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Is Virginia basketball returning almost its entire roster a good thing?

Continuity is usually a plus in Tony Bennett’s system, but it could also cap Virginia’s ceiling

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia vs Louisville Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In June of 1971, English rock band The Who released a hit single called “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” In the wake of the tumultuous 1960s, lead singer Roger Daltrey lamented the failures of revolution, crooning over Pete Townshend’s guitar outro: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

I’m not sure if Tony Bennett is a punk rock fan (and Googling “Tony Bennett music” isn’t exactly going to help). But, if so, he can borrow a line from Daltrey when he introduces this Virginia Cavaliers squad to the fans at John Paul Jones Arena during the blue-white scrimmage next fall: Meet the new team, same as the old team.

Virginia returns 87.8% of their minutes from last season, the fifth-highest number in the NCAA and the largest among high-major squads, per BartTorvik. That total includes the entire starting five of Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner, and Kadin Shedrick, along with reserve big man Francisco Caffaro and young wing Taine Murray. All in all, the ‘Hoos return seven of their eight largest minute-getters, with the sole exception being Kody Stattmann, who recently signed a contract with the NBL’s Brisbane Bullets.

For better or for worse, this year’s roster will be nearly indistinguishable from last year’s while on the court. One neat way to think about the size of that 87.8% number: There are 200 minutes for players to fill in a regular college basketball game (5 players on the floor x 40 minutes per player). Assuming that everyone on the team plays exactly as many minutes as they did last season — admittedly a flawed assumption, but one that’s good as a ballpark number — 176 of those minutes are already filled up, with just 24 minutes (12.2%) left over for four incoming freshmen and one experienced transfer.

The optimistic view

The good news about this wealth of experience on Virginia’s roster? It means next season’s team is going to be pretty good. Bart Torvik’s preseason projection system, which had Virginia ranked 67th at the beginning of last season and served as a canary in the coal mine for the disappointing season to come, has the ‘Hoos ranked as the 17th-best team in the NCAA this year.

Tony Bennett teams benefit from some continuity. The pack line is a tricky scheme to pick up, and for three of the eight returners (Gardner, Franklin, Murray) last year was their first season in the system. They’ll be more advanced on that end of the floor this year. The rigid mover-blocker offense also takes some time to get used to playing in. Specifically, Indiana transfer Armaan Franklin really seemed to find his footing curling off pin-down screens in the final few contests of last season.

The numbers match the eye test on Tony’s squads taking some time to gel, too. In the last 10 seasons, Virginia has ranked in the top 75 of KenPom’s roster continuity metric just twice: 2015-16, the second-best team of Bennett’s Virginia tenure, and 2018-19, the best team of Bennett’s tenure.

You’d have to be crazy to pencil this 2022-23 roster in next to those two squads, but the history of roster continuity leading to good Virginia basketball is undeniable. At the very least, this team should be able to avoid early-season stumbles like this year’s losses to Navy and James Madison and ideally not sweating it out on Selection Sunday.

The pessimistic view

One of the benefits of Virginia returning basically every meaningful player from last season is that it gives a pretty solid idea of what the ‘Hoos will look like this year. There were a bunch of good players on last year’s team, and I’m confident that with another season under their belt this roster will exceed last season’s performance, compete in the ACC, and earn an NCAA tournament berth.

But by raising their floor, Virginia might be limiting their future ceiling.

Yeah, this team is good. Are they national-title good? Barring a miracle, no. Are they Sweet Sixteen good? Maybe, if a few things break their way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with building a team that can win now in the moment — in fact, that’s in the coach’s job description. However, by leaning so heavily on established guys, Virginia runs the risk of having a good team now at the expense of a great team later — a great team built primarily on the backs of this year’s incoming recruiting class.

The 2022 class for the ‘Hoos is indisputably their best since their national-championship-winning 2016 class. The team will bring in four potential difference-makers, each of whom has a high ceiling: Isaac McKneely, Isaac Traudt, Leon Bond, and Ryan Dunn.

Unfortunately for those guys, competition is going to be stiff for playing time. Remember, there are only about 24 vacant minutes on this roster — and a good chunk of those will go to graduate transfer Ben Vander Plas, a stretch big who joined the ‘Hoos this offseason after four years at Ohio (and one NCAA tournament win over UVA). A redshirt might help a bit, but there’s no way to navigate the fact that there simply won’t be much opportunity for Virginia’s vaunted recruiting class to even see the floor in meaningful minutes.

Tony Bennett’s reluctance to give young players developmental minutes has already cost Virginia quite a few young players — Justin McKoy, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Carson McCorkle, and Igor Milicic Jr. all departed the team in the past two seasons after failing to receive even 10 minutes per game of playing time in conference play. Though the jury is still out, especially on Milicic, none of those transfers have proven to be especially costly to Virginia.

This year, though, that won’t be the case. Losing any of the four incoming recruits to the portal next offseason would be a nightmare scenario for Virginia, and the team has created an environment where that might happen by retaining so many established players in spots that might have been occupied by the incoming freshmen.