see them play) are most likely Beekman and Shedrick. Both have shown flashes of elite play marred by slight issues with their game over the past few seasons, and if they can finally develop into more complete players, it will be huge for Virginia’s chances to contend for an ACC title and potentially a deep postseason run.
Beekman has already proven himself one of the most effective complementary players in college basketball. He recorded a 3.6 assist-turnover ratio last year, tops in the ACC and second-best in the entire NCAA among qualifying players. Beekman also finished second in the ACC in steals and recorded 25 blocks while consistently checking elite guards effectively.
The next step? Proving he can be a true primary offensive option. Last year, Beekman disappeared for lengthy stretches, too deferential on the ball. Playing him off-ball in the mover-blocker offense is also a bit of a square-peg-round-hole situation: Beekman is best when attacking downhill and moving towards the basket, and mover-blocker creates lots of opportunities for guards to catch the ball moving away from the basket.
Like Beekman, big man Kadin Shedrick has been a very valuable contributor in some areas of the game during his career at Virginia, but he still has clear steps to take to hit his ceiling. At his best, Shedrick is a force in the paint on both ends of the floor; he has elite pick-and-roll chemistry with Kihei Clark, and is one of the most impactful shot blockers in the ACC.
Last season’s regular season finale showcased his potential: Shedrick scored 20 points on 8-9 shooting, almost all around the basket, en route to a comfortable 71-61 victory. At the same time, that contest showed off Shedrick’s biggest flaw: his propensity for silly fouls. He picked up four fouls in just 23 minutes of game time.
Shedrick’s aggressive, jumpy defensive playstyle is conducive to picking up fouls. But he simply has to be more careful to avoid giving them away for free. At times last season, Virginia resorted to starting Francisco Caffaro to protect Shedrick from committing two fouls before the 16-minute TV timeout. The ‘Hoos will have some great early matchups against crafty ball-handlers — Adam Flagler, Jaelin Llewellyn, and Marcus Sasser. It’ll be worth watching to see if Shedrick can rein in his fouling habits and become the two-way force he’s shown flashes of in the orange and blue.