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Virginia basketball mailbag: Defensive ceiling, breakout players, super seniors, and more

As we’re a week away from Virginia opening its season, I answered questions from the masses about the ‘Hoos.

Towson v Virginia Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As the Virginia Cavaliers are officially one week from opening their 2021-2022 season, I’ve answered the most pressing questions from the Wahoo faithful about this team and their potential this season.

Do we have an athletic big that can play the eraser like Mamadi, Akil, and Darion did?

Yeah, the ‘Hoos should have exactly that guy in Kadin Shedrick. It may have just been in flashes last season, but Shedrick absolutely has the physical tools as a lengthy, quick big with great footwork and body control to blow up ball screens with the hard hedge.

At 6’11”, his height puts him at much more of a pure center than guys like Diakite, Mitchell, and Atkins in the past, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less capable as that eraser type, just that he’s a bit different. Frankly, on the defensive side of the ball I’d almost relate Shedrick to a Diakite-Jack Salt hybrid. He’s not quite as bouncy or lightning quick as Diakite or as stout as Salt.

But — like both of them — he’s going to be very good as a hedge and recover guy (something the team lacked last year). Then, he’s bulkier and taller than Diakite but has more agility than Salt did — even though the Kiwi never gets credit for just how sound he was guarding ball screens.

Shedrick is going to develop into a tremendous individual defender in the post as well as he’s clearly bulked up this season and seems poised for a breakout year. I’m incredibly excited about seeing a full, hopefully healthy season from the North Carolina native.

What’s this team’s defensive potential?

It’s difficult to predict at this point, frankly. There’s a solid amount of individual talent defensively. The three man backcourt of Kihei Clark, Reese Beekman, and Armaan Franklin should be stout in the pack line as there’s versatility in that group in terms of who they can each guard.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Louisville Courier Journal-USA TODAY NETWORK

Clark will provide the veteran presence and has proven himself capable of guarding and bothering bigger players, while Beekman showed flashes of lockdown defender potential in his first year as his length, quickness, and instincts are all superb, and then Franklin — despite being a transfer — played in a pack line system at Indiana and has the size, length, and hands to be the typical big-guard defender that Tony Bennett loves.

In the front court, I’ve already professed my excitement for Shedrick so I expect him to be another plus. That said, Jayden Gardner is a big question mark. Outside of sheer strength, he doesn’t quite have the ideal physical traits for a big in the pack line system.

That said, Bennett’s willingness to be flexible with defensive schemes according to personnel over the last few seasons is encouraging. That, plus the fact that it appears Gardner has been working to guard quicker players on the perimeter this offseason may allay my concerns.

Long story short, this could be a classic elite Bennett defensive team if all the new guys buy in, if the system itself remains flexible (particularly guarding ball screens), and if guys like Gardner who may not be built to be defensive stoppers are able to hold their own and not be particularly exploitable.

That’s a lot of ifs, but in terms of potential, this team — and the starters specifically — could be very good to elite on defense.

Where does the three-point shooting come from?

Well, the bleak answer is that this team is going to be much less reliant on three-point shooting than last year’s squad. The significant shooting prowess from the front court of Trey Murphy, Sam Hauser, and Jay Huff is gone.

That said, you can expect meaningful improvements from Clark and Beekman. Clark has actually revamped his shooting motion this offseason as he is catching the ball and going up with it quicker while eliminating a drop in his motion. Meanwhile shooting has also been an emphasis for Beekman as he’s seemingly gained confidence in his stroke and has been taking threes more liberally.

While those two will more so be hoping that their shooting isn’t a hindrance to the offense, Armaan Franklin should provide the backcourt spacing the team lacked last season. A career 35.6% shooter from deep who shot 42.4% last season on 3.9 attempts per contest, the Indiana transfer is willing to pull from range and off the dribble.

Then, although he’s only 9-36 (25%) from three in his career, Jayden Gardner has expressed his wish to take a higher volume of deep balls at UVA. In fact, it was something Bennett brought up in his recruitment of the ECU transfer as Gardner has made it a priority this offseason. He won’t come close to replicating the feats of Murphy, Hauser, and Huff, but he could provide some shooting from time to time.

While there isn’t a lot of proven shooting in the starting lineup, the roster’s depth — while unproven — does boast a number of guys known for their shooting. Carson McCorkle was a sharpshooter coming out of high school, while first years Murray and Milicic Jr. are more than capable of hitting consistently from deep.

NCAA Basketball: East Carolina at Central Florida Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Do we expect to see a lot of small ball with Gardner at the 5?

