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10 bold predictions for Virginia basketball’s 2023-2024 season

Letting some hot takes rip before the season tips off in three weeks.

Duke v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

We are precisely three weeks away from the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team’s season opener, so today I’ve made ten bold predictions for the upcoming season. I tried to balance realistic predictions with some spicier ones. Let us know what’s absurd, what makes sense, and what your hot takes are for this upcoming 2023-2024 campaign in the comments!

Ryan Dunn will be the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year

In his true freshman season Ryan Dunn was 11th in the ACC in blocks per game with 1.1. He played just under 13 minutes per game. His 10.6% block rate would’ve been second in the ACC, only behind Dereck Lively, had he played the qualifying minutes. His 2.1% steal rate also would’ve been top-25 in the ACC.

Obviously, what makes Dunn such a great defender is not all reliant on his playmaking ability. His length, quickness, footwork, mobility, and versatility as a defender set him apart from the pack and make him an elite on and off-ball defender.

But where the defensive stats will help him is in the national award voting. Virginia will have to be a competitive team in the national picture for him to do so, but I’m predicting that Dunn will win the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award in his second season in Charlottesville. Prove me right RD.

Virginia will lose four non-conference games

Okay stick with me here, I’m going somewhere with this one.

This Virginia team is nearly the exact opposite of last year’s. After big wins against Baylor, Illinois, and Michigan in November and December resulting in the Wahoos reaching the second spot in the AP Poll, they came back down to earth at the end of the season with the rest of college basketball catching up to them. Returning all five starters and spending a few weeks playing in Italy gave them an edge early in the year before the squad’s flaws reared their ugly heads in February and March.

This year, only three players who played in more than 10% of the team’s minutes last season return with Reece Beekman being the lone returning starter. Six of the nine projected rotational players have yet to play a game for UVA, and there are a lot of questions about this roster.

With four tough non-conference games coming up in November and December against Florida (neutral site), Wisconsin (neutral), Texas A&M (neutral), and Memphis (away) with a fifth game against one of a pair of solid squads in SMU or West Virginia, I think the ‘Hoos are going to struggle to shoot and score the ball early in the season, and that’ll doom them in the first few months of the season. They’ll pick up easy wins against their six mid major opponents, but will start slowly against NCAA Tournament competition and drop four of their five contests against legit competition.

Again, stick with me.

This will be Tony Bennett’s fastest team yet

No Tony Bennett Virginia team has ever averaged fewer than 19.3 seconds on its offensive possessions, per KenPom. Since 2016, the ‘Hoos have been among the tenth slowest offenses in college basketball every single season.

This season, though, I’m betting on that changing. Oftentimes the general idea that Bennett and Virginia emphasize playing slowly is oversimplified to “UVA wants to play slow, so they play slow.” Sure, that’s some of it. But to a more significant degree it’s Bennett and his staff trusting that their settled offense is so good that it can beat opponents’ settled defense enough in order to commit all five players to the defensive boards and ensure as few extra possessions on that end as possible.

UVA has also historically had lead guards who were more comfortable running settled offense than pushing in transition (London Perrantes, Ty Jerome, Kihei Clark), and the Virginia defense tends to be less reliant on blocking shots or snatching steals which create transition opportunities.

This season, though, Dante Harris and Reece Beekman are both absolute pickpockets defensively, and the frontcourt players including Ryan Dunn, Jordan Minor, and Blake Buchanan are all renowned for their shot blocking ability. That alone will produce chances to run.

Beekman and Harris are both comfortable pushing the ball down the floor, and with Dunn as an absolute weapon while running and Isaac McKneely the perfect trailing shooter, this team will embrace transition more than any Tony Bennett team yet. They’ll still be in the 300s in pace, but even being averaging 18 seconds per possession will be a meaningful development.

Dante Harris will lead the ACC in steals

His biggest competition will probably be fellow Wahoo point guard Reece Beekman, but I’m all aboard the Dante Harris defense hype train. He’ll get a lot of minutes because Tony Bennett values what he brings to the table, and when he’s on the floor with Beekman he’ll have opportunities to jump passing lanes as the secondary backcourt defender while still picking up steals as the on-ball pickpocket pest that he is.

Betting on Harris here might be betting against Beekman, which could be unwise. But The Beek (testing it out to see if I like it) will have to expend a lot more energy offensively such that Harris could be in a position to be the most impactful backcourt defender from a pure production standpoint for the ‘Hoos this season.

The Wahoos won’t lose an ACC game until February

I said stick with me.

After a tricky non-conference schedule, things will start to fall into place in 2024. Virginia will take care of Syracuse in the far-too-early ACC opener on December 2nd and then will rattle off wins against a relatively uninspiring string of opponents including Notre Dame, Louisville, NC State, Virginia Tech (at home), Georgia Tech, NC State again, Louisville again, and Notre Dame again.

