Since 2009, Virginia basketball has become a powerhouse in the ACC under Tony Bennett, making the tournament eight times, winning five ACC regular season titles, and even winning a national championship in 2019.
After a disappointing first-round exit in the NCAA tournament last season, what can one expect from the Cavaliers this season, one in which the team lost its top three scorers?
To better understand Virginia’s past season, offseason personnel moves, and upcoming season aspirations, Pittsburgh Sports Now caught up with legendary columnist David Teel. Teel has covered the ACC and Virginia sports for over 35 years and is a member of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. After a long tenure with the Daily Press, Teel moved on in 2020 to write for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Richmond.com, where he has continued his top-notch coverage of sports around the region.
After a national championship in 2019 was followed by a season-cancelling pandemic in 2020, Virginia basketball held the title of reigning national champs all the way heading into this past season.
The Cavaliers started off the season in a disappointing fashion, losing to unranked San Fransisco in the second game of the year. However, Tony Bennett’s squad bounced back from that loss and finished in first place in the entire ACC, in large part due to the talents of Jay Huff, Sam Hauser, and Trey Murphy, who have all moved on from UVA and are all pursuing NBA careers.
“You may have understated it when you said they were huge losses,” Teel told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “I will try and put it in context for you. Prior to last season, no Virginia basketball player in a single year had shot over 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three, and 80 percent from the free-throw line. It had never been done in a UVA season. Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy both did it. Had Jay Huff made one more three pointer on the season, he too would have done it You’re talking about three of the best shooters, pure shooters, in program history, and they’re all gone. So is an extra large void that they leave.”
While Virginia lost its fair share of talent in the portal as well as the NBA draft, Bennett also brought home one of the top transfers in the nation to try and replace some of the scoring and toughness lost from last year’s squad.
“They brought in two from the portal, and the headline is Jayden Gardner from East Carolina,” Teel said. “He is a 6-foot-8 scoring machine. Since the moment he set foot on campus at ECU, he’s been a double-figure guy. Over fifteen a game. I believe he averaged 16 as a freshman. This past season, 18 [points] a game as a junior along with almost nine rebounds a game. He is a true power forward, and Virginia is going to need that offense.”
Bennett also brought in Aarman Franklin, a guard from Indiana, who will certainly be one of the top shooters in the ACC this upcoming season.
“They also brought in Aarman Franklin, a combo guard from Indiana, who averaged about 11 points a game last year as a sophomore. He too is going to have to produce early and often.”
While both Gardner and Franklin have put up impressive numbers at the division one level already, not everyone can play in Bennett’s system. However, Teel thinks the newcomers will be just fine.
“Because of the lack of established scorers on the Virginia roster, I think it is quite possible that they post those kinds of numbers,” Teel said. “You ask how will they fit in with Tony Bennett’s system. It is a very pertinent question. But Bennett’s system is no secret. These cats know what they’re getting. They signed up for this. So if they all of a sudden get to Charlottesville and have a problem with it, thats on them. Everyone knows how Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers prefer to play, and do play.”
In addition to Franklin and Gardner, Bennett will look to senior point guard Kihei Clark to lead his team once again. In each of his last two seasons, Clark has averaged more than nine points and 4.5 assists per game. The California native has been a pest to the rest of the ACC throughout his first three years, and it appears that this year has a chance to be his most productive.
“His career arc has been, he has improved his shooting accuracy each and every season to the point where last season it peaked over 40 percent for the first time, I believe he was at 41 and change,” said Teel. “Now his three-point shooting declined as did his free-throw shooting. But, his overall percentage did increase. That trend line needs to continue for Virginia. As does this: he cut down his turnovers markedly last season. Even as a sophomore, as Virginia was defending their title in 2020, the season that was cut short, his turnovers went way up. He brought them down to a far more reasonable, about two a game, last season. He was north of three-and-a-half a game as a sophomore. So that progress also needs to continue.”
Other than Clark, the next-highest scorer that is returning to the Cavaliers this season is Reece Beekman, a former four-star prospect who earned a large amount of playing time in his freshman year.
“Beekman started 20 games last year as a freshman,” Teel added. “What people may recall is that he hit that buzzer beater to defeat Syracuse in the ACC tournament in Greensboro. Turned out to be Virginia’s last win of the season because of COVID in Greensboro and then they fell to Ohio in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Indiana, not Indianapolis. I don’t know if Beekman really qualifies as a sleeper because he did start 20 games, but I think he will play a key role.”
Other than Beekman, Teel said to also look out for Kadin Shedrick, who has shown flashes of excellence before but has been bothered by injuries for the majority of his career.
Lastly, time for a prediction. Where does Teel think Virginia will rank in the ACC this year? Are they in his top three?
“Last season, Tony Bennett became only the third coach ever who’s ACC program finished with a winning record in the conference for ten consecutive seasons,” he said. “The other two are Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski. That’s pretty elite company. But, if ever there is going to be a ‘down season’ for Virginia in the ACC, not down as in 12th or 13th place, but not top four, if that is going to happen, I would suspect it is going to be this type of season. Where so many guys left to go to the NBA, another trio left via the transfer portal. You only have, the roster only has ten scholarship players. That’s a pretty small group. So, is Virginia in my mind right now as constructed, a top three ACC team, which is what Cavaliers faithful are accustomed to? In my mind, no.”