Can Tony Bennett work his magic again to make Virginia a contender?

By Scott Ratcliffe
For Augusta Free Press

tony bennett
UVA Basketball coach Tony Bennett. Photo by Dan Grogan.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. As Virginia coach Tony Bennett explained to media members at Tuesday’s annual ACC Tip Off event, defense has “been a backbone” for his Cavalier basketball team during his tenure, now in its 13th season.

Any Wahoo fan will tell you that the defense has won more than a handful of games for Bennett’s bunch over the years. That being said, with several new faces on this year’s roster, will Bennett be able to work his magic and transform a relatively inexperienced group into one of those special defensive teams?

“It takes some time,” Bennett said of the work-in-progress, “and yeah, we’re not near where we’ve been with more experienced teams. That’s reality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get to that spot or get further along as time progresses. There’s no substitute for that, and so we’re just still trying to figure it out.”

Bennett said there have been good defensive days – and not-so-good ones – during preseason practice, but with the opening tipoff quickly approaching (Nov. 9 against Navy), how will it all translate throughout the course of a regular-season game?

“We weren’t as gifted, but we won games at times with our defense,” Bennett said of the 2019-20 squad that followed the National Championship season. “I think this team this year, it’s not there yet, but it’s going to have to [get there]. That’s going to become really important. Can you be so tough-minded defensively and take a step that you can hang in games or win games defensively, and then continue to figure out, ‘Alright, how do we score? How are we effective?’ And it’ll have to look different because of what we lost.

“So yes, [defense is] a premium for sure, and I think our guys understand that, but then executing is another level.

“But we always work at it, and some teams, it becomes your identity,” Bennett continued, “and this team has to trend towards that, I think, to be its best version of itself.”

On the offensive side of the ball, Bennett will need to replace a large chunk of production as well. Gone are the trio of Trey Murphy III, Sam Hauser and Jay Huff, who were responsible for a majority of the Cavaliers’ scoring in 2020-21. Murphy saw his dreams realized when he was selected by the New Orleans Pelicans in the opening round of the NBA Draft a few months back, while Hauser and Huff are also currently playing professionally –Hauser with the Boston Celtics organization, Huff with the Washington Wizards.

Not only do the Hoos need to replace the losses of Murphy, Hauser and Huff, but also sharpshooter Tomas Woldetensae (graduated), along with Casey Morsell (NC State), Justin McKoy (North Carolina) and Jabri Abdur-Rahim (Georgia), all of whom transferred out of the program.

Who will step up – particularly from a scoring standpoint – and help provide some depth for the Wahoos when the season tips off next month?

The backcourt of fourth-year floor general Kihei Clark and second-year shooting guard Reece Beekman will be the team’s lone returning starters, and they will both be looked to for a little more scoring output.

Clark’s shot has been inconsistent at times, but he always seems to sink a big one in timely situations, and he has demonstrated time and again that he has no fear driving to the hole through the trees. UVA will need that same ability and intensity from both Clark and Beekman, who at the same time can ease some of the defensive worries as well. Clark has even received a few memorable sideline ovations from Bennett for his bulldog-like intensity against opposing point guards.

Beekman, who was in Charlotte Tuesday along with redshirt sophomore Kadin Shedrick, has a chance for a true breakout year. It didn’t take long for the 6-foot-2, 181-pounder to come in and overtake the starting 2-guard position over Morsell and Woldetensae, and he finished his first collegiate season with 20 starts and an average of 29.3 minutes per outing, and in the process a lot of extremely valuable game experience.

Beekman said he’s been in the gym every day working on his offensive game and his shot. Wahoo fans saw what he’s capable of in the ACC Tournament quarterfinal win over Syracuse when he sank the game-winning 3-pointer.

Beekman, who led the team with 30 steals and was second in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.59), believes that he and Clark are a great 1-2 punch on both ends of the floor.

“We know what we have to do as two point guards for our team,” Beekman said, “so we’ve got to gel together and make the right plays as a team… just being two leaders, I feel like that will take us a long way.”

Bennett sees big things on the horizon for Beekman.

“He has the ability to be, I think, defensively really good,” the coach said. “He has great anticipation and instincts, and I think as he learns to get more aggressive offensively, he’s worked hard on his shot – he doesn’t pride himself on being like, ‘I’m this Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome shooter,’ but he’s getting to where he can stick an open shot, and he can slash. I don’t know if I’ve had a slasher quite like him.

“He has a big upside, he understands the game from a point-guard standpoint, he’s easy to play with, he makes his teammates better, and he’s quiet by nature, but you’re just seeing him start to come out a little more of his shell in terms of being a little more assertive, speaking more, and we’re going to need his experience that he has. Good length, good size, and he can impact the game in different ways than just how many points he scores or what he does and I like that, and again, he’ll have a big opportunity this year.”

On the flipside of the portal, junior Armaan Franklin (Indiana) and senior Jayden Gardner (East Carolina), who transferred to UVA in the offseason, should also each immediately provide some extra much-needed experience and leadership. Bennett says each will play a major role right away, and that they’re excited and have been working hard.

“My philosophy, it doesn’t mean it’s the only way, but when you bring in a transfer that has experience, I think it’s important that they’re coming in to play, to have opportunities, to be contributors, and that’s why we brought them in,” Bennett said of the new additions. “They’re coming in because they have experience, and we need them with Trey Murphy departing, with the other guys departing and obviously the transfers – there’s ample opportunity for Jayden and Armaan. You’ve got to rely on their experience, though [the ACC is] new to them.”

