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State of the program: Virginia men’s basketball

We take a look at where the program stands three years after its first National Championship.

Saint Bonaventure v Virginia Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

As the 2021-2022 athletic year has come to an end for the Virginia Cavaliers, we at Streaking the Lawn will be running a state of the program series for the numerous athletic programs that are a part of the university.

In the past few weeks I took a look at the men’s lacrosse program and the women’s basketball program by evaluating the confidence level in four critical categories: success over the last five years, coaching staff, current roster makeup, and the future roster/recruiting. The four degrees of confidence are, in descending order, extreme, solid, mild, and low.

Today, we turn our attention to the UVA’s men’s basketball program which reached the athletic department’s highest height back in 2019 but is now in a bit of an awkward transition phase.

Confidence in performance over the last 5 years: Extreme

It feels like this section shouldn’t require much explanation. In the last five years UVA men’s basketball won its first NCAA Championship in a stunning tournament run that will forever live in the memory of every Virginia fan who experienced it.

Personally, the remaining four seasons don’t really matter. The UMBC loss in 2018 was washed out by the championship and the overall success over those two seasons is notable with only six losses in 72 games.

In 2020, UVA had a spirited turn around late in the season despite a ridiculously overturned roster, finished second in the ACC, and appeared poised for a potential postseason run before COVID-19 shut the world down.

In 2021, UVA won the ACC Regular Season Title for the third time in four seasons yet once again had its postseason squandered by COVID-19 which eliminated the team from the ACC Tournament and meant that the preparation for the NCAA Tourney was critically hampered.

The 2022 season was the inevitable down year, but UVA did still pick up a few good wins as the program attempts to build for the future.

But, back to the original point, there’s simply no denying that these past years have been tremendously successful for this program and for UVA athletics as a whole. The standard has been set, now it’s about getting back there.

Confidence in coaching staff: Extreme

Another fairly straightforward grade, evaluating Virginia’s staff yields plenty of positivity. While the concept is overused in sports today, there’s absolutely a fantastic culture ingrained in the halls of John Paul Jones Arena as UVA men’s basketball is an established, winning brand. Tony Bennett demands excellence and most often gets it as he challenges his players to buy-in to a system that has proven successful in every meaningful phase of the college game.

This staff has proven its chops at helping players reach the NBA and grooming them to be able to contribute right away with the most UVA players ever playing in the NBA this season. In the long run, there are no significant reasons to doubt Bennett nor his staff as UVA is set up for a while — assuming he sticks around.

Granted, there are a few nitpicks that the staff could be labeled with. In particular, the lack of willingness to play young guys who then proceed to transfer out of the program has become a tad frustrating considering a number of players with high potential have hit the road after two or fewer seasons of little opportunities.

Of course, each situation is different, the staff has been straight up unlucky in certain scenarios, and there is potential to amend that complaint in the near future. It’d just be good to see a minor shift towards throwing some underclassmen into the fire. Not to suggest changing the script or abandoning Bennett’s commitment to winning each and every contest, but just a small adjustment.

Secondly, a bit more experimentation particularly with offensive scheming could open the doors for even more success. In 2019, Bennett and his staff’s willingness to adapt to new ideas played a large role in that team’s great offensive success (obviously having three soon to be NBA draft picks didn’t hurt). More of that in the coming years could revitalize what has at times been a stale offense in recent seasons and catapult UVA back to its standards of 2019 and other years when the program was a national contender.

Those small issues aside, Tony Bennett is easily a top-10 coach in college basketball, likely top-five and arguably higher. UVA couldn’t have found a better fit for its program and it would take an absolute catastrophe for anyone to be able to reasonably question his position.

Confidence in current roster: Solid

In the short term, there is slightly less enthusiasm regarding Virginia’s current roster. There are absolutely a number of talented players who will lace ‘em up for the Wahoos next season and plenty of guys have high potential.

Nevertheless, the 2022-2023 iteration UVA basketball is going to look fairly similar to last season’s group. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate, but the established talent is still lacking.

The addition of Ben Vander Plas in the transfer portal, the offseason improvements of players on last year’s roster — specifically Reece Beekman, Kadin Shedrick, and Armaan Franklin — and the chance to get a scoring boost from a talented four-man 2022 recruiting class should all make next season’s team a better version of last year’s. The ‘Hoos should be a tournament team come the spring of 2023 and have an opportunity to make a run to the second weekend.

Yet, that is likely the team’s ceiling. The additions and growth Virginia has going into next season will no doubt be helpful, but will likely more so raise the squad’s floor rather than drastically increase its potential. In other words, UVA shouldn’t be losing to James Madison or Navy next year but that doesn’t mean the ‘Hoos will be assured of the chance for another championship run.

Then again who really knows with Tony Bennett teams. Similar things were said heading into the 2017-2018 campaign and then Bennett and company proceeded to lose two games before the NCAA Tournament. If all the right things fall into place UVA could return to a spot on the national stage for real.

Confidence in future roster/recruiting: Solid

The incoming 2022 class is set to be Virginia’s best since the 2016 group that led the program to its first national championship. That’s awesome. It also says something about the classes from 2017 through 2021.

There have been struggles for Virginia over the last five years in recruiting high school talent that has panned out in Charlottesville. Too many players have underperformed or not fit right at UVA and have left meaning the program has needed to fill gaps via the transfer portal. Fortunately, UVA has had success at bringing in more veteran players from other schools. But the path back to national contention for this program should be driven more by its own recruits and complemented by transfers rather than the opposite.

With that in mind, the 2022 high school class is evidence of how well Bennett and his staff can do on the recruiting trail. Isaac McKneely, Isaac Traudt, Ryan Dunn, and Leon Bond are all potentially special talents who could make up UVA’s next championship core. Only time will tell on that front.

In total, UVA men’s basketball is still in a fantastic position for the long term. There are still going to be some growing pains as the rebuild post National Championship is underway, but the players coming into the program this season ought to be the ones turning things back on track.