So, after going 6-4 in non-conference play (not including the Cuse game in December), UVA will start 9-0 in the ACC and set themselves up to fight it out for yet another ACC regular season title. That’ll happen both because this team will get its legs under it, the staff will iron out some of the schemes and find what works best for this group, and because the first nine games are against none of the other top squads in the conference.

The back half of the ACC season will be more difficult, but the nine wins will be provide a nice buffer and an opportunity for the team to build confidence together.

Elijah Gertrude will win Virginia a game

I don’t know when it happens, I don’t know how it happens, but I’m betting that Elijah Gertrude will win the ‘Hoos a game this season. The true freshman guard from New Jersey is recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in his last year of high school basketball, and he seems destined to be knocking on the door of the guard rotation throughout the season.

It might be one shot late in the game when the vets are in foul trouble, maybe he gets hot, or makes some intangible play because of his athleticism. But Gertrude is too good, too polished, and too athletic to not make an impact on this team. He’s a big game player, and that’ll shine through in his first season at some point at the very least.

Blake Buchanan will be Virginia’s best true big man

Maybe I’m too invested in looking towards the future and valuing young, unproven players’ upside. But I believe Blake Buchanan is going to be the exception to the Tony Bennett big man rule. It’s so rare for Virginia to have a true big play heavy minutes in his true freshman season, yet both out of necessity and because of how polished of an athlete and defender he is, Buchanan will be the guy to break the mold.

Beyond that, Buchanan will be better than Jordan Minor, Jacob Groves, and fellow freshman Anthony Robinson and will establish himself as the best pure big on this roster. Minor has the highest floor with the physicality, rebounding, and experience while Groves brings a shooting touch and additional experience to the table. But Buchanan can be just as much of a threat as Minor in the pick and roll, be as good of a rebounder, and be a better defender.

Reece Beekman will set a UVA single season record for assists

John Crotty’s records are rarely ever broken at Virginia. It took Kihei Clark a whole extra season to surpass Crotty’s all-time assists record, and even then he only finished with only 35 more career assists.

This season, though, Reece Beekman will beat Crotty’s record 214 single season assist record. Only four players have recorded 200 assists in a single season in UVA men’s basketball history including Crotty (who did twice), Ty Jerome, Sean Singletary, and Jeff Jones. In 2023-2024, Reece Beekman will be the fifth.

In his sophomore season, Beekman got close with 181 assists. That’s the sixth most in a season for a Virginia player in history. Injuries and fewer games meant he “only” dished out 168 last year, but this will be different. He’s no longer sharing duties with Kihei Clark. He’s going to have the highest usage on this team. With the heavy reliance the offense puts on his shoulders, he’ll be the straw that stirs the drink for many of UVA’s buckets this season.

It certainly won’t be easy. We’ll assume Virginia plays in at least three postseason games, so in 34 games (31 regular season plus three postseason) Beekman will have to average roughly 6.3 assists per game. But that’s entirely doable with the role he’s going to play, how elite of a distributor he is, and the players he has around him.

Andrew Rohde will be the ACC Sixth Man of the Year

Maybe he’s a starter and this doesn’t work out, but Rohde is the perfect scoring option to bring in off the bench. He’s every bit of the 6’6” he’s listed at, and his slashing ability is legit. It will take him some time to adjust to playing this level of basketball, but by the time the ACC season rolls around he’s primed to be a quality scoring punch off the bench for the Wahoos.

Of the guards on this team beyond Beekman, Rohde is probably the best pure shot creator of the group. Harris is a bit too small and not as good of a shooter to create for himself, Isaac McKneely is still expanding his game beyond his elite three point shot, but Rohde knows how to use his size, strength, and the angles of the offense to generate open looks. He’ll be able to flourish in a role where he can come off the bench and go attack without the stress of playing within the system as much as a starter.

With that in mind, I’m banking on Rohde to be the ACC’s 6MOY.

UVA makes it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament

Lastly, for my own sanity if for nothing else, I’m predicting that the ‘Hoos will win their first two NCAA Tournament games since the 2019 NCAA Tournament run. Beekman is exactly the type of player you’d want to lead a team into single elimination play, and come March (assuming no significant injuries for the team, which is probably naive) the newcomers will have established themselves. Blake Buchanan will be playing to his freshman potential, Ryan Dunn will be the elite two-way player he’s projected to develop into, Rohde will be comfortable playing ACC-caliber basketball, etc.

I suspect the ‘Hoos will be in the 5-9 seed range. The ACC isn’t gonna be all that special this year, and the non-con struggles I predicted suggest this team won’t be a top-three seed. They’ll have to take care of business in the first round — not a guarantee — and then likely stage an upset in the second. But I’ve got faith in Beekman and the upside of this roster that they’ll peak at the right time and put on a show for a fanbase desperate for some late season success.