Virginia basketball will begin a new era Monday night. The Cavaliers will enter the season without a player from the 2018-19 national championship roster for the first time in a decade and return just one player with multiple starts from last year’s squad. Amid a wave of transfers and underclassmen, Coach Tony Bennett and the sheer ethos of Virginia hoops will make sure that nothing is too different in the John Paul Jones Arena this winter.
With Bennett entering his 15th season at Virginia, it’s only right to commemorate his crystal anniversary with Virginia basketball with wedding tradition — let’s take a look at something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue from the media day press conference and interviews.
Something old — program staples
Bennett has his distinctive style of basketball — pack-line defense, the blocker-mover offense and a glacial pace of play — on the Cavaliers since day one. Despite calls for the team to play faster, Bennett reaffirmed his intent to stick with what he knows.
“I never pretend to say ‘oh, we're gonna run’ like the days when Coach [Roy] Williams was at Carolina and Kansas — make or miss, they’re running,” Bennett said in reference to his former conference rival.
The team will make no major changes to their two-point heavy shot selection until they proved they could improve their long range shooting from years past, Bennett said.
“If it's a good shot at the right time with the right guys, absolutely, it's a green light to take it,” Bennett said. “But sometimes good defenses take that away, or you just take what you can get.”
Look for Virginia to keep playing classic Bennett family basketball this winter. The only returning starter from last year’s ACC tournament runner-up squad is senior guard Reece Beekman, coming back to Charlottesville after flirting with turning pro in the spring. Beekman will return as the heart and soul of the team, facilitating the offense and leading the defense as an on-ball menace.
Beekman had a nagging leg injury for the majority of his junior season, but still averaged 9.5 points, 5.3 assists and 1.3 steals while hobbled in several games. With a healthier season, his veteran presence and steady production will be a boon for these young Cavaliers.
Something new – fresh contributors
Of all the underclassmen, none may be more important than freshman forward Blake Buchanan. In a big-man vacuum, Buchanan, the tallest Cavalier at 6 feet 11 inches tall, will likely take the majority of the minutes at the five.
“He plays really hard — if there's a loose ball he's on it, and if there's a ball up on the rim, he's attacking for offensive rebounds,” Bennett said. “He plays in a real aggressive, hard way.”
Bennett and assistant coach Isaiah Wilkins both expressed optimism in Buchanan’s potential on defense, comparing him to Wilkins, ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 for Virginia.
While sophomore guard Ryan Dunn isn’t exactly new to Virginia basketball, he did not pick up a single start in 2022 and only averaged 2.6 points and just about 13 minutes per game. Now, he looks to see an expanded role as a slashing wing and defensive anchor.
“[Dunn] has gotten stronger, he's improved, he's gotten better,” said Bennett. “And he's just got to keep working… And so at times, you see that, but I love his progression … I told [Dunn] you got to be a defensive monster for us.”
Coaches and teammates alike consider redshirt freshman wing Leon Bond III an X factor for 2023. Bond joins the fray as one of many wings competing for minutes in an uncertain Cavalier starting five.
“[Bond] is a good player for sure,” junior guard Dante Harris said. “Just seeing his work ethic? You know, day in and day out — putting in time and energy? Yeah, it's gonna be a great year for him for sure.”
Bennett agreed with Harris’s sentiment.
“You know, he shows he can slash, he's showing that he's got a beautiful little fall-away jumper at the elbow,” Bennett said. “He's continuing to learn to be accountable defensively consistently.”
Established stars like Beekman and sophomore guard Isaac McKneely may be familiar for Cavalier fans, but to reach the true ceiling of the team, the trio of Buchanan, Dunn and Bond need to be at their best.
Something borrowed – impact transfers
Transfers typically have a greater impact on Bennett’s rotation than freshmen, and this year looks to be no exception despite the promise of Buchanan. Harris was with the program last season, but was not eligible to play after a midseason transfer from Georgetown. Now, he’ll lead a potentially transformative group of transfers. Harris is a classic Tony Bennett guard – undersized at 6 feet tall, but full of energy and commitment to sound basketball on both ends of the floor. He seems likely to take the role of on-ball guard when Beekman sits.
“Dante, he's in that mode of one of the better, quicker, testier on-ball defenders we've had,” Bennett said.
Harris, who missed a scrimmage this fall for an aggravated shoulder, is working on returning for the opener.
Another transfer itching to make his mark is graduate forward Jake Groves. At 6 foot 9 inches tall, Groves is not only one of Virginia’s tallest players, but he might be the best shooter, too — the former Eastern Washington and Oklahoma player shot 38.1 percent from the three in 2022-23.
“I've always been able to shoot the rock and I'm hoping to keep that up this year,” Groves said.
The Cavaliers have not had a frontcourt player shoot better than 38 percent from deep since the NCAA moved the three-point line further from the basket in 2019.
“[Groves] has shown that he can play and he can stretch it, whether it’s at a forward spot or not,” Bennett said.
If he can hold up in the Pack-Line, look for Groves to pick up big minutes this season as a stretch-four.
Graduate forward Jordan Minor is also fighting for minutes at the four. After losing last year’s four main post players, Bennett felt the need to add through the portal. At a bruising 6 feet 8 inches tall and 242 lbs, Minor brings the physicality.
“We felt we needed to add some physicality and we talked about being a little thin in the frontcourt and inexperienced,” Bennett said. “He was a relentless offensive rebounder, he played really hard and he was physical and he's just mature.”
The Merrimack transfer is ready for the challenge of improved competition in the ACC, and believes he brings an opposing skillset from that of Groves.
“The competition is more consistent,” said Minor. “I think offensive rebounding is something that I kind of bring to this team, but I'm definitely looking forward to implementing and complementing my skills into this team.”
In a changing landscape where transfers have become almost required, Bennett has been able to adapt, and the three players above in particular could more than fill in for the amount of production Virginia lost from last season.
Something blue for this team is simple – the Cavaliers will kick off their season at home Tarleton State at 7:00 p.m Nov. 6. The Jefferson Blue and white Nike jerseys that will take the JPJ floor Monday will make a welcome sight for basketball-starved Cavalier fans.