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Previewing the Virginia men’s basketball roster

The Cavaliers welcome six new faces to a promising group

<p>Featuring the lineup of returning players for the Cavaliers will be graduate student forward Jayden Gardner.</p>

Featuring the lineup of returning players for the Cavaliers will be graduate student forward Jayden Gardner.

Over the last decade, Virginia men’s basketball has defined winning in collegiate athletics. They have won on the conference level, toppling the Atlantic Coast Conference five times in the regular season and twice in the tournament. They have won on the national level, battling to an NCAA Tournament National Championship in 2019. They have won in just about every possible metric since Coach Tony Bennett took the reins in 2009, having amassed 316 wins to just 117 losses during his 13 years at the helm.

But last season, at least by the Cavaliers’ lofty standards, the winning ceased. The 2022 NCAA Tournament marked the first time March Madness was held without Virginia since 2013. The Cavaliers lost 14 games in the regular season and 8 games in the ACC, each their highest such totals since 2011. Bennett did his best with a group that lacked depth, but Virginia failed to keep the victory cog spinning. 

Nonetheless, there is an abundance of hope that order will be restored this season. For the ninth time in 10 seasons, the Cavaliers have earned a top-25 preseason ranking from the Associated Press. Virginia’s spot at No. 18 is surely catapulted by the news that the Cavaliers will return all five starters from their rotation last season.

That lineup begins with some of the most consistent guard play in the country, which will come from graduate student guard Kihei Clark and junior guard Reece Beekman. Clark is entering his fifth season for Virginia off the back of a campaign in which he averaged the fourth most assists in the ACC, earning an All-ACC Honorable Mention in the process. The 5-foot-10 graduate student’s combination of three-point shooting and perimeter defense is a rarity, and both will be vital for the Cavaliers. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame recently named Clark to the watch list as one of 20 nominees for the 2023 Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award. 

Beekman may have even more exciting prospects for the upcoming campaign, with the All-ACC Defensive Team honoree hot off the heels of an impressive sophomore season. The ultra-athletic guard with a 6-foot-3 frame paced the ACC in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio in 2021-22, all while flashing a much-improved shooting stroke and his typical lightning-quick reactions on defense. If Beekman can take another sizable leap on the offensive end, Virginia may have itself an NBA-ready player.

6-foot-4 senior guard Armaan Franklin rounds out the backcourt for the Cavaliers, coming into his second season with Virginia after transferring from Indiana in 2021. Franklin struggled to get going in the early portion of last season, shooting just 20.4 percent from beyond the arc in his first 10 games. But the senior turned it around as the campaign came to a close, sinking at least two triples in five of his last seven games on the way to a 45.9 percent clip in that span. The Cavaliers will hope Franklin can parlay that success into a bright start and a bright finish in 2022. 

The guard play is where it starts, but the frontcourt is where Virginia boasts its shining star. Graduate student forward Jayden Gardner led the Cavaliers in both points and rebounds last season after transferring from East Carolina, and his efforts earned him a spot on the All-ACC Third Team. Standing at 6-foot-6, Gardner flourished in Bennett’s offense, showing off an outstandingly efficient mid-range jumper to go with a polished post game. Developing a shot from long range will be Gardner’s next step, as the forward attempted just 14 three-pointers in 2021-22. 

The center position is assumed by junior Kadin Shedrick and senior Francisco Caffaro, a duo that combined for 11.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game last season. Shedrick used his 6-foot-11 build to flash elite ability in protecting the rim in 2021-22, averaging 1.9 blocks per game and finishing fourth in the ACC in that category. Both centers will need to show more discipline on defense this season, as it was a rarity when Virginia played out the last few minutes of a contest without at least one of the two in severe foul trouble.

Elsewhere on the bench, Ben Vander Plas, graduate student forward and Ohio transfer, will be a key piece for the Cavaliers. In his four years with the Bobcats, 6-foot-8 Vander Plas has shown he has no fears in letting loose from beyond the three-point arc, connecting on 209 of 644 attempts. That fearlessness from long range is much-needed for a Virginia team without much versatility in the frontcourt, and that need should allow Vander Plas to be the first man off the bench for the Cavaliers in most games this season.

Sophomore guard Taine Murray is another player Bennett could look to for vital bench minutes, having produced well in limited fashion last season, and the talent is undoubtedly there.

A couple of incoming freshmen should see the floor a lot this season, namely guard Isaac McKneely and forward Isaac Traudt. McKneely and Traudt, standing at 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-10 respectively, will each bring elite outside shooting to Virginia’s table. The duo are an exciting blend of offensive talent, which is why they find themselves as ESPN’s No. 47 and No. 67  ranked recruits for the upcoming season. It remains to be seen how McKneely and Traudt fit into Bennett’s stingy defensive scheme, but once they adjust, it will be take-off. 

Freshman guards Leon Bond and Ryan Dunn will likely see scarce minutes for the Cavaliers, but with a second unit where question marks still remain, both are certainly capable of playing themselves into the rotation.

All in all, Virginia’s 2022 roster is littered with talent. They have a plethora of key returning players like Clark and Gardner, but they’ve also added several newcomers who will only improve a group that had its moments last season. If the chemistry clicks and Bennett’s defense finds its way back to form, the ACC could be in for a new — but familiar — champion.