The Virginia Cavaliers closed out their 2021-2022 season last Tuesday with a disappointing loss to St. Bonaventure in the quarterfinals of the NIT. That closes out an up-and-down and overall frustrating four months of basketball and progresses the program into what will be a dramatic offseason.
But, while the offseason is incredibly enticing, it’s still important to look back on the season that was and gather together the most pressing conclusions for this program moving forward.
The inevitable “down year” finally arrives
The stretch of basketball from the 2013-2014 season through to the 2018-2019 National Championship season was unlike any other in Virginia basketball program history. Four ACC regular season titles, two ACC Tournament Championships, a 0.832 win rate, four 30-win seasons, three Sweet-Sixteen appearances, two Elite-Eights, a Final Four, and the program’s first National Championship cemented Virginia at or near the top of college basketball.
Since the National Championship, there’s been a slight down-turn in success on the national stage for the Wahoos. Granted, some of that can be attributed to COVID-19 as the 2019-2020 team was peaking in March of 2020 and the 2020-2021 group was significantly stunted by a COVID-19 case within a week of its first round game against Ohio.
The 2020-2021 group won the ACC regular season title while the 2019-2020 group finished second in the ACC. The 2019-2020 team finished the season ranked 16th in the AP Poll with the following year’s squad one higher at 15th.
Neither of those seasons can realistically be considered down years. Sure, neither team reached the heights of so many of the teams in the previous six or so years. But each still had plenty to hang their hats on.
This 2021-2022 team was the outlier we’d been waiting for. Not since the forgotten 2016-2017 squad had a UVA team finished outside the top-two in the ACC standings. This year, just like in 2017, Virginia finished sixth in the conference. Of course, that 2017 team still made the tournament and advanced to the Round of 32.
This year’s team was just way too inconsistent. Non-conference losses to Navy and James Madison were killers as were defeats to N.C. State and Florida State while the ‘Hoos also dropped games that could’ve propelled them into the tournament including contests with Virginia Tech, Duke, and North Carolina.
At the end of the day, this team simply lacked the talent and cohesion of Virginia squads in the past. That isn’t an indictment on the program. But this season was a disappointment relative to the expectations that this program deserves to hold itself to.
Patching recruiting holes with transfers is unsustainable
Now, when assessing why UVA had this down season it’s more complicated than just the fallout after winning a National Championship. That reasoning was valid in 2019-2020 after the early departures of De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy. Perhaps it was sound last year as well as the 2016 class stunted Bennett’s success recruiting the 2017 group who would’ve been seniors last season.
But, this year, the recruiting misses that UVA suffered in 2018 and the failures that were transfers out from the 2019 and 2020 classes all came back to haunt Virginia.
Granted, those mistakes aren’t something worth gathering pitch forks over. Sometimes a recruit slips through your hands, other times an evaluation was wrong and a player doesn’t turn out to be what you thought. That happens. It’s just that those misses became a pattern for Virginia recruiting in the classes from 2017 to 2020.
That has meant that the ‘Hoos have had to look to the transfer portal to find suitable stop gaps to maintain Tony Bennett’s winning ways. And while players like Braxton Key, Sam Hauser, Trey Murphy III, Jayden Gardner, and Armaan Franklin have been successful n the orange and blue, this program remains one that is at its best with home grown talent.
Tony Bennett’s system demands buy-in. It demands years of reps, dedication, and commitment to the idea of the team. UVA will never boast the pure talent of the blue bloods; the ‘Hoos have to be better than the sum of their parts. This is well established. It comes down to recruiting the right guys who can earn minutes as underclassmen and then getting old and staying old from there.
Supplementing rosters with transfers will continue to be important. But for UVA to get back to its standard of nation contention it’s going to come from within.
The young guns don’t break through
Speaking of recruiting, it was tough to see UVA’s two true freshmen miss out on cracking the rotation this season. The fact that Bennett ended up sticking with roughly a seven man rotation with Igor Milicic Jr., Taine Murray, and sophomore Carson McCorkle all missing out means that another year goes by with UVA’s young guns underperforming.
Really, outside of Reece Beekman last year, it’s been a while since a UVA player met or exceeded expectations in their first year. Kihei Clark proved far more valuable than could’ve been thought before he arrived in 2019. But since then guys like Casey Morsell, Justin McKoy, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, McCorkle, and now Milicic Jr. and Murray haven’t quite hit their mark in their first year.
That’s not debilitating, of course. Plenty of UVA players have sat the bench their first year and then become stars and significant contributors. De’Andre Hunter was picked fourth in the NBA draft two years after redshirting.
But especially considering that this wasn’t a stacked roster, it’s a shame that the young guys didn’t get the chance to grow on the floor. It’s two-sided — each of them likely wasn’t as ready as the staff would’ve hoped and the staff could’ve been more flexible with giving them opportunities. Once again though, it brings up the question of whether these young, talented, high-potential players will stick in Charlottesville.
Looking at the big picture, it is hard to continue to see these young, exciting players sit on the bench for entire seasons. With today’s transfer freedom, players are going to leave. But the key is striking the balance between making guys earn playing time to help them grow and limiting their potential by not throwing them into the fire now and again.
Joy comes in the morning
Even with all the frustrating results that came from this season and the murkiness surrounding next year’s team, this is just a hiccup. Those recruiting misses hurt. But, recently, Tony Bennett and company have been on fire with their top high school targets. In fact, there’s potential for the Wahoos to land their highest ranked recruit yet with 2023 point guard London Johnson announcing where he’s committing this Friday.
Additionally, the 2022 group of Isaac McKneely, Isaac Traudt, Leon Bond, and Ryan Dunn project to be Bennett’s best class since the 2016 one that led Virginia to its first National Championship. That group is perfectly suited to bring UVA back to the “get old, stay old,” system that is critical to the program’s success.
And, while solely relying on transfers may not be sustainable, UVA has proven to be a great “finisher school” where talented upperclassmen transfers can come and hone their game for the next level.
In the long term, the Virginia basketball program is in great shape. Even in a down year UVA still scored a win over a Final Four team in Duke, two more against a Miami squad who made the elite eight, and an 18-point victory against Providence who reached the Sweet Sixteen. Finishing sixth in a conference with three elite eight teams isn’t bad.
Sure, next year may not be when UVA returns to national title contention. But those teams and times are coming for the Wahoo faithful. Right now it’s just about patiently rebuilding towards those standards that the 2013-2019 stretch set.
Joy comes in the morning, and when the sun rises on this program in the near future it’s going to be something special to behold.