An up and down 2022-2023 season for the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team led into a tumultuous early offseason with three transfers out, three transfers in, and Reece Beekman’s last minute withdrawal from the NBA Draft.
Now, while high school recruiting for the classes of 2024 and 2025 continues, a clear picture is emerging of what the 2023-2024 squad will look like. The combination of youth, talent, experience, and potential means that this group is arguably the most exciting Virginia basketball squad since the 2018-2019 edition of Tony Bennett’s program.
We may still be four months out from the start of the college basketball season, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t look ahead to what will make this winter’s team so fun to watch.
The breakout star potential of Beekman, McKneely, and Dunn
Virginia appears to have a blossoming big three for the 2023-2024 season. Beekman’s return means that he’ll undoubtedly be the head of the snake on either end of the floor. But second years Ryan Dunn and Isaac McKneely are similarly poised for breakout sophomore campaigns after both of them thrived off of their elite traits as freshman. If they both achieve at least baseline improvement in a few areas of their game that were less prominent in year one then they and the team will be set up for success.
Both Beekman and Dunn have already been projected as 2024 first round picks because of how elite both of them are defensively and the reasonable room for improvement both have in their offensive game.
The quality of offensive play Beekman displayed in the first third of last season before he hurt his hamstring was startlingly impressive. Him getting back to that degree of individual aggression with the ball in his hands will be critical for Virginia, and that should be especially achievable now that he is the program’s undisputed lead guard.
The NBA hype for Dunn is real. Frankly, the projections which have him going near the middle of the first round may be exaggerating how much he can reasonably be expected to improve on offense.
Compilation of Ryan Dunn's defense last night against JMU: he was all over the court, altering shots and forcing turnovers.— Ben Wieland (@BenWieland) December 7, 2022
The Dukes made just five of their 21 shots while Dunn was in the game. pic.twitter.com/iFnn69OSte
But his raw talent as a defender is special enough that, if he can be a solid three-point shooter (~35%) on multiple attempts per game and start to display an ability to attack off the dribble, he he could be an upper echelon All-ACC player who follows in the footsteps of former Virginia wings like De’Andre Hunter and Trey Murphy as a first round wing.
Meanwhile, McKneely might not be as NBA ready as the other two, but he should only grow into a more significant role as a sharp-shooter who has the requisite skills and size to expand his arsenal beyond being a catch and shoot guy.
"I hope his career will keep going and take off like some of those guys."— Preston Willett (@PrestonWillett) February 6, 2023
Isaac McKneely ranks second in 3-pointers made among first-years under Tony Bennett and is one of 9 true freshmen to play 20+ minutes. Not far off a couple other UVA sharpshooters: https://t.co/DpZB9TrATM pic.twitter.com/wiOn3qpA9z
McKneely made plays as a combo guard utilizing ball screens and making plays for others on the AAU circuit before coming to Charlottesville and can be expected to do more of that this coming season. As he presumably steps into the starting lineup, the increased volume of touches and shots he gets on offense will all be well worth it with how efficient of a player he is.
As for how exactly these three players make this group stand out relative to the past four UVA teams, none of those squads since the 2019 National Championship team have had this combination of pro talent peaking at the right time. The combination of Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy all reaching a pro-ready quality of play in 2019 was undoubtedly the driving force behind the program’s first championship. Now, five years later, a trio of a point guard, a shooting guard, and a tantalizing big wing will hope to follow in their footsteps.
Transfers add value without hindering roster construction
Behind those three, there are a lot of unknowns for this year’s roster. But that’s part of the fun! Four (4!) transfers will debut in the orange and blue next fall with two forwards — Jordan Minor and Jacob Groves — utilizing their final year of eligibility while guards Andrew Rohde and Dante Harris will start their second and third active seasons at the college level.
Of course, relying on transfers who need time to adapt to a new school, program, and system is a dangerous game to play. But Virginia is uniquely suited to succeed this season with the players they’ve brought in,
Dante Harris has been with Virginia since the beginning of 2023 and consequently will already be comfortable with the environment and the way he’ll have to play. How Harris develops this season after he was a high volume, low efficiency scorer for Georgetown in his first two seasons will be fascinating to watch.
