The Virginia Cavaliers enter the 2023-24 season with a roster full of unknowns. Beyond Reece Beekman, every single potential contributor on the roster has a fairly wide range of outcomes. Between impact freshmen looking to make a second-year leap (Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn), transfers who dominated weaker competition adapting to ACC play (Jordan Minor), and players who fit into both categories (Andrew Rohde), there’s plenty of room for this ‘Hoos squad to surprise, disappoint, or fall anywhere in between.
Virginia could plausibly win the ACC and also plausibly fall short of an NCAA tournament bid. That’s the nature of the beast with so many uncertainties on the roster, a stark contrast to a 2022-23 squad defined by experience. Three key questions will define whether the Cavaliers land closer to the title-contending or tournament-missing sides of the spectrum — two possibilities which, as of October, remain very much in play.
Will heavy roster turnover result in a slow start?
Last season, Virginia began the year with a leg up on most college basketball programs. The Cavaliers returned over 80% of minutes from their 2021-22 roster, including the entire starting five. A summer trip to Italy also gave Virginia an opportunity to face high-level international opponents before actual NCAA play began.
Perhaps partially as a result of this experience, the Cavaliers came out the gates scorching hot. Virginia notched their best two wins of the season in late November, handling talented Baylor and Illinois squads in the Roman Main Event in Las Vegas. The ‘Hoos looked like legitimate national title contenders, and reached #5 in the AP Poll.
POLL ALERT: North Carolina and Houston top men's AP Top 25, followed by Kansas, Texas. Virginia climbs 11 spots to No. 5 after week marred by tragedy.— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) November 21, 2022
See the full poll: https://t.co/ZJG5mhe2jI pic.twitter.com/pyy9oj6zHD
From that point onwards, it was pretty much all downhill: with some nice wins notched here and there, Virginia generally fell back down to earth as the season progressed and the rest of the NCAA caught up, culminating in an anticlimactic (and all too characteristic) last-second loss to Furman in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
This year, the Cavaliers look to have the opposite problem. Outside of Reece Beekman and Isaac McKneely, every major contributor from last season’s squad moved on to either the NBA, the transfer portal, or post-collegiate life. Virginia returns just 34% of their minutes from 2022-23, the second-lowest mark in the ACC.
Especially compared to other contenders in the conference, such as Duke (74% returning minutes) and Miami (54%), Virginia might need to work through some growing pains at the beginning of the year. The non-conference isn’t quite as daunting as it was last season (Baylor, Illinois, Michigan and Houston), but Florida, Wisconsin, Texas A&M and Memphis are all formidable opponents in the early going. In fact, BartTorvik currently projects the ‘Hoos as underdogs in three of their first six games.
The ACC scheduling gods dealt the ‘Hoos a fortunate hand with their early ACC schedule, which features a nice lineup of bottom feeders before the going gets tough in the latter half of the season. But the Cavaliers will probably need to work through some growing pains early as a new group of players faces strong power-conference opponents in November and December.
How do Virginia’s four transfers adapt to new roles in a new conference?
With so much roster churn, it’s fair to characterize this season as Tony Bennett’s second attempt at building a team in the new era of the transfer portal. While Bennett is occasionally portrayed as resistant to the effect recent rule changes — most notably, the ability to essentially transfer and play anywhere without having to sit out a year in between — he’s actually relied on quite a few transfers to provide major contributions.
Version 1 of Bennett’s transfer-portal team starred Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner for two seasons and Ben Vander Plas for one. Franklin moved from a rotational role at Indiana to major responsibilities on the wing at Virginia; Gardner and Vander Plas became focal points of the UVA scheme as offense-first big men facing lesser competition at East Carolina and Ohio, respectively.
It’s fair to characterize their impacts over the past two seasons as a mixed bag. Gardner led the team in scoring from 2021 to 2023, but his offensive style pigeonholed the Cavaliers into an inefficient post-scoring scheme at times and his defensive contributions were inconsistent. Franklin, too, emerged as a key offensive cog especially in 2022-23 but suffered from sometimes-frustrating inconsistency as a jump shooter and a nagging lower leg injury late in 2021-22 sapped his effectiveness. Vander Plas earned cult hero status in the early going of 2022-23 (mostly due to his iconic look) but struggled to score down the stretch before a broken hand sidelined him for postseason play.
This season, the Cavaliers brought in four major transfers to contribute immediately: Dante Harris (Georgetown), Jacob Groves (Oklahoma), Jordan Minor (Merrimack), and Andrew Rohde (St. Thomas). Harris and Groves have major conference pedigrees, but are also essentially known quantities — Harris as a table-setting but inefficient point guard, and Groves as a stretch four.
More interesting, perhaps, are Minor and Rohde simply due to the variability of their outcomes. As an athletic power forward, Minor dominated college basketball’s worst conference (the NEC) last season to the tune of 17 points, 9 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game. He earned the conference’s Co-Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and First Team All Conference.
Rohde played in the Summit League at St. Thomas and won Freshman of the Year for the conference, averaging 17 points along with 4 assists per game. He scored 54 percent of his twos and shot 32 percent beyond the arc, a number which undersells his shooting talent (taking nearly six threes a game will depress your numbers). The ‘Hoos have him for a few seasons, and while comparisons to Ty Jerome may be premature, his scoring gravity will be instrumental to keeping the wheels greased offensively.
All four transfers should play a major role for the Cavaliers this season, with Harris and Groves helping to set Virginia’s floor. How Minor and Rohde translate to facing superior competition in the ACC will be vital to Virginia’s ceiling.
How quickly can the Cavaliers rebuild a decimated big man rotation?
The Cavaliers planned on losing a majority of their minutes in the frontcourt this offseason, as Ben Vander Plas and Jayden Gardner used up their final years of eligibility. Francisco Caffaro’s departure, too, didn’t come as a massive shock.
But losing Kadin Shedrick, who lost his spot in the starting lineup intermittently to Ben Vander Plas but whose raw athleticism and impact on both ends made him a key cog in the offensive and defensive system, to Texas? That one hurt. The departure of Isaac Traudt, a top recruit who redshirted last year and transferred to Creighton in the offseason, also threw a wrench in Virginia’s long-term frontcourt plans.
The result: a big man rotation which will most likely take some time to shake out and has no established hierarchy entering the year. Jordan Minor will play, that’s for sure. So will Ryan Dunn. Dunn at the 4 and Minor at the 5 is the most likely starting lineup when the Cavaliers tip off against Tarleton State on November 6.
Beyond that, things start to get really messy. How much trust does Tony Bennett place in true freshman Blake Buchanan, maybe the closest thing to a pure 5 on the roster? Will Anthony Robinson redshirt, or will the 6’10 athlete get a look at center as well? Does Leon Bond play some small-ball 4? Does Taine Murray? How heavily will Bennett lean on the veteran Groves, who has years of experience in college basketball but hasn’t played in the pack line?
These are questions with no easy answers — and questions Tony Bennett will wrestle with for the duration of the season. It seems likely that Virginia’s rotation won’t be set in stone, and the Cavaliers will try to match up with opposing personnel. Duke’s Kyle Filipowski and NC State’s DJ Burns may both start at the 5 against the ‘Hoos, but demand very different defensive styles to match their play.
Dunn and Minor should be locked in as rotational mainstays and heavy contributors. Who emerges from the pack of players behind them in the frontcourt will determine whether Virginia’s big men provide a competitive advantage or become a weak link.