Although the Virginia men’s basketball team concluded the season with back-to-back painful losses – the first to Duke in the ACC Tournament Championship Game and the second to Furman in the first round of the NCAA Tournament – the overall campaign brought more success than expected.
The Cavaliers finished 25-8 on the year, compiling their most wins in a season since 2018-19 when the program claimed the national title. Additionally, despite being picked third in the ACC Preseason Poll, a 15-5 record in the conference helped the Cavaliers clinch a share of the regular season title with Miami. It was Virginia’s third such championship in the last five seasons, and the sixth of Coach Tony Bennett’s tenure.
The year was memorable from the start for the Cavaliers, who won their first eight games and leaped as high as No. 2 in the AP Poll. Behind a period of electric offense, Virginia surged past a pair of top-25 foes in Baylor and Illinois on their way to the Continental Tire Main Event Championship.
Junior guard Reece Beekman took home the tournament’s MVP after racking up 27 points, 13 assists and four steals across the two contests.
After the 8-0 start, the Cavaliers finally met their match when Houston entered John Paul Jones Arena for a signature top-5 matchup. In front of a packed house, the No. 5 Cougars used freakish athleticism to cruise to a 69-61 win over Virginia. It was the Cavaliers' only non-conference blemish.
While worries did begin to build for Virginia after road defeats to Miami and Pittsburgh — leading to a surprising 2-2 start in the ACC — the Cavaliers showed no panic when the games began to pile up. Virginia embarked on a torrid stretch from Jan. 7 through Feb. 18, winning 11 of 12 games to move to a gaudy 13-3 in the conference.
Senior guard Armaan Franklin and graduate student forward Jayden Gardner became prominent figures for Virginia during the run, combining to lead the team in scoring in nine of its 12 contests.
The Cavaliers did lose much of their flare on offense towards the end of the stretch, but they continued to do what Virginia fans care about most — win. While not the most convincing, the Cavaliers bested Duke in an overtime classic after a controversial refereeing decision kept them in the game. Virginia would then scrape out one-possession wins against Louisville and Notre Dame, the two bottom teams in the conference.
Those three games marked the last of the Cavaliers’ impressive run. Virginia’s lackluster offense — evidenced by its failure to reach 70 points in six consecutive games up to that point — eventually began to hurt them.
The Cavaliers dropped back-to-back games to Boston College and North Carolina, jeopardizing their chances at an ACC regular season title. However, Virginia rebounded with two final triumphs over Clemson and Louisville, and the nets inside John Paul Jones Arena were cut down. The Cavaliers finished above both the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels – the two teams picked to outperform them in the preseason.
As the celebrations died down, the ACC Tournament kicked off. Virginia showed promise it could take home yet another piece of hardware after eking by a dangerous North Carolina team in the quarterfinals and trumping Clemson 76-56 to move on to the ACC Championship game.
That was where the Cavaliers encountered a flaming hot Blue Devils team. Duke led from start to finish in the game, holding Virginia to 33.3 percent from the floor on its way to a 59-49 win. The Cavaliers were disappointed not to take home the title, but they would have had no problem moving on quickly as an even more important prize loomed in the nearby distance.
Just five days after the loss, Virginia took the court yet again as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They matched up with No. 13 seed Furman, and in shocking fashion, the Cavaliers were sent home in the final seconds. A costly turnover by graduate student guard Kihei Clark on Virginia’s penultimate possession allowed the Paladins to escape with an upset victory.
The Cavaliers saw their season crumble in the blink of an eye, enduring two heartbreaking defeats within a week. But while the team may not have dreamt of a worse conclusion, the 31 games that came before should not be forgotten. Virginia finished atop a conference they were not supposed to, largely outperforming the expectations set for them in November.
In addition to a successful 2022-23 slate, there remains hope that next season can spark the beginning of something even bigger. That spark will likely be led by freshman guard Isaac McKneely and freshman guard Ryan Dunn, the two newcomers who debuted for Virginia this season. The duo brought energy and youth to the Virginia squad which had not been seen since the likes of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and DeAndre Hunter.
McKneely averaged 6.7 points per game and shot 39.2 percent from beyond the arc, while Dunn finished second on the team with 33 blocks. Dunn’s offensive numbers are deceiving, as the guard injected several highlight-reel dunks that went a longer way than the two points they added to the scoreboard.
McKneely and Dunn’s growth, as well as the development of their fellow recruit who redshirted — center Leon Bond — will be crucial to the success of Virginia teams in the upcoming seasons.
Key losses for the Cavaliers include the likes of Clark, Gardner and graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas — a trio that combined to score 30.1 of the Cavaliers’ 67.8 points per game.
Additionally, the Cavaliers have recently suffered two big blows in the transfer portal. Senior center Francisco Caffaro recently announced his decision to enter the portal as a graduate student. Caffaro came on strong towards the end of the season, and his interior presence will certainly be in need of replacing. Meanwhile, highly-ranked recruit and redshirt freshman forward Isaac Traudt announced on Monday that he has entered his name into the portal as well. Traudt cited in a Twitter post that he wants to be closer to home — Nebraska — and rumors have been swirling already about a transfer to Creighton.
Lastly, the futures of Franklin and Beekman remain up in the air. Beekman announced Thursday he was entering the NBA Draft while maintaining his college eligibility, and Franklin has a decision to make about returning for a fifth year.
But no matter the faces that do or do not return to Virginia next season, Cavaliers fans should keep faith that Bennett will have a plan. The veteran coach has gotten the job done with a litany of rosters during his time in Charlottesville, and there should be little doubt he can do it again.