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Final early look at the UVA Basketball rotation for 2024-2025: There’s a lot to love

tony bennett
Photo: UVA Athletics

UVA Basketball fans worked themselves into a tizzy, as is their wont, because coach Tony Bennett took his sweet time fleshing out a roster for the 2024-2025 season.

Bennett may only be around for two more seasons, but based on the talent that he has put together, they should be a fun two years for the fan base.

The focus for Bennett in the transfer portal silly season was on addressing the obvious deficiencies of his 2023-2024 team, which was a general lack of offensive firepower, and a specific lack of frontcourt depth.

The departure of Ryan Dunn, a defense savant at the four spot who is also a massive liability on the offensive end, to the NBA Draft pool was a blessing in disguise, opening up a rotation spot that Bennett filled with TJ Power, a former five-star recruit who can score from the perimeter, get into the lane, and generally, you know, make opponents have to guard him outside of three feet.

It’s not going to be easy to replace four-year starting guard Reece Beekman, but Bennett has two options there, in Kansas State transfer Dai Dai Ames and Florida State transfer Jalen Warley.

I like Elijah Saunders, an athletic 6’8”, 240-pound San Diego State transfer, to start alongside Power in the frontcourt, and Bennett added depth for the bigs with the pickup of Vanderbilt transfer Carter Lang.

It wouldn’t surprise me, when all is said and done, to see Bennett go with four transfers in his starting lineup next year – Ames and Warley in the backcourt, alongside Isaac McKneely, with Power and Saunders in the post, with Andrew Rohde and Christian Bliss getting the bench minutes at guard, and Blake Buchanan getting 20 minutes a night off the bench in the frontcourt, with 10 minutes or so a night going to Lang or redshirt freshman Anthony Robinson.

Scouting report: Backcourt

Ames, a rising sophomore, is the replacement at the one spot for Elijah Gertrude, who is reported to be out for the season, and maybe longer, after suffering a non-basketball injury in April.

Ames, like Gertrude, was a four-star from the Class of 2023, and was also listed as a four-star portal recruit, despite his modest counting numbers from his freshman season – 5.2 points per game, 2.0 assists per game, 35.3 percent shooting from the field, 32.9 percent shooting from three, 69.8 percent shooting at the free-throw line.

Ames averaged 20.6 minutes per game at K-State in 2023-2024, with 16 starts, the bulk of those coming in the final two months of the season.

In his last five games, Ames went for double-digits three times, and averaged 8.2 points and 3.4 assists in 27.0 minutes per game, shooting 46.9 percent from the floor and 40.0 percent from three.

The deep dive, per Synergy Sports, tells us that Ames is solid on the defensive end, holding opponents to 36.8 percent shooting and 0.820 points per possession, which Synergy rates as “very good.”

There is work to do on the offensive end – Ames was 30.2 percent on jumpers, including 9-of-33 (27.3 percent) on unguarded jumpers, and he was 21-of-50 (42.0 percent) on shots at the rim.

Warley, coming in from Florida State, is a 6’7” guy who can run the point, and is a former Top 50 prep recruit with the added benefit of having three years of experience in the ACC.

The drawbacks: Warley isn’t much of a threat from the perimeter, and that’s being charitable (23.8 percent on jumpers, only attempted two three-point shots in 2023-2024), and defensively, Synergy Sports rated Warley “below average” in 2023-2024 – opponents averaged 0.958 points per possession and shot 43.0 percent against him last season.

I’m thinking of Warley more at the two spot in Bennett’s lineup, basically, a second point guard on the floor, who, once he gets down the nuances of Bennett’s Pack Line, will be a defensive force with his length.

McKneely, a 6’4” rising junior, was the team’s second-leading scorer last season (12.3 points per game), and he’s set as the third guard, and I would expect he should benefit from having more athleticism and more shooting on the floor, which should get the focus of defensive attention away from him a bit.

The bench minutes go to Bliss, a 6’4” redshirt freshman, who bypassed his senior year in high school to enroll at UVA as a 17-year-old as a redshirt, to get work in practice and in the weight room with the college guys as opposed to spending another year at the prep level; Rohde, who averaged 17.1 points and 3.6 assists per game at St. Thomas as a freshman in 2022-2023, but struggled mightily last season at UVA, averaging just 4.3 points per game, shooting 29.3 percent from the floor and 25.7 percent from three; and Taine Murray, a 6’5” rising senior who has largely been the odd man out in his years on Grounds.

One other guy on the fringe of the discussion for backcourt minutes is Ishan Sharma, a 6’4″ three-star from Canada, who we hear from the scouting reports is a quick-release three-point shooter.

Scouting Report: Frontcourt

Buchanan, a 6’11” rising sophomore, is the lone returning post player (3.4 ppg, 3.1 rebs/g, 15.0 minutes/g, 41.4% FG in 2023-2024).

The four-star recruit from the Class of 2023 had 18 points and seven rebounds in his second college game, the 73-70 win over Florida on Nov. 10, but that would turn out to be his only double-digit game in his freshman season, as he lost minutes to Jake Groves and then later to Jordan Minor as the season played out.

Robinson, a big (6’10”, 238) redshirt freshman, got work in practice and the weight room in his redshirt season, and looks like the kind of guy who will be a space-eater on both ends of the floor, at the least.

Ahead of the late flurry of activity from the portal, Bennett had just one other big on the roster, 6’9”, 225-pound incoming four-star recruit Jacob Cofie, who, according to the scouting reports out there, is a good pick-and-pop shooter out to 17 feet with good size and a strong lower body that should make him a presence on the defensive end.

As of two weeks ago today, the UVA frontcourt was a major weakness; now, it’s the reason to be excited for UVA Basketball going into the summer.

First, the signature recruit, Power, a Class of 2023 five-star and Top 50 recruit, a 6’9” stretch four who somehow got lost in the shuffle in his one-and-done year at Duke.

Bennett, of late, has liked to have a stretch four on the floor – think: Groves, Ben Vander Plas – who can be a threat from three and the midrange on pick-and-pops.

The scouting report on Power from his prep days touted his athletic ability, which, if that translates to the college game, would set him apart from the likes of Groves and Vander Plas, both bigger guys who got the bulk of their offense from spot-ups.

Saunders, the San Diego State kid, is, to me, the icing on the cake.

Saunders, at 6’8”, 240, is, basically, Minor (6’8”, 242) with the ability to shoot from three.

As a sophomore at SDSU last season, Saunders averaged 6.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 20.2 minutes per game, connecting on 32.2 percent of his threes and 33.1 percent of his jumpers overall in 2023-2024.

And this is on decent volume – Saunders was 39-of-121 on his threes and 43-of-130 on all jumpers last season.

He was also 24-of-25 at the free-throw line, suggesting that his ceiling on the perimeter is probably much higher than we’ve already seen from him.

And then there’s how Synergy Sports rates Saunders as excellent on the defensive end, holding opponents to 30.2 percent shooting and 0.750 points per possession in 2023-2024.

The third big from the portal, Lang, a 6’9”, 235-pounder who didn’t get much run with the Commodores – 11.6 minutes per game – was a three-star recruit out of high school in Charlottesville at St. Anne’s-Belfield.

How does it all come together?

This roster reminds me of Bennett’s 2013-2016 teams, with athleticism, length, height, heft and scoring in the post for the first time in forever.

The rotation has three guys (McKneely, Power, Saunders) that we know can be threats from three, and a fourth, in Rohde, who has it in him, if he can just figure out how to let his inner three-point shooter out again.

The big question, obviously, is at point, but there’s less a question there with Ames in the fold than there would have been even if Gertrude was back and at full strength.

Gertrude has tremendous upside, but his minutes were spotty in his freshman season, whereas Ames emerged as the starter at the point for K-State in February, and put up good numbers down the stretch.

The odd men out are probably, and again, unfortunately for Taine Murray, Murray and Sharma in the backcourt, and then Cofie in the frontcourt.

I love this team, and I love more that the national writers and broadcast hacks are going to undervalue what Bennett has put together, as is almost always the case with Virginia Basketball.

That’ll give the kids (and the coaches) a chip on their shoulders in terms of extra motivation.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].