Gardner, who checks in at 6-6 and 246 pounds, is expected to give the Hoos a boost in both the interior scoring and rebounding departments. He put up 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds for the Pirates, starting all but one game, and earned All-American Athletic Conference First-Team honors in the process.

“He’s shown he can score, he’s versatile, and he’s different from what we lost,” Bennett said of Gardner.

Franklin (6-4, 204) started 20 of 22 games with Indiana last season, averaging 11.4 points a game for the Hoosiers, and should help fill some of the outside shooting void for his new teammates, as he shot 42.4 percent from downtown.

“Armaan comes in as a perimeter guy that brings some shooting, which our team has lost a lot of,” Bennett said.

As Beekman mentioned, Franklin’s a solid defender as well.

“I feel like he brings great shooting ability, great scoring ability,” said Beekman. “I’ve seen him score, he knows how to get to his spots and use his body really well, but then also on the defensive end, he’s a strong, strong guard who can hold his own and get stops for us as well.”

Franklin figures to insert right in at the 3-spot, with Gardner expected to start at the 4.

So who will start at center? Will it be Shedrick or junior Francisco “Big Papi” Caffaro? Neither got consistent minutes a year ago, but each will have to fill the paint and protect the rim in 2021-22. Caffaro is the team’s only listed center at 7-1 and 242 pounds, while Shedrick has the size at 6-11, 231 pounds.

Bennett sees a little of the Akil Mitchell/Darion Atkins/Isaiah Wilkins type of potential from Shedrick, who dealt with mono last season after sitting out his first year.

“I think it’s important to have that guy that’s a fixture or glue guy or a rim-protector type of player, and Kadin has the makings to be that. He’s active, he’s mobile… he doesn’t have to be Jay Huff or Sam Hauser. He’s not, but he has his own strengths, and he’s got about a 7’5 wingspan.

“He’s so long, he’s mobile, he’s continuing to get stronger, and when you have mobile, active, bigger players, that’s important for anchoring your defense, being kind of the bookend for that.”

Shedrick describes last season’s struggles as “one of the hardest years” of his life.

“There was the social aspect that was blocked off by COVID, and then physically I wasn’t doing well because I lost 27 pounds, like really sick,” he explained. “It sucked, but it just taught me to be grateful for my health and the opportunities I have in life.”

One of those opportunities will be a much-expanded role with the Cavaliers, and Shedrick can’t wait to show what he can do.

“The last two years have been pretty difficult not playing,” he admitted. “I played a little bit last year before I got sick, and then first year, I decided I was going to redshirt before the season and didn’t play at all, so this year, my main goal is just to stay healthy and I’m ecstatic to get out there.”

What exactly can fans expect this season from Shedrick at John Paul Jones Arena? He said he’s also been working hard on his shooting and rim protection.

“I plan to be really active on offense and defense, I hope to be able to catch lobs – I know UVA fans love those,” he said with a grin, referencing Huff. “Shoot, if I’m open to shoot a 3, shoot midrange, floaters, hook shots. I expect to bring a lot to the table.”

When looking at the rest of this year’s roster, Kody Stattmann and Carson McCorkle were the only two scholarship players to see any type of significant playing time a season ago, while “Green-Team” walk-ons Chase Coleman, Jaden Nixon and Malachi Poindexter each saw limited action.

There will also be a bit more international flavor on this year’s roster, as Bennett and the Hoos added a pair of intriguing true freshmen from overseas in Taine Murray and Igor Milicic Jr., and the rumblings are that both are athletic and can really shoot the rock. Murray is a 6-5, 207-pound 4-star wing from New Zealand, while Milicic brings a little more size at 6-9 with guard skills, and each are known to be able to put the ball in the bucket.

Even with all of the youth, inexperience and questions regarding the 2021-22 squad, Bennett has seen some encouraging signs for this season and beyond. Don’t forget, next year’s 4-star-laden recruiting class – Leon Bond, Isaac Traudt, Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn – is up there with some of the best Cavalier fans have ever seen, but it was a quick moment at the end of March’s postseason run that struck a chord with the coach.

It was following the loss to Ohio in the NCAA Tournament, not long after after the clock struck triple zeroes and the Hoos had been eliminated.

“[Shedrick] walked over to Reese and put his hand kind of around his head, and he said, ‘We’re gonna be back and we’re gonna make this happen.’ So I remember that moment, and I remember in the moment, I was like, that was the one thing that made me feel like, ‘Good.’ That was a good thing because I’ve been in those situations.

“It’s always hard when you lose, but when you see something that sparks that desire to want to make a difference – and those two will be important pieces for us this year and for our future.”

The Hoos travel to face 2021 Final Four participant Houston just a week into the season on Nov. 16, and will take on Georgia in the Legends Classic the following week before hosting Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Nov. 29 to highlight the non-conference schedule. UVA also plays at James Madison’s new Atlantic Union Bank Center on Dec. 7.

The Cavaliers open the 20-game ACC slate four days earlier on Dec. 3 at JPJ against Pittsburgh, and will travel to Chapel Hill for the lone meeting with North Carolina and new head coach Hubert Davis on Jan. 8. The Hoos host Duke — and Coach Mike Krzyzewski for the final time – on Feb. 7, with a trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium a few weeks later on the 23rd.


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