"Talk about quick, he and Kihei and Reece on the floor going against each other."— Preston Willett (@PrestonWillett) January 9, 2023
Georgetown transfer Dante Harris will sit on the UVA bench this season, but Tony Bennett believes the Cavaliers added a 'quick and dynamic' guard for the future: https://t.co/Y123cGDoAx pic.twitter.com/C5aCw1biT5
He’ll undoubtedly have to do less than he did as a freshman so his 27.5% success rate from three (3.5 three-point attempts per game) and 41.6% shooting from the field (8.5 field goal attempts per game) will likely both jump. Harris will provide an important secondary ball-handler presence on offense alongside Beekman. Defensively, he’s a pest who gives the ‘Hoos versatility with their guard lineups.
Rohde might need more adjustment time, yet he’ll be an exciting player to track as the season progresses. He can do just about anything offensively as a big guard who can drive, shoot, and pass. The St. Thomas transfer will be a useful contributor who could turn out to be much more if he can adapt quickly enough.
Freshman Andrew Rohde is entering the transfer portal. The 6’6 PG had a great season averaging 17/4/4 and 2 steals a game. Rohde was also efficient finishing with a 57% TS. Rohde was one of the best freshmen in college basketball and is very underrated. pic.twitter.com/bLcnMGfk46— KJ (@Kjpistons) March 21, 2023
The coaching staff have put the program in a really nice spot with Harris and Rohde. Neither will be asked to be the guy this season, but both have the opportunity to step into a bigger role in time with their eyes set on the future. Too often over the past three to four seasons UVA has relied on short-term transfers to lead the team, meaning that the young players who were on the team never developed and the program has to go recruit additional stop-gap transfers.
With Minor and Groves, the ‘Hoos seem to have struck an effective balance. Both are in their final year of eligibility and neither will play such a critical role that will prevent the guys who are younger than them from getting minutes. Minor will likely start at the five and how well he transitions to the ACC after four years at Merrimack is unknown. But his physicality and athleticism mean that his floor as a big in Tony Bennett’s system isn’t dangerously low while his experience and savvy could make him a solid piece for a season while UVA’s younger frontcourt pieces develop.
The extent of Groves’ role is still to be determined. His shooting ability at the four does provide a different element if he can hang on defense. But the Oklahoma transfer’s playing time will probably be decided by how Dunn and Leon Bond fit into the rotation.
Bottom line, the two young guards are building blocks for the future who will be allowed time to get comfortable while the veteran bigs are capable of playing their roles, likely without stunting the growth of the young core. It’s again been a while since that was the case, and such a presumably effective balance will mean that the 2023-2024 team can simultaneously succeed this season without sacrificing the future.
The necessity for young players to play
Speaking of the future, it’s been a minute since so many underclassmen were penciled in for such meaningful minutes on a Tony Bennett team. Dunn and McKneely are the obvious ones as true second years who project to be massive pieces, but first year center Blake Buchanan, first year guard Elijah Gertrude, redshirt first year Leon Bond, and the Rohde-Harris duo are all additional players who should be a part of the rotation but who have played one or fewer seasons of college basketball.
Because of the lack of another pure center who will be active on the roster (assuming fellow freshman Anthony Robinson redshirts), Buchanan will need to be able to play reserve minutes in the front-court and buck the trend of Virginia bigs needing extended time to adapt. If there’s one to break that mold, it’s seemingly him. The Idaho native has boosted his stock in serious ways over the last 12 months since his commitment and will be hoping to
Beyond Buchanan, Gertrude and Bond will be another fun pair of players to watch. This team boasts a depth of unproven but talented prospects who will be competing for time to prove themselves.
Virginia officially lands 2023 commit Elijah Gertrude, a 4⭐️ SG from Hudson Catholic (NJ)— Ben Wieland (@BenWieland) September 14, 2022
A 6'3 combo guard, Gertrude is one of the most gifted perimeter defenders in his class. His on-ball defense stuck out to scouts & his elite athleticism led to plenty of highlights. pic.twitter.com/qESj7w7Rg0
Both of these two can jump out of the gym and should add something different to their respective position groups. Where Bond fits, whether as a small four or a lengthy three, and how comfortable Gertrude is out of the gate relative to Harris and Rohde will be contributing factors in just how much time they see on the floor.
No matter who earns the most minutes and who flashes at different times, underclassmen will need to play and play well for Virginia to be successful. That alone is exciting because it allows for sustained success as the years progress and ensures that the Wahoos escape the transfer-reliant phase they’ve been in over the past three seasons.
UVA has clearly had a collection of good players and teams since 2019. The transfers that did enter the program and had success were crucial to maintaining the standard that Bennett and his staff have established in Charlottesville. Now, though, the program has the opportunity to get back to building from the ground up with plenty of young, diverse talent and the roster which should allow it to thrive. If that’s not exciting, I don’t know what is.