It’s hard to define a lot, but yeah I do expect to see a good dose of small ball with Gardner playing center. It’s been a bit of a lost art these last few years for the ‘Hoos have been so stacked in the front court, but Tony Bennett loves himself some small ball.

Think back to 2019 with Diakite playing the five and Hunter playing the four. Think about Anthony Gill playing the five his last year. Heck, think about the end of last season when Bennett experimented with lineups that put Trey Murphy at power forward and Justin McKoy at center.

Gardner’s talent offensively should make him a matchup issue playing center as he is able to drive at bigger guys from the perimeter. That, plus the fact that some of his likely deficiencies defensively could be lessened by playing center.

Assuming the backcourt in an ideal small ball lineup is Clark-Beekman-Franklin, who fits in to play the four? Do the ‘Hoos go super small ball and play four guards with either Taine Murray or Carson McCorkle sliding into the lineup? Or does one of Kody Stattmann or Igor Milicic Jr. impress and seize real minutes playing as the small ball power forward?

It’s hard to predict that other spot, particularly considering how there isn’t a ton of depth among the true frontcourt players — it’s really only Gardner, Shedrick, and Caffaro. But, assuming Bennett finds that fifth guy to plug into that lineup, I expect it to be a group he goes to consistently.

Among McCorkle, Murray, and Milicic Jr, who contributes the most high-quality minutes?

While this team’s starting lineup is more or less set in stone with Clark, Beekman, Franklin, Gardner, and Shedrick set to play a lot of minutes together, it remains unknown how the rest of the rotation will work itself out.

Francisco Caffaro should take minutes as the backup center so his role is likely fairly cemented at this point. The determining factor in his playing time is going to be how often Virginia plays small ball and whether or not the wings (Stattmann and Milicic Jr.) truly establish themselves.

Outside of Caffaro, there are those four other guys (I’m throwing Stattmann into the question) vying for playing time on the wing and in the backcourt. Considering that Tony Bennett tends to eventually narrow down his rotation to seven or eight guys by season end, it’s unlikely that all four will see consistent minutes throughout the season.

That said, it’s tough to really differentiate between these four. All have their own strengths yet all remain unproven.

To pick one, I’ll go with McCorkle. He’s been in the program for a season and the ‘Hoos are going to need shooting off the bench. I do expect one of Milicic Jr. or Stattmann to get real minutes — at least before Bennett truly shrinks the rotation — as the team needs a versatile wing presence.

How do you think NIL will progress throughout the year? How will it impact UVa, the ACC & the NCAA negatively or positively throughout the season?

Considering this is still the first year of NIL, I don’t see a major boom coming. Perhaps in March things will start to pick up for players as the tournament catches the attention of sports fans nationwide.

But, until then, I figure it’ll be more of what we’ve seen since NIL was initially passed: smaller sponsorship deals for players at schools who don’t place a major priority on branding and then those select few athletes with pre-established large followings cashing in more significantly.

I think there could be fun opportunities following buzzer beaters and similar big moment plays to turn into merchandise — like how Dontayvion Wicks did with his ridiculous circus catch against Miami.

That said I don’t see Virginia getting too extreme with NIL, at least not yet. The players have echoed similar sentiments as Coach Bennett, essentially saying they’ll listen to offers but won’t be dividing significant time our resources to making money.

What’s the likelihood Kihei returns for his 5th year and what would be the roster/recruiting impact?

An under the radar storyline that emerged this summer was the fact that the program was expecting — or at least preparing for — Kihei Clark to utilize his extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 and come back for a fifth season.

Right now, nobody in the program really knows what Clark is going to do. To be fair, I’d wager he doesn’t either. It’s just that, both out of an abundance of caution and desire to limit roster size, Bennett has been very conservative in his response to Clark’s potential return.

Essentially what that meant was UVA backed off recruiting a point guard in the 2022 class so that if Clark returned next season it would once again be Clark and Beekman in the backcourt.

The concern was that a top 2022 point guard would be put off or frustrated by the presence of two point guards ahead of him. Then, if Clark were to leave, Bennett would go find a graduate transfer point guard to fill in behind Beekman — a la Nigel Johnson in 2017-2018.

That leaves UVA free to chase its next great point guard in the 2023 class, unhindered by any concerns of a stacked roster or limited opportunities. That, plus the allure of playing alongside Virginia’s ridiculous 2022 class makes Charlottesville an ideal destination for top point guards in the junior class.

If you’re interested in asking questions for the next mailbag, be sure to follow both Streaking the Lawn and me (Zach Carey) on Twitter.