newsgraybeards give tony bennett uva basketball a veteran foundation to build from

Graybeards give Tony Bennett, UVA Basketball a veteran foundation to build from

Chris Graham
uva basketball
Virginia stars Jayden Gardner, Armaan Franklin, Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark. Photo by Dan Grogan.

UVA Basketball coach Tony Bennett’s rotation has four fifth-year guys and two fourth-year guys this year. His Virginia Cavaliers team might be older than the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Me personally, this probably is the oldest team maybe that I’ve had,” Bennett told reporters at the ACC Basketball media event in Charlotte this week. “This is my 14th year here, and we’ve always, I think at Virginia and even where I was before, either as an assistant or head coach, Washington State and the other stops, we’ve had mature teams, teams that have had guys in their upperclassmen years that have grown through the experiences of playing. Again, that’s always been the formula. I think we’re fortunate this year that these guys decided to come back, and then we’ve got some valuable experienced players from last year as well.”

The experience with the guys who have been in college almost as long as future Sen. John Blutarsky – fifth-years Francisco Caffaro, Kihei Clark, Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas – is “golden,” Bennett said.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of the landscape of college basketball,” Bennett said. “Looking at last year even in the NCAA Tournament, a lot of the teams, I remember Miami in our league, had a lot of experienced players. I think you’re seeing that.”

Having experienced guys in the rotation is particularly important for a program coming off a down year. Virginia, for the first time since 2012-2013, failed to get an NCAA Tournament bid in 2021-2022, its season ending with a third-round NIT loss, with a key issue being depth, or lack thereof.

That shouldn’t be an issue this season, with the addition of Vander Plas, who averaged 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game at Ohio U. last season, from the transfer portal, and the injection of youth in the form of the best UVA recruiting class since the 2016 class that formed the backbone of the 2019 national-title team.

It should also help that two key guys in last year’s rotation, Gardner and senior Armaan Franklin, have a year in Bennett’s system under their belts, after transferring into the program last year.

“I think this year, just the defense just slowing down for me and just getting accustomed to it and knowing where to be, and also encouraging the young guys as they go through their first year because I just went through it, and I think that’s been a big step for my development on the defensive end, being ahead of the game, ahead of the curve, so I’m just excited for this team, I’m excited for my growth on the other end of the court,” said Gardner, who led the Cavaliers in scoring (15.3 points per game) and rebounding (6.8 rebounds per game) in 2021-2022.

Franklin seemed to struggle adjusting to the mover-blocker offense, though he was obviously more comfortable later in the season. For the season, Franklin scored 11.1 points per game, shooting 39.2 percent from the floor and 29.6 percent from three-point range – the latter number a major drop-off from his 42.4 percent three-point shooting at Indiana in 2020-2021.

After work with coaches on a minor flaw detected in his shooting mechanics, Franklin shot 45.9 percent (17-of-37) from three in his final seven games, so the hope is that will carry over.

“Obviously, I think, no question, with the additions of the recruits, the young guys coming in, the first-years with a really high-quality transfer, that makes us have quality depth. Last year our depth wasn’t great and we probably didn’t shoot the ball at the level we needed to, so we tried to improve in those areas,” Bennett said.

And it’s not like last season was a complete wash. Virginia went 12-8 in the ACC, won at Duke, a Final Four team, had two wins over Miami, which made it to the Elite Eight.

“Last year was a year of maybe not to what our standards usually have been, but we played a lot of big-time games, won some great games, got some postseason experience, so that was good, and then going to Italy was good for all these guys. It was Jayden’s first year, so now he’s in his second year with us, and obviously Kihei and I have been together forever, right?” Bennett said.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris has won 17 Virginia Press Association awards for his work as an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist. Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, both published in 2019, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to my YouTube page, Want to reach Chris? Try [